I had very high expectations from the first international conference on “lawfare”—defined as the “weaponization of the law against democratic dissent”— held at De La Salle University in Manila on Feb. 21, 2020, but came away a bit sad. The “prisoner of conscience,” Sen. Leila de Lima, whose keynote address was read by her brother Vicente de Lima II, was understandably and admirably moderate and restrained, but the biggest guns at the inaugural session failed to show enough understanding of the most important topic.

The most significant statements came from Brother Armin Luistro, provincial superior of the De la Salle Brothers of East Asia and former Secretary of Education, who gave the welcome address, and the religious personalities who offered the ecumenical prayers, “Bishop” Rex Reyes, secretary-general of the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, and the well-known activist Catholic priest Fr. Robert Reyes. In his remarks, Bro. Armin said:

“It is time to fight. We must stand up and resist. The forces of evil are winning the battle; we must not give up on the war…Many of us have long prayed for peace but kept our silence… Truth has been tweaked or faked, popularity has become the north star, the foul-mouthed has become the exemplar of good leadership,  impunity has become the new normal, tens of thousands have been killed in the name of peace and security and the rule of law has been weaponized against democratic dissent…When the protector becomes the predator, where do we run?”

This was reechoed by the prayers of both the Protestant bishop and the Catholic priest. But somehow the first plenary speakers failed to connect. Lawfare refers to the use or misuse of the “law” to attain an illegitimate objective; it tries to present itself as “the rule of law,” when in fact it  is its perversion—-a “misrule by law.”  The first famous victim of this under President Duterte is the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno, who under the Constitution Congress alone had the power to remove upon impeachment for, and conviction of, culpable violation of the Constitution, treason, bribery, graft and corruption, other high crimes or betrayal of public trust. She was removed  by means of a quo warranto proceeding at the Supreme Court without being impeached by the House of Representatives, and convicted by a Senate impeachment court.

Sereno,  who was the first plenary speaker, failed to recognize that she, rather than De Lima, was the first real victim of “lawfare” under Duterte; she just went on and on without inserting a single word in her aimless speech about it.  Even the redoubtable former Dean Pacifico Agabin of the UP College of Law seemed to have the impression that lawfare also referred to the use of the law by lawyers for less than noble purposes; the more correct understanding of the term refers to  the spurious use of the law by the state or by state actors—never by private legal practitioners—for illegitimate ends.

Former Bayan Muna partylist Rep. Neri Colmenares had to leave the hall before he was called to speak, but his paper read for him by his colleague former Rep. Teddy Casino showed a competent and commendable grasp of the subject. However Sen. Francis Pangilinan, president of the opposition Liberal Party, mistook the innate  deficiencies of our legal and justice system for the misuse of the law by the state and by state actors to attain illegitimate ends. Former Senator Sonny Trillanes IV who is facing sedition charges in connection with his alleged role in the production and distribution of a video recording titled “Ang Totoong Narco List” (The true Narco List), was given a thunderous applause as the latest target of lawfare. I had to leave before Chel Diokno spoke, but those who heard him later said he creditably acquitted himself.

In her speech, De Lima referred to lawfare as the “silent pandemic” afflicting the world. The use of the word “pandemic” deftly anticipated the “coronavirus” from Wuhan, China, which has spread to, and spooked a big part of the globe. Although the Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva says 564 parliamentarians from 43 countries are affected by this pandemic,  De Lima, now on the third year of her “wrongful imprisonment,” believes it can be defeated. This requires a popular democratic response.

The virus of lawfare has spread. Aside from Trillanes’s case, the latest most visible manifestation of this is Solicitor-General Jose Calida’s bid, through the same quo warranto mechanism by which Sereno was removed as chief justice, to terminate the broadcasting franchise of the giant TV network ABS-CBN before Congress has a chance to renew it or not, on March 30. This is being resisted in Congress, and there is as yet no sign the high Court would bow to Malacañang’s bid. But there are extremely serious and alarming portents.

A paper written by the lay theologian Charles Avila, newly elected chair of the Lay Society of St. Arnold Janssen, founder of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), reports that “preparations for declaring a revolutionary government are now gearing up in full swing,”  within the Armed Forces and the police agencies as well as at Local Government and NGO levels. This report, confirmed by other sources and circulating within religious circles, says the relevant activities are coordinated by sub-Cabinet level officials under DU30’s former Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Bohol in the last elections, and is expected to return to DU30’s office after May. Evasco is an ex-priest and a self-confessed member of the Communist Party of the Philippines.

According to this report,  a Mindanao-wide consultation conference was held in Valencia, Bukidnon last Feb. 8, with some 300 participants, to discuss DU30’s plan for a Revolutionary Government. The conference was facilitated by Agriculture Undersecretary Bong Ano, an Evasco “disciple,” and its agenda included presentations and workshops on “Understanding the RevGov Conceptual Framework,” “Strengthening Organizational Formation,” and “Action Planning,” the report said. The call of the various Task Forces was to be ready “to take over when needed,” not only important government functions but also basic private sector-owned entities dealing with electric power, communications, water, transportation, etc.

This goes well beyond lawfare. The  government’s announced plan to oust itself through a revolutionary government will presumably use a new set of laws against the law as we know it in order to assume powers beyond the limits defined by the Constitution. It will declare total war upon the Filipino people in whom sovereignty resides and from whom all authority emanates in a democratic and republican Constitution. The next generations of Filipinos may not be able to forgive us, who are living today, if we fail to prevent this colossal man-made calamity from happening.