The relentless surge of the corona virus has rendered us totally helpless against almost anything the authorities want to do to us, in the name of fighting the pandemic. No matter how unpleasant and unacceptable the imposition, all because we want to escape the virus or recover if we have already caught it, we just have to grin and bear it.
From President Duterte’s anti-terrorism law and shutdown of ABS-CBN, the nation’s largest TV network, to Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte’s latest city ordinance ordering the arrest of parents and children who fail to observe quarantine rules, what is on display is the exercise of political power which may or may not be legitimate. They do whatever they want to do not because the Constitution, Congress or the Courts allow it, but simply because the victims are powerless to do anything against it.
Some citizens may want to shout or march against something the government is trying to ram down their throats, but the people, from whom all government authority is supposed to emanate, cannot even step out of their homes, if they have homes. How then can they ever express their opinion on anything, least of all their dissent?
Albert Camus describes a situation so deplorable that even the slave must rebel. To a growing number of Filipinos, their situation is no better, but probably worse. It is a situation in which even the rebel cannot manifest his own rebellion. Locked down and quarantined, he must be patient and hope to outlive those who are using the pandemic to play their own games.
We have all been very patient. But patience is not a limitless virtue, and it may have begun to wear out. More and more people are finding the growing authoritarianism more dangerous than the untreated spread of the coronavirus. Public anger is building up, fueled by the continued drug killings, the official incompetence and corruption in dealing with the virus, and the latest unexplained killing of four military men by policemen in Sulu, which has inflamed relations between the military and the police.
This anger has expressed itself in satirical posts in the social media, with the clear intent of making fun of the government. One unsigned post took a swipe at the government’s ludicrous response to the pandemic. Where Thailand’s, Taiwan’s, Vietnam’s, Singapore’s, and South Korea’s primary concern was to “stop the transmission of Covid-19,” the Philippines’ primary concern was “to stop the transmission of ABS-CBN!”
Another post showed Duterte’s face on the cover of TIME magazine, with two words below it: “to go.” So the entire cover story read: “TIME to go”.
Still another unsigned post, in Filipino, said to have been penned by a millennial, expressed utter frustration with the government and all those who continue to support it: “Pagod na pagod na ako sa gobyernong ito, mas pagod lang ako sa mga taong sumusuporta dito” (I’m so tired of this government already, I am more tired of the people who continue to support it.)
After the House committee on legislative franchises denied ABS-CBN a renewal of its 25-year -long franchise, and Duterte told a military audience in Zamboanga city that he had successfully dismantled the oligarchy without declaring martial law, an unsigned post in the social media offered an instant retort.
The post pointed out that it took the Ayalas of Makati, “100 years of hard work;” the Lopezes of ABS-CBN and Meralco, “70 years of hard work;” the late Henry Sy of SM, “50 years of hard work” to get where they are today; but it took the young Dennis Uy of Davao only “4 years of Duterte support” to make it where he is.
This was not a very subtle attempt to point out that, contrary to his claim, Duterte may have succeeded more in creating a new oligarchy than in dismantling the existing one. If Forbes magazine’s annual listing of dollar billionaires is any guide, the Lopezes had long dropped out of the list of Filipino oligarchs, replaced by new tycoons friendly to the President.
The end of laughter
But the laughter at these posts may not last much longer. In messages addressed to the AFP Chief of Staff and the PNP Chief, active and retired military men have expressed serious concern about the growing discord between the military and the police. And the military rank and file appear to be looking to Lt. Gen. Gilbert Gapay, commanding general of the Philippine Army, to defend the honor of the Armed Forces.
At the same time some civilian and church-related groups have appeared in public protests. At least one priest from Adamson University has posted on the internet that “we are back in the streets.” This is probably an exaggeration: aside from the brief noise barrage in support of the ABS-CBN a few days ago, there have been no meaningful street marches. But more and more Church leaders are speaking out, exercising their right and duty of prophetic denunciation.
Bishop Broderick Pabillo, the apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila—vacant since Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle was elevated to the Vatican as prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples—continues to write and speak with courage, as the head of a group of Catholic and non-Catholic church leaders.
It is not just Bishop Pabillo who is talking. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has also started talking. In a pastoral letter to “fellow Filipinos,” rather than to “the Catholic faithful” alone, the CBCP on July 16, 2020 called for prayers to overcome various problems under the Duterte administration.
It was the first such letter since Duterte became president in 2016 and the CBCP came under the presidency of Archbishop Romulo Valles of the Archdiocese of Davao. It was signed by Kalookan bishop and CBCP vice president Pablo Virgilio David, who assumed the CBCP presidency after Valles became temporarily indisposed.
The call for prayers followed a request for prayers from Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, cardinal-archbishop of Yangon, Myanmar, and president of the Federation of Asian Bishops, on behalf of the residents of Hong Kong, after the passage of China’s new security law, which threatens their basic freedoms. Bishop David not only assured Cardinal Bo of prayers from the CBCP, but also asked for prayers for Filipinos as well, in light of Duterte’s new terror law which may be parallel to China’s new security law for Hong Kong.
The terror law is preceded by certain acts against some bishops, priests and laymen. David himself has been falsely accused of inciting to sedition, along with several others. As acting CBCP president David has likened the Philippines to “the proverbial frog swimming in a pot of slowly boiling water.”
Malacañang’s legal counsel and former spokesman Salvador Panelo was quick to denounce the CBCP letter as a violation of the constitutional separation of Church and State. However presidential spokesman Harry Roque, who used to teach constitutional law at the University of the Philippines College of Law, corrected Panelo and pointed out that no such breach was committed against the Constitution. Evidently Roque knows the breach is usually committed, not by the Church, but by state actors who try to tell churchmen to follow State prescriptions.
Duterte needed this intervention very badly, but how long will it be able to check the growing authoritarianism? Will the spokesman always have the courage to point out what the Constitution says, even in the face of the President’s outbursts and tantrums? Duterte could have surprised the nation by vetoing the anti-terrorism law and ordering the House to renew the ABS-CBN franchise. But he decided instead to exercise more naked power than what Lord Acton had warned against.
This could be an unfortunate mistake. It could have sent the wrong signal to all forces on the ground, both active and dormant, to prepare for a conflict, which no one needs. Patriotic members of the Armed Forces, conscious of their constitutional duty as “protector of the people and the state,” might be compelled to take up Duterte’s oft-repeated challenge—most recently repeated in Mindanao—to relieve him of the presidency, and prevent his daughter Sara from aspiring to succeed him in this “thankless job.”
The President should never tempt the military with visions of extra-constitutional power. For even if they should reject it, if the people lose their patience before God does, they could coalesce with the military as happened in February 1986. The CBCP could then issue the equivalent of Cardinal Ricardo Vidal’s “Vox Populi, Vox Dei” pastoral letter, which laid the moral basis for the peaceful regime change. Whether or not Duterte learned anything from this past event, we hope and pray he is not condemned to repeat it.