The Long View
By Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer
First Posted 21:23:00 11/25/2009
IN A NATION WHERE THE POWERLESS HAVE few options, the least useful being to try to out-goon, out-gun, and out-spend those who possess a plenitude of these things because of political office, the lack of an effective sword against provincial warlords is compensated by the use of three shields: womankind, the media, and lawyers.
Whether it was nuns clutching rosaries or schoolteachers or simple mothers braving the massed ranks of the military or goons, peaceful, non-violent resistance has often called on womankind to stand up to gun-wielding tyrants, on the assumption that one of the few things thugs respect are unarmed women. Then media have been summoned, time and again, to cast the harsh glare of publicity on the vulnerable, in the belief that goons and murderers prefer to operate in the shadows and will slither back into the darkness the moment the cameras show up on the scene. And for those who have guns, goons, and gold, lawyers on the side of the powerless offer the possibility of the legal system securing a semblance of justice and protection for the rights of the defenseless, the weak, and the persecuted.
All three shields were shattered in Maguindanao, and with a ferocity that should make us all take pause if these shields will ever be as useful in warding off wrongdoers as they once were. For the unspoken assumption was that all three shields derived their power from the power of public opinion: No official, however ruthless, the thinking went, would ever dare to dismiss the power of public opinion, because the story of our country is littered with the ruined political careers of strongmen who once thought they could defy public opinion, for it is the real high court in a country where even the Supreme Court has proven how craven courts of law can be.
Public opinion is howling with anger over the mass murder in Maguindanao. For once the nation has united where once only the lonely voices of Moros could be heard. And perhaps this outrage means everyone will take a look at their surroundings and see the extent to which warlords have not only survived, but flourished, under the present dispensation.
The administration’s response has not only been true to form, but instructive. First, it tried to downplay the mass murder as an “incident.” Then it tried to pass the buck, from the Armed Forces of the Philippines to the Philippine National Police. Then it focused on shielding President Macapagal-Arroyo from culpability even as she tried to put a lid on things by imposing a state of emergency on the locality to keep media at bay and buy time. The administration has resorted to collusion, instead of action, because this is the only option for one that has assiduously courted allies such as the Ampatuans who are needed more by Manila than they need national officials – itself an unprecedented state of affairs (formerly warlords ruled the roost in their provincial domains but were firmly subordinate to their national patrons).
Provincial warlords displayed utter impunity before, the difference being that they reached a point where their sense of impunity led to their destruction.
In 1951 Time magazine described Negros Occidental, then the second most populous province in the Philippines, as “a well-run little police state and its Mussolini was Governor Rafael Lacson.” A subsequent 1954 article detailed the governor’s methods: “The province’s 200,000 voters did as Lacson bade and so did the underpaid farm workers. If anyone stepped out of line in Negros Occidental, he answered either to the planters’ private armies or to Lacson’s own bullet-hard, radio-equipped constabulary. In 1949 a few foreign correspondents flew in to inspect this little dictatorship; Governor Lacson turned them right around and flew them out. Occasionally, a charge of rape or murder against Lacson reached the court but nothing ever came of it.” Until, that is, someone challenged Lacson’s power: Moises Padilla dared to run as an opposition candidate for mayor of Magallon. Time tartly reported that Padilla lost, “of course,” and went on to describe the Lacson machine’s revenge: “That night Lacson’s uniformed bully boys picked him up and took him on an impromptu road show. They toured from town to town beating and torturing Padilla, displaying him in a public square while one of the boys announced: ‘Here is what happens to people who oppose us.’ Once Padilla saw his mother and managed to mumble: ‘Communicate Magsaysay.’ But when Magsaysay reached Negros Occidental, he found Padilla’s body, broken and dripping blood onto a police bench with 14 bullets in the back. Lacson smiled easily: ‘Shot dead in an attempt to make his getaway.'”
The older generation knows what happened: Magsaysay demanded of President Elpidio Quirino that he suspend their partymate, Lacson, or else he would quit. An investigative team was dispatched. Charges were filed. Then the case dragged on and a frustrated Magsaysay ended up bolting his party and defeating Quirino in the 1953 election. In 1954, finally, Lacson was convicted of murder.
Today, it seems to me the public knows no one within the administration is capable of doing a Magsaysay.
Ninoy Aquino’s, Cesar Climaco’s, and Evelio Javier’s murders (1983-86) all accomplished what Padilla’s killing did, which was to solidify outrage against official thuggery. Yet all these were individual assassinations. The Maguindanao mass murder was not only the liquidation of scores of individuals. It was a smashing of the talismans the vulnerable and powerless clutch when daring to confront the strong. Every warlord will be keenly watching to see if an infuriated public will topple the Ampatuans, who believe they are untouchable. To confront them, after all, by force of arms, is to confront them on their own terms, where they literally call the shots.