The Long View: Telephone

By Manuel L. Quezon III

THAT’S the name of a game in which one person whispers something to another, who whispers to another, and so on down the line, to see just how garbled and unrecognizable the original message becomes through repetition.

Tuesday night saw a message (with the usual variations) zipping from phone to phone: generals loyal to the President were allegedly gathering the sentiments of battalion commanders down the line, to find out whether or not they felt the Palace would impose martial law. Media people, of course, went into overdrive checking if the message was true; Armed Forces officers seemed to strenuously deny it. A consensus emerged — it was more likely some sort of a scheme on the part of the national security adviser. And so there were no stories about it on Wednesday: every lead proved to be a dud.

But what does the message’s merry-go-round tell us? It says that while still firmly in the realm of speculation, some kind of emergency rule as the solution to the present situation isn’t far from many minds. And with good reason. Martial law has been openly discussed for some time now.

Secretary Eduardo Ermita recently said, apropos of emergency rule: “In the first place, there’s no reason for us to consider it. The President’s action is always based on the current situation.” Which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a categorical denial –of possibility or even intent.

Around the same time (June 1), the Armed Forces of the Philippines had Maj. Gen. Angel Honrado helpfully adding, “There are no bombings and anarchy in the streets to justify its declaration.” The statement, of course, has become interesting, especially now that bombings are taking place (four in Metro Manila, as of most papers’ last count).

“Acoustic warfare.” some describe the bombings and, indeed, one wishes the English language could be more precise in describing the “explosions” that have captured the headlines lately. They’ve been more along the lines of snap, crackle, and pop, not the result of high-impact explosives.

And what of anarchy in the streets? After the AFP and PNP have perfected their crowd-control methods –to be sure, against the usual sources of “political noise”– who on earth could still provoke mayhem on the streets?

Enter Sigaw ng Bayan. Earlier this month, its spokesperson, Raul Lambino said: “What we are seeing now is an initiative from the people who are proposing Charter change. If we suppress their effort, they might resort to (an) extra-constitutional way to attain their political objective.” Coming from anyone else, such a statement would have been branded inflammatory, irresponsible and seditious. But since Lambino is who he is, and his movement is what it is, the usual standards for increasingly restricted political speech most obviously do not apply.

Former President Ramos also hobbled forward to make a cameo appearance: he revealed a survey showing increased support for amendments, but with a twist: the French system, which –if memory serves– has always been the preference of Speaker Jose de Venecia, in contrast to Ramos’ own, more purist parliamentary preferences. The price of longevity is utter surrender.

Meanwhile, the President played poker with the Senate and the latter folded: incoming Senate President Manuel Villar told outgoing Senate President Franklin Drilon they couldn’t pass a budget in time. Meaning, the banner of the new Senate leadership henceforth would be a white flag? Probably not. But still, it allowed the Palace to crow victory.

On behalf of his boss, Executive Secretary Ermita rewarded Villar with a public kiss (“There is a saying in Filipino: ‘A different king, a different attitude,'” the folksy secretary said). I’m sure Judas smooched Jesus with equal aplomb. Villar sadly embarked on his stewardship of the Senate with the presidential kiss of death. Whether he wanted it or not, it was precisely how the Palace wanted it: divide, and you conquer.

Seeing the President rain on Drilon’s farewell parade while showering fatal affection on Villar’s elevation, Lambino came back on stage. Focusing on the House’s rejection of Senate’s efforts to reach a compromise on amendments, Lambino grumbled, “Where is the sense of urgency in pushing Charter change if it took them two weeks to sit down for the second time, and now take another two months to meet again and discuss an all-too-pressing issue [such] as constitutional reforms?”

He also said: “Nine million of our people have seen such an urgency in signing up for the people’s initiative in just two months– but our honorable legislators chose to take their own sweet time in taking decisive steps to erase the chronic gridlocks that have long shackled growth and development.” (Marcos had Lucky No. 7 as his trademark, Lambino relies on a Lucky No. 9.)

And the Palace ministerium for propaganda and enlightenment (no Goebbels, but lots of goblins) began trumpeting that it would be “all or nothing,”and the “people’s initiative” had its full support. Lambino came forward to complain: only San Juan and Makati City were holding up their efforts to formally demand a referendum. The President intoned a benediction on her faithful acolytes on Independence Day, where they were exorcised of the demon of fear (after all, the President had been less than warm to them after she tried to simulate cooperation with the Senate at the Ledac meeting in May).

Secretary Gabby Claudio handed down the ultimatum: Congress as constituent assembly soon, or –well, Lambino’s said it– a revolt. Prevent anarchy at all costs, at whatever price, even if the price is the temporary abolition of Congress itself. Local government officials, freed of the need to run for office in 2007, could then devote themselves to organizing the “ratification” of a new, Palace-written, constitution. Today’s revolution: autocracy.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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