Back in July 2020, Negros Oriental Gov. Roel Degamo had pointed to a foiled assassination plot in which an Army reservist, a retired Army soldier, and a tricycle driver were apprehended after the governor received text messages alerting him of a plot. He didn’t name names, but attributed the plot to, as the press then put it, “political detractors.” The governor, who’d been suspended and dismissed from service on multiple occasions, successfully invoked a loophole when it came to the three-term limit on local office: Each instance, the Supreme Court had ruled, represented an involuntary interruption to his terms, allowing him to run for essentially a fourth term.
As last Lent began, Bishop Julito Cortes of Dumaguete expressed “tremendous concern” over election-related killings and the “specter of massive vote-buying.” Later that year, a commentary in The Diplomat, summed up political killings in Negros Occidental and Negros Oriental in this manner: “There persists on Negros a climate of violence and impunity supported by, but beyond the control of, the Duterte administration.” Much as the so-called “war on drugs” gave cover for the liquidation of the anonymous poor and selected high-profile targets, and much as counterinsurgency, in turn, was invoked as a justification for the assassination of inconvenient radicals, there, too, existed a brutal local political culture whose sheer impunity was a national scandal waiting to happen.
That scandal came to pass with the assassination of Degamo under circumstances so brazen and crude, that the House of Representatives (voting 292-0 or unanimously) vomited out one of its own, suspending Negros Oriental Rep. Arnolfo Teves Jr. who has refused to return to the country. He went as far as issuing a video statement saying he’d been told that the Palace had given instructions to persecute him on top of a previously ongoing “operation” against him also ordered by the Palace. Teves shrewdly then added that he doubted that the President himself would order his persecution simply to allow another party in the province to monopolize cockfighting. The President, obviously piqued, felt compelled to respond, assuring the congressman of protection if he returned. Some scoffed at the sight of the President either giving assurances to Teves or saying there’d been discussions. But so long as Teves is overseas, he is utterly beyond the reach of the authorities; the President knows this and can only call Teves’ bluff by announcing there is no obstacle to his return.
That was him playing good cop. Justice Secretary Jesus Crispin Remulla’s job is to be bad cop. Last Monday, Remulla announced Arnolfo Jr. was being considered a potential mastermind of the Degamo assassination and the involvement of his brother, Pryde, was also possible; scenes of weapons being dug up in a Teves property have been shown, and yesterday the latest revelation was that the assassins had stayed in a safe house allegedly owned by Teves. The fugitive, suspended congressman too, Remulla said yesterday, might have links to a “criminal organization” behind killings in the province, including that of the governor. What the President said the other day is coming to pass: Having slighted the President’s offer (made as much, if not more, out of consideration for the congressman’s other kin who remains in office and thus remains part of an anxious establishment), Teves isn’t going to know what hit him.
As far back as 2010 when an ex-beauty queen was gunned down, what has weighed heavily on Negros Oriental has been as much a pervasive atmosphere of intimidation that made even discussing such incidents taboo, as the actual murders themselves. Even incidents of the well-connected throwing their weight around or getting away scot-free could neither be discussed openly nor even risk acts of compassion or generosity to affected families, lest it is misconstrued by the powerful. The intimidation, then, is the other half of the story, and the one, it seems to me, left unsaid but acknowledged by the good-cop, bad-cop, routine in Manila: The infrastructure of intimidation still exists in Negros Oriental and it can still be operated by remote control.
Last week I mentioned Peter Kreuzer, the scholar of political murder. His research has gleaned, as he recently said, that “The Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world to do politics,” with one report summarizing his findings as follows: that the Philippines is a “country with one of the highest levels of violence against the political class in the world, even higher than those of the nations with the most murders in general, such as Mexico, Colombia, South Africa or Brazil.”
We have gotten used to hearing a similar notorious standing for the Philippines with regards to journalists—except the politicians have successfully conditioned the public into not caring what happens to journalists. The vote for the suspension of Teves suggests that politicians at least care about what is happening to themselves.
When Rodrigo Duterte successfully staked a claim on representing empathetic leadership in 2016, he was given license to liquidate people at the margins, because he freely took upon himself the moral responsibility for it and swore to protect those who followed his orders. In a similar manner, he compensated the military for the effects of his short-lived but high-profile coalition with the communists by declaring open season on anyone tagged a communist. He brought to the heart of the state the baronial behavior of local officialdom. His successor is now presiding over the worst elements of both the civilian and military leadership, doing to the top what was only supposed to be done to the bottom. The danger is, the more those at the top belatedly try to act, the more it might drag everyone down.