I am able to write this piece not because of democracy but in spite of its absence.
The past weeks, thousands of protesters took over Thailand’s main airport to force the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai, brother-in-law of former Prime Minister Thaksin who was ousted on charges of corruption. They did not destroy a single airport equipment. A Thai court dissolved the ruling party and banned Somchai from exercising powers as Prime Minister after a party executive was convicted of electoral fraud.
Asked to comment on the events in Thailand, presidential mouthpiece Anthony Golez declared that the Thai experience will not happen in the Philippines "because our people have reached a high degree of political maturity whereby our people respect due process and the rule of law."
What gumption! Kulkumut Sinharana Ayudhaya, Thai Ambassador to the Philippines, was quick to demand an apology from Golez. He said, “The protest is only an indication that the Thai people are free to exercise their political right based on democracy.”
Golez should be red in the face until now. Kulkumut’s retort is a veiled rebuke on the state of the Philippine political climate. Philippine democracy is an illusion. Our human rights record states it in the plainest language. The Thai envoy knew he was standing on a moral high ground when he demanded an apology from Golez.
Contrary to Golez’s claim, there is no rule of law in this country. His boss who mastered sinister Machiavellian tactics placed herself way above it. We have a Rule of Arroyo characterized by repression. The Constitution which says that the Philippines is a republican and democratic state, that sovereignty resides in the people and that all governmental authority emanates from them, is just a scrap of paper. How can authority emanate from people who shiver in fear of their government? In a democracy, people can dethrone officials who seriously violate their trust even if they have to seize control of airports to do it. If officials betray the public trust by stealing votes, by bargaining away part of Philippine territory for political expediency, or by ordering the murder or abduction of political dissidents, the people may oust them. It is not only an act of political maturity, it is also an act of sovereignty. In fact, when people revolt against a despotic regime, they do not violate the Constitution. To assert sovereignty is to uphold the Constitution.
The Philippine political climate hinders political discourse which thrives in democracy. A friend serving as a Philippine Consul-General in Europe said to me: “You cannot say that the Philippines is not democratic. You are still free to speak out.” In a democracy, you say the truth without fear of the whip or the gun. In this country, you do so conscious that you invite great peril unto yourself. You condemn corruption in the military, you are court-martialed. You protect the rights of indigenous peoples, you are forcibly disappeared. You fight for the rights of peasants and laborers, you are indicted for rebellion. You expose the involvement of the First Family in corrupt acts of unparalleled magnitude, your father gets booted out as Speaker of the House of Representatives. You defend human rights, you are targeted as a terrorist. This is democracy? This is totalitarianism. And it is flourishing in a country that ratified most core human rights instruments enshrining political participation and which was one of the first 48 UN members to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on 10 December 1948. The rule of law means nothing to Golez’ boss. Philippine democracy has been purged of spirit.
Close to a thousand activists and journalists have fallen victims to extrajudicial killings and hundreds became desaparecidos during the eight-year Rule of Arroyo. This shames the record of the Marcos dictatorship which lasted for over two decades. The Philippines remains unbeaten in its record as the most dangerous place in the world for journalists. According to the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines, Areteo Padrigao is the 62nd (not 52nd as I earlier wrote) journalist killed since 2001.
Journalists and scribes in Manipur, India went on protracted strike over the murder of their colleague, Konsam Rishikanta on 17 November 2008, the same day Padrigao was killed. Publications suspended operations to demonstrate their righteous indignation. Lawyer Babloo Loitongbam of the Manipur-based Human Rights Alert furnished me a record showing that Rishikanta is the fifth journalist to be killed in that state since 1993. Padrigao is the sixth this year!
And yet, how is the Filipino nation responding? Not with political maturity because unlike the Thais, we are not “free to exercise (our) political right based on democracy.” Except for the privilege speech of Senator Richard Gordon, the murder of Padrigao did not stir up a hornet's nest. Has the spate of killings desensitized us that one more name added to statistics on the murdered no longer shocks us?
Prof Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary and Arbitrary Executions said: "(N)umbers are not what count. The impact of even a limited number of killings of the type alleged is corrosive in many ways. It intimidates vast numbers of civil society actors, it sends a message of vulnerability to all but the most well connected, and it severely undermines the political discourse which is central to a resolution of the problems confronting this country."
The political atmosphere is ripe for protests if not a popular uprising or a revolution. But the Filipino people have been rendered politically immature. If one death is enough to send a chilling message, consider that there are more than 900 deaths and hundreds of disappearances under the Rule of Arroyo.
Mr. Golez, the Filipino national apathy is not sign of political maturity; it is symptomatic of alienation, of resignation, of hopelessness, of many other things, not least of all the death of democracy.
Your boss has been presiding over its wake and you are a pallbearer.
(This article also appears in The Northern Dispatch under my weekly column Smorgasbord.)