Impeachment and collective memory

Theodore Te
As a nation and as a people, we need to close this chapter

Prof. Theodore TeThe calls for Chief Justice Corona to resign after being impeached, supposedly to spare the nation an impeachment trial, is a strange one. It reminded me of that rather metaphysical cartoon “The Road Runner,” which consists simply of the coyote chasing after the road runner and using every trick in the book and then some.

I never saw the coyote catch the road runner but I would suppose that once it did, the question in the coyote’s mind would have been, “Ok, what now?”  I hope that those calling for the Chief Justice to resign are not saying that, like the coyote, they did all that running around just to ask “ok, what now?” after making the catch.

I believe that the impeachment process, set forth in the Constitution, ought to continue with the trial of the Chief Justice before the Senate.

While resignation was—and remains—an option for the Chief Justice, a resignation at this time, just before the trial commences, does nothing except to, once again, demonstrate our collective inability—or refusal—to deal with the past and learn from its lessons.

Reckoning with the past is always a tricky proposition.  

It is always a balancing act of acknowledging the past and acting on its lessons but not be too fixated that both the present and the future are put on hold. The failure, or refusal, to acknowledge the past and learn from it has consequences certainly on both the present and the future.  

Hegel sums it up succinctly in his dictum that “(w)hat experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.”  

Though cynical, it rings true in many instances.

The Philippines is a prime example of just how doomed a people are to repeat history if its lessons are not learned and understood and acted on.  

Our experience with the dictatorship of Marcos–of a country ruled by one man and looted by him, his family and cronies  and where impunity was a byword and accountability unheard of–should have been one too many.  

Yet because the process of ensuring accountability for the wrongs of the past was never fully completed and certainly not addressed decisively, we were doomed to repeat the  experience under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—of a country ruled by one person and looted by her, her family and cronies, and where impunity was a buzzword and accountability unheard of.

It is significant how both Marcos and Arroyo could have ruled the country in a similar way—where targeted killings and disappearances became policy, where crooked deals were negotiated as part of “business as usual”, where family members and cronies benefitted from government contracts, where the military and police were used to terrorize the people and not protect them, where law was enforced with an iron fist and where impunity reigned.  

It is an abject lesson in what an important role  collective memory plays in our transition.

It is also significant that the aftermath of the Marcos and Gloria regimes saw the rise, almost 25 years apart, of two presidents named Aquino who both enjoyed popular acclaim not for governmental or managerial expertise but for moral integrity and for being, tritely put, “at the right place at the right time.”  The phenomenon of mother and son being president within a 25-year period and having to deal with transition is rare  but in the Philippine context, that both succeeded authoritarian presidents who had used their powers to oppress the people and enrich themselves is even more rare. 

Both mother and son were thrust into the position, not having sought nor welcomed it;  both were given overwhelming mandates with extremely high expectations. Both  inherited a nation hungry for hope for  genuine transition and meaningful change.

Cory Aquino was fortunate to have been vested with the powers of a revolutionary president for one year. Her son, NoyNoy, is bound by the Constitution that his mother caused to be drafted.  

In a sense, Cory’s legacy  to PNoy was constitutional succession and to deal with the transition within the framework of constitutional norms.

Yet, despite the powers at her disposal, Cory was able to do far less in the 6 years she was in Office to allow the country to deal with its past and imagine a new future.  

Allowing us to forget
She barred Marcos and his family from returning to the Philippines thus preventing charges from being filed for the tortures, extrajudicial killings and disappearances, and other human rights violations as well as for the plunder.  

More importantly, the failure to memorialize fully the atrocities of the dictatorship allowed us to forget and move on without addressing impunity and exacting accountability.  

The absence of any judicial conviction for the crimes  and the violations of rights committed during the dictatorship failed to deter any would-be dictator from rising and trying his or her luck.

Unlike his mother who had to stave off challenges to the legitimacy of her government, PNoy was fortunate enough to have ascended to Office constitutionally with an overwhelming and indisputable mandate.  

He, thus, had the luxury of addressing the more immediate concerns inherent in his mandate, chief of which was addressing impunity.  

In short order, PNoy has managed to bring 2 successful impeachments in less than 3 years in office—the first of the former Ombudsman and the second of the current Chief Justice.  

Regardless of where one might stand in relation to his presidency and his management style, that is an impressive achievement.

While the first impeachment did not result in a trial because the former Ombudsman resigned, this second impeachment looks headed for a full-blown trial.

From my vantage point, I welcome it for 3 reasons.

Let it out

1. The impeachment trial of the Chief Justice will bring the actual truth, and not only the “judicial truth,” to light.  

The truth is the only guarantee of accountability being insured and impunity being addressed. This is what the resignation of the former Ombudsman prevented and which this current trial should bring about.

Since the Senate is not a court and  the impeachment trial is not a judicial trial, the rules on evidence are not—and should not be—strictly applied.  

What the Senate should be looking for should not be the “judicial truth,” which is reflective of the application of the rules on admissibility, but rather, the “whole truth and nothing but.”  

Without sacrificing due process and fairness, the Senate should encourage everything that is relevant to establishing the truth of the allegations against the Chief Justice.  

There shouldn’t be a repeat of the “second envelope” where technicalities and a one-vote advantage trumped the truth, instead there should be full and complete transparency.

2.   A trial that is fair, credible, comprehensive and completed brings about closure.

We’ve always been a nation with a short memory. Our experience with Marcos and the way that Cory was not able to fully ensure accountability and bring about closure resulted in these very same issues haunting us again under Arroyo.  

The inability to achieve closure would mean the inability to meaningfully move on and address other, more fundamental and transcendent concerns. That is precisely what a resignation by the Chief Justice, on the eve of the Senate trial, will do–abort the impeachment process and thwart closure.

As a nation and as a people, we need to be able to close the chapter (if not the book) on our storied past and move on.  That we’ve never been able to do so has been largely due to our inability to achieve closure on the lessons from our past.

If the charges against the Chief Justice are true, then a trial that is fair, credible, comprehensive and completed will close the book on that chapter.  

Accountability will be ensured and impunity prevented, and we can truly move on.  

On the other hand, if the charges are not true, then a trial should also ensure such a closure.

For a country with a notoriously short memory, it is hoped that the son will be able to bring the much needed closure that the past demands without forgetting the lessons for the present that it imparts and the vision for the future that it brings.  

Otherwise, we would have proved Hegel correct again that, as the musician Sting puts it, “history will teach us nothing.”

3. Completing the impeachment process strengthens our institutions and restores trust.

If there is one thing that Arroyo did successfully in her 9 years of occupying Malacañang, it was to cause irreparable damage to institutions designed to ensure accountability and prevent impunity.  

From aborted impeachments in the House of Representatives (simply by the mad rush of one lawyer to file inherently defective complaints against her) to the abuse of executive privilege, the net effect of all these was to erode any trust that people had in these institutions.

A Corona resignation will not restore trust. Only  a fair, credible and completed trial — regardless of the outcome — would.

It will affirm our ability, as a people, to maturely use the processes that our Constitution has set in place to ensure accountability.  

It will tell us that something works and that there is reason to trust these institutions again.

In the end, this  impeachment trial, which completes the impeachment process in the Constitution, is not only about Renato Corona or Benigno Aquino III.

It is about us.

It is the story of how we, as a people, deal with our past and manage the present in order to realize our future. – Rappler.com