[Pastilan] See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Cagayan de Oro Mayor Oscar Moreno sat there onstage, seemingly frozen and impassive, as Rodrigo Duterte took the rostrum, spewed expletives again, and gave the “kill, kill, kill” order against activists whom he linked to the armed communist insurgency.

The order addressed to the military and police was given for the nth time on March 5, 2021, at the gymnasium of the state-run University of Science and Technology of Southern Philippines (USTP) in this city. Two days later, 9 activists ended up killed, and 6 others were arrested in a fresh crackdown on critics of the government in the Calabarzon area in the north, in the guise of a continuing campaign against armed rebellion.

Nanlaban” again? What were the odds that the slain activists, all 9 of them in different places in the Southern Tagalog region on the same day, reacted the exact same way and put up a fight they knew they could never win because they were outnumbered and surrounded by the battle-ready police?

After 5 bloody years, it has become apparent that “nanlaban” is a poor excuse being used by state agents to wriggle out of difficult situations arising from civilian deaths – killings that raise more questions than answers.

Today, 5 years into our version of the Reign of Terror, whenever the police say “nanlaban,” the more suspicious people become. No one is buying that overused line anymore, not even the United Nations human rights office that criticized what it saw as arbitrary killings in Calabarzon.

Here's the Palace spin doctors' problem: by no stretch of the imagination can the UN body be linked to Philippine partisan politics. Neither can they float the idea that the people behind foreign statements of concern are gullible and can be easily manipulated. And the more absurd it will become if they even imply that the people behind foreign statements of concern are hacks paid not in Philippine pesos but dollars.

Given this difficulty, the bully resorts to badmouthing the UN. The European Union (EU), too, has not been spared from the verbal abuse. The Palace merely dismisses the statements, and just loosely accuses the credible foreign bodies of being partial, like mere assertion with matching cussing without any need to establish ill motive is good enough to hammer home a point.

It is understandable why the narratives that the activists were armed are being doubted. It just doesn’t make sense for anyone taking part in the parliament of the streets to keep firearms in their homes especially in these dangerous times, given how intolerant this government has become of its critics regardless of where they stand in the political spectrum. Logic dictates that if they wanted to fight with guns, they would be in the hills, side by side with New People’s Army (NPA) rebels. Neither would they be sleeping in the comforts of their homes in urban areas in the wee hours with guns and grenades stashed, of all places, in their closets.

Suppose the slain activists had identical thoughts about this administration and wished it ill or, worse, even dreamt about subjecting certain officials to impalement in full public view. Most likely, there are millions of other Filipinos entertaining themselves with similar thoughts as I write this. But they are merely toying with these brutal thoughts at the back of their heads, and they have no plans whatsoever of acting on them because the ideas are simply beyond the bounds of reason and human decency. Now, what gives anyone the right to dictate how and what Filipinos think of their rulers or worse, punish citizens for their thoughts? The last time I checked, there was no such thing as a thought crime in this country.

One moment, the government calls them members of communist “legal fronts” which could only mean that the groups, even if left-leaning, are acknowledged to be operating lawfully (they’ve been repeatedly referred to as legal by the state); the next, state agents peddle the idea that the activists are “salot” and insurrectionists who must be wiped off the face of the planet. Legal or illegal? Make up your minds, gentlemen.

The hothead understood the difference between a leftwing activist and a full-fledged NPA guerilla weeks before he officially rose to power. In a video chat with Jose Ma. Sison in the summer of 2016, the politician from Davao told the self-exiled Communist Party founder, “I will follow the pattern of Ssocialism sa governance ko (in my governance)... I’m a socialist. Though I am not a member of the Communist Party... I am a socialist, and I belong to the Left... This will be the first time in the history of our country na merong leftist na president (that there will be a leftist president). Walang masama sa Left (There is nothing wrong with the Left).”

Wasn’t it possible then that the slain activists in Calabarzon were just concerned citizens, that they were socialists or leftists with grievances who were armed with nothing but legitimate causes, and not members of the Communist Party or its armed wing just like the “leftist” Duterte before midday of June 30, 2016?

He was correct in stating that there was nothing wrong with being a leftist, of holding the kind of ideas that he professed to have when he was still the president-elect. It is therefore baffling how his brain ceased to comprehend 5 years later that there is a difference between an activist whose only weapons are words and ideas – even communist ideas – and someone who takes up arms to overthrow a government through violent means. He seems to have understood the concept clearly in 2016 until something messed up the way he thinks big-time that he now blurs the lines.

I say the order was problematic in that we have seen the penchant of state agents to concoct the most ridiculous of tales against their targets, and given the self-professed dictator’s admission in the early days of his administration that when he was still a prosecutor, he was among those who spread intrigues and planted evidence against people suspected of committing crimes.

The order has been repeated in different contexts in the last 5 years. It’s like this cussing hominid is following a one-size-fits-all speech template, and the only thing he needs to do before he addresses any crowd is to fill out the blanks.

This template can be used in his administration’s wholesale war on the Filipino Left, including non-combatants and anyone who’s outspokenly left-leaning, but never on communists from the People’s Republic of China whose leader this administration adores, if not is head over heels in love with.

At the risk of digressing, the template may be used, too, in its one-way “war on drugs” that is not even a war to begin with, because the main sources of the illegal substances are unaffected and not fighting back at all.

Excuse this brief departure from the subject, but didn’t this 76-year-old populist leader and his subordinates say the bulk of the meth supply comes from China? So while the farce called “tokhang” is taking place, the suppliers are all smiling as they continue to flood the Philippine underworld with shabu, at times with the help of the still graft-ridden customs bureau that he failed to this day to purge and whip until it shaped up despite his promise 5 years into his office term. In that milking cow of a government bureau, it appears now that the small fries are guilty but the big fishes are innocent on the mere basis of what he feels, thinks, and says. Pathetic.

The biggest meth makers and suppliers have been on a business-as-usual mode since 2016, unaffected and unscathed in the shooting deaths of thousands of mostly poor Filipino end-users and citizens attacked on mere suspicion – yes, on mere suspicion – of substance abuse which, like activism and armed insurgency, his government often confuses with drug peddling or trafficking.

And so, going back, the recent “kill, kill, kill” order is flawed because this authoritarian populist administration has shown time and again that when it comes to its pet peeves, the lines are blurred. It has demonstrated that outside the courtroom, only its agents exercise the monopoly of identifying who’s guilty and who’s innocent, who’s armed and who’s unarmed, and who deserves to live or die – and woe to anyone who dares question the labelings because he risks suffering the state’s wrath, online or in the real world! Simply put, outside our courts, they are the accusers, prosecutors, jury, judges, and executioners, all rolled into one.

I wonder if it would have made any difference had Mayor Moreno and the other Region 10 officials in the USTP gathering spoken out, even politely, against that “kill” order. Through a collective statement that never was, local officials could have made the Palace and its agents think twice so that none of those in authority would go astray and run amok.

If they only said, “Please don’t; that’s foul” or made an appeal to that effect, perhaps, just maybe, the northern Mindanao officials could have pressured Malacañang or the police into stepping on the brakes, thus averting what is now known as “Bloody Sunday” in Calabarzon. If that fell on deaf ears, then they could sleep at night, at the least, with a clear conscience and the thought that they have spoken out, and can never go down in history as silent accomplices to the execution and consummation of the “kill” order.

In the USTP crowd, down the stage from where Duterte stood, were Representative Rolando Uy of Cagayan de Oro’s 1st District, Misamis Oriental Governor Bambi Emano, and many other local officials from all over northern Mindanao. All of them chose to look the other way, straight-faced, neither frowning nor uttering a word of disagreement right after the “kill” order was given.

Representative Uy proudly said he was the only congressman from this region in that gathering, and by his own account, the only politician in Region 10 to have talked with Duterte before the Big Boss left the gymnasium. Uy said that like it was a feat or some sort of a badge of honor.

As for Mayor Moreno, he once braved presidential ire when he served as a member of the House prosecution panel in the aborted Estrada impeachment trial. Two decades later, despite his human rights-friendly position, Moreno dares not openly cross swords with the current administration, not even when Filipinos, who are unable to keep their mouths shut, are being threatened and slain under questionable circumstances.

Governor Emano, for his part, has told stories about how his late father Dongkoy was targeted during the Marcos administration, and about how their family was supposedly stricken with mental anguish as a result.

The elder Emano, erstwhile political kingpin of Misamis Oriental and Cagayan de Oro, once spoke about being red-tagged. That was supposedly after he left the Marcoses’ Kilusang Bagong Lipunan (KBL) to join the pre-EDSA Partido Demokratiko Pilipino (PDP) in the ’80s. By Dongkoy’s own sketchy account, he owed his life to former president Fidel Ramos who, at that time, was head of the now-defunct Philippine Constabulary-Integrated National Police (PC-INP). It is, therefore, a letdown now that Governor Bambi, Dongkoy’s heir, has chosen to keep silent, too, about the ongoing red-taggings and all the senseless deaths, these serial killings, that come with the labels.

If there is something the warring Moreno and Emano, and other officials in northern Mindanao could agree on, it is their respect, supposedly, for fundamental civil liberties. But whenever this thing in the Palace disrespects and sprays dingleberries on human rights with its mouth like the Drunken Master in that old Jackie Chan movie, they all shut up and behave like they didn’t see, hear, or smell anything.

The local officials’ silence, their appearance of stolid indifference, is not unique in northern Mindanao though. It speaks a lot about the situation from Aparri to Jolo, except for the West Philippine Sea where the one and only thug is Xi Jinping, or so it seems, and where no one bends over with big toes far apart for this unique Philippine variant, this small anomaly, in the hominian evolution.

A congressman from another Mindanao region, who admits he has been trying his best to avoid Malacañang’s radar, explains the silence: “Kinsa may dili mahadlok?” (Who wouldn’t feel afraid?) Yes, who wouldn’t when this administration has a gun in the holster and is holding the throat of every potential or outspoken Filipino critic at knifepoint in the last 5 years?

It even has special bullets intended for dogma itself and the hypocrisy of organized religion, the influential Roman Catholic Church, in particular, to intimidate priests into not thinking of ever, ever doing a Cardinal Sin. Should they choose to speak out, then like the outspoken Jim Paredes of Apo Hiking Society fame, they better be prepared to talk about the sex scandals hounding the Church.

Given the kind of discretion our present institutions have allowed this entity to exercise and enjoy, this nation, nevertheless, should never surrender the citizens’ right to demand, individually or collectively, some accountability from the rulers, the fear-inducing stimuli notwithstanding. Removing accountability when there is already so much discretion is a surefire recipe for bad governance.

By now, we should be able to tell that this see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil environment in and out of government is exactly what enabled this man-like being to do whatever crosses its mind.

The situation we are all in right now makes me understand better everything that went wrong with one of the key figures of the French Revolution, Maximilien Robespierre. He played a key role in toppling a corrupt and calloused monarchy, and his ideas on “liberty, equality, fraternity” helped shape the fundamental principles of liberal democracy. The irony of ironies is, Robespierre would later encourage if not preside over the thousands of guillotine executions during the infamous Reign of Terror. He was eventually decapitated, just like the king and thousands they guillotined in the 18th century.

Talk about ideas skidding off track and brains turning upside down overnight. Pastilan. – Rappler.com

Herbie Gomez has been a journalist based in Cagayan de Oro for over 30 years. He edits the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.