The fact that human rights violations were committed during the period of martial law, especially during its early phase of implementation, is inarguable. There is documentation in the records of the Philippine military, as well as in well-documented historical accounts of the period. The more puzzling phenomenon was the cynical perversion of human rights into a weapon to advance communist insurgency and weaken constitutional government and the country’s military.
The fact that human rights violations were committed during the period of martial law, especially during its early phase of implementation, is inarguable. There is documentation in the records of the Philippine military, as well as in well-documented historical accounts of the period.
The spectacle of Jose Maria Sison receiving reparations money of P2.4 million from the Human Rights Victims Claims Board (HRVCB) and slain communist rebels being extolled as heroes and martyrs can be understood if we place them in the context of Cory Aquino’s accession to power and her erratic and troubled presidency.
Sison did not invent himself as a human rights victim; Cory Aquino did. (Her son Benigno Aquino III followed suit by passing the compensations law.)
Cory as revolutionary president
The appalling situation came to pass because in the early years of the Cory Aquino presidency, she governed without limits or checks on her powers and her whims — especially when she was revolutionary president under the Freedom Constitution and was handed reserve legislative powers initially by the 1987 Constitution.
The Supreme Court en banc took note of the situation in its decision in GR No. 104768 on July 21, 2003. It wrote:
“It is widely known that Mrs. Aquino’s rise to the presidency was not due to constitutional processes; in fact, it was achieved in violation of the provisions of the 1973 Constitution as a Batasang Pambansa resolution had earlier declared Mr. Marcos as the winner in the 1986 presidential election. Thus, it can be said that the organization of Mrs. Aquino’s government which was met by little resistance and her control of the state evidenced by the appointment of the Cabinet and other key officers of the administration, the departure of the Marcos Cabinet officials, revamp of the Judiciary and the Military signaled the point where the legal system then in effect, had ceased to be obeyed by the Filipino … .
“During the interregnum, the government in power was concededly a revolutionary government bound by no constitution. No one could validly question the sequestration orders as violative of the Bill of Rights because there was no Bill of Rights during the interregnum. However, upon the adoption of the Freedom Constitution, the sequestered companies assailed the sequestration orders as contrary to the Bill of Rights of the Freedom Constitution.”
Cory took full advantage of her revolutionary and reserve powers to free Sison and other communist leaders from detention, and to create by executive order the Human Rights Commission, just days before the convening of the new Congress.
“Human rights” was envisioned to have a high place in the Aquino government.
Government of human rights lawyers
Filipino historians and journalists did not quickly notice it. Most of what was written during the period were hagiographies, designed to extol Cory as Joan of Arc, a prospective saint or Nobel laureate.
It was the US Embassy historian and author, Lewis E. Gleeck Jr., who exposed the character of the Aquino presidency and its unusual employment of human rights in two books: Sainthood Postponed (Loyal Printing, Manila, 1995) and From Saint to Sinner (Loyal Printing, Manila, 1995)
Gleeck’s books stand out as the most faithful and reliable reading of the first Aquino presidency, because they were written without the pressure of newspaper deadlines and the demands of Aquino mythmaking. He depicted the situation as he saw it, from the perspective of a long-serving US State Department official stationed in Manila.
Gleeck noted that the Aquino Cabinet formed in the days following the EDSA revolution in February 1986 had “minimal experience in government at the national level.” Although Salvador Laurel, Jovito Salonga and Ernesto Maceda were seasoned politicians, the core figure of the new government — Executive Secretary Joker Arroyo, Aquilino Pimentel, Augusto Sanchez, Rene Saguisag — were known leftists and largely innocent of government experience. All were chiefly noted as human rights lawyers.
He conceded that “there is much to be said in favor of the moral courage of these individuals, and they were entitled to recognition as well as the prize of office if they had the qualifications for the appointment.”
He then underscored their fundamental limitations as members of the Cabinet and heads of entire departments. “Beyond all other considerations, human rights lawyers were intrinsically anti-government in philosophy. Their training and preferences were ill-suited to promoting constructive government policies and objectives. And they were instinctively sympathetic to demonstrators, rioters and strikers — often even criminals — whose actions were anti-government or in contrast to government.”
Joker Arroyo spelled out the basic philosophy of the Aquino government. In the first place, he said: “Cory ordered the release of all political detainees held under the Marcos administration on the simple proposition that anyone who opposed Marcos on political, economic, social, ideological, or personal grounds had committed no crime.”
“In other words,” wrote Gleeck, “whether opposition was based on subversive intent or a devotion to democratic government was irrelevant. Arroyo was being sly. This was not a simple proposition, behind which subversive elements could be set free to agitate for a leftist government.”
The release of the political prisoners, communists as well as non-communists, was the key policy.
The appointment of human rights lawyers to top Cabinet posts regardless of qualifications for their positions, was the second policy, with the result that most of her Cabinet were incompetently administered and occasionally infiltrated by communist or more frequently their sympathizers.
When Arroyo proved unwilling or unable to process papers, the government often stood still.
Gleeck relates a recollection by Laurel who said Cory had told him: “Oh, you are going to run the government anyway. I just want to topple Marcos. You will be prime minister.”
Which of course did not materialize.
When the armed forces, whose mutiny against Marcos had made it possible for Cory to claim the presidency, got restless and became critical of Cory’s determination to yield to communist pressure and to tolerate NPA abuses, without approving AFP retaliation, and with Defense Minister Enrile urging rectification of these policies, Cory took her first decisive action: she fired Enrile.
A ceasefire cleverly exploited for psy-war purposes by the communists, checkmated the military, while the NPA liquidated its enemies and imposed taxes and executions in the countryside.
After 11 months in power, the weaknesses of the Aquino government showed. But Joker portrayed them as strength.
Gleeck turned to writing brief observations on developments under the Aquino government, which he called “Cassandra commentaries.”
The name was prophetic. Within months, the Philippines would be wracked by several serious coups attempts against Aquino.
When the government called a plebiscite in February 1987 for the ratification of the Constitution drafted by the Aquino-appointed constitutional commission, the vote was converted by Cory into an expression of approval or disapproval of her tenure as president.
Hardly one in a thousand Filipinos had read the document, so sparse was the information on the proposed Constitution.
On January 27, there was a coup attempt that failed, which had the effect of boosting support for the Constitution.
The communists publicly advocated a “No” vote.
The Iglesia ni Kristo instructed its faithful to vote “Yes.”
Soldiers were ordered by the Comelec to vote only in their home districts.
Cory was able to get a thunderous approval for the Constitution and for herself.
Lewis Simons, a visiting writer who would write Worth Dying For, wrote a striking epilogue in his book. He was pitiless:
“Although she held the same dictatorial powers that Marcos had retained from the martial law years, Aquino seemed incapable of exercising them, either vengefully or benevolently. Aquino, totally inexperienced as leader and decision maker, floundered.”
On August 28, 1987, Col. Gringo Honasan and his comrades struck in the first of his two coup attempts against Aquino.
On November 30,1989, Honasan struck again, and this time almost succeeded. Aquino survived when President George H. W. Bush allowed US Air Force jets to intervene against the RAM mutineers.
The problem by then was no longer the same as two years earlier; the presence of leftists in the government was out, as most had been removed from positions of authority.
By then, Cory had almost lost control of the power situation. The capital and much of the country was plunged into darkness because of prolonged brownouts.
Cory was fittingly christened the queen of darkness. She absolutely had no clue how to bail the nation out of its predicament.
- Devaluing the standard of human rights, Yen Makabenta, September 29, 2018, The Manila Times