Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte’s move to certify a new anti-terror bill as urgent bares a defensive stance amid public anger over inefficiency in the management of the coronavirus pandemic.
The government insists it needs a new law to defeat terrorism and a 50-year-old communist insurgency.
But bigger issues bedevil the autocratic Duterte, who wants to sign the new law before his next State of the Nation Address in July.
Simply put, Duterte’s vision for the post-COVID “new normal” involves opening up vulnerable national patrimony to foreign investors, the favorite being Chinese firms.
The House of Representatives has already passed a proposed measure allowing 100 percent foreign ownership in public utilities.
Duterte’s allies in Congress have also restarted moves for changes in the Constitution that would allow, among other things, foreign control of Philippine land and water resources.
The anti-terror law aims to preempt the buildup of a huge protest movement that could possibly coalesce the country’s fractious opposition.
The proposed law’s most important points will make little dent against armed guerrillas. But it will make easier for Duterte — who, at best, pays little fealty to facts — to concoct conspiracies as law enforcers hold leaders of the legal opposition incommunicado for prolonged periods.
“The bill broadens the definition of terrorism, and accordingly, strengthens the powers of the executive in running after ‘suspected’ terrorists,” said the Concerned Lawyers for Civil Liberties.
“In effect, the executive, citing even wild theories and vagaries, can extensively target personalities and groups with color and force of law,” said the group, which also warned that the new law “weakens protections against abuse and misuse.”
Among the main targets are church groups.
The National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict has named Catholic and ecumenical organizations as “fronts” of the underground Communist Party of the Philippines.
It is not the first attack on Filipino church people.
Duterte has viciously and falsely accused Bishop Pablo Virgilio of Kalookan, a staunch opponent of the president’s bloody drug war, of stealing from church coffers and having links to drug gangs.
The military and the police have also tagged several senior clergy, like Bishop Broderick Pabillo, apostolic administrator of the Archdiocese of Manila, as communists.
At least three Catholic priests, including one who was earlier “red-tagged,” have been killed under the Duterte administration.
Three others face “inciting to sedition” charges in connection with a video expose of Duterte’s alleged hidden wealth and alleged links to drug networks.
Several other church workers from other religious denominations have been killed in Mindanao while more than a dozen have been arrested.
The task force has also been busy for weeks posting similar claims attacking legislators, journalist groups, rights organizations, and an array of sectors as legal actors for the underground communist movement.
Duterte certified the proposed anti-terror law as urgent as Filipinos thumped a Cabinet full of former military generals for the chaotic start of the “a new normal” during the pandemic.
“It’s good as passed,” said Senate President Vicente Sotto III of the proposed law.
Allies of the administration in the House of Representatives ensured that their version would be almost the same as that passed earlier by the Senate to avoid bicameral debates.
Moves to fast-track the measure also came weeks before the U.N. Human Rights Council convenes a global conference that could lead to a vote on an independent probe into the “drug war” killings.
Police have reportedly killed almost 6,000 mostly poor suspects who tried to “fight back” during police operations. Authorities have ignored a law mandating automatic probes of operations ending in deaths.
More than 20,000 other suspected drug users and peddlers have been killed in what law enforces call “deaths under investigation.”
Former national police chief and now Senator Ronald de la Rosa once implied that he considered vigilantes allies of the state.
Police abuse is matched only by its penchant for flouting the law, as national capital region police chief Maj. Gen. Debold Sinas did last month by carousing with subordinates during his birthday.
Independent senators are pushing probes into corruption: Discovery of several unauthorized clinics and hospitals for Chinese workers of internet gambling firms; overpriced testing kits and services that added to the burdens of patients.
Duterte’s cabal of retired generals made a mess of civilian management and face probes for centralizing aid programs only to foist last-minute responsibility on local governments, with rushed proceedings dumping all quarantine safeguards.
But the biggest battles will be focused on the government’s recovery program. The government aims to increase local taxes to cover the huge budget deficit but will grant extraordinary incentives to foreign investors.
Billions of dollars are being eyed for massive infrastructure programs, especially in the countryside.
It is no coincidence that Duterte surrounds himself with generals. The Philippine military has a long history of providing muscle to “development” giants.
Grand theft could be the real goal of the government. Terrorism is just a convenient excuse.
Inday Espina-Varona is an award-winning journalist in the Philippines. She is a recipient of the “Prize for Independence” of the Reporters Without Borders in 2018. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.