Duterte’s Worrisome Anti-Terrorism Act

Yet another blow to an already weakened democracy

By: Criselda Yabes

It was a foregone conclusion that President Rodrigo Duterte would sign into law the Anti-Terrorism Act he had demanded despite strong resistance from across Philippine society, and having done so on July 3 will underscore his remaining two years in power.

Critics say the law eliminates critical legal protections and permits government overreach against groups and individuals labeled through an overbroad definition of terrorism, allows warrantless arrest and suspends habeas corpus for up to 24 days. 

Rather than reaching out to human rights groups, academics, lawyers, political leaders and even celebrities who have denounced the act as unconstitutional, the president’s immediate move following the announcement was to fly directly to the southern Philippines for an appeal to the military on another issue altogether but one that could touch on the measure’s future consequences.

The issue that preceded the signing of Republic Act 11479, passed by a majority in Congress in early June on the president’s call for urgency, was a shocking shooting incident that took place on the island of Sulu – symbolic for its reputation in terrorism, the birthplace of radical Muslim fighters in the many decades of insurgency.

Police fatally shot four soldiers on June 29, two of whom were intelligence officers belonging to elite units of the military’s Special Operations Command, in broad daylight in front of the city’s police station. It had reported it as a “mis-encounter” but the Army was having none of that, a ripple of indignation spreading among the officer corps.

“I’m pleading for your understanding,” the president said repeatedly and stressing each syllable, in a voice cracked with emotion, speaking through a face mask against the coronavirus. The soldiers, he added, had to “calm the waters” of anger or thoughts of retaliation. This came in reaction to the chief of the Army himself calling the incident a “rubout,” setting off an outcry within the military.

The timing could not have been more ominous. Since coming to power in 2016, Duterte’s single obsession in his style of governance was embracing men in uniform, raising their salaries and giving them a free hand to carry out his orders. Most especially his war on drugs at the start of his term saw the Philippine National Police at the forefront of extrajudicial killings and impunity.

The Covid-19 pandemic has worked in his favor, giving him the opportunity to claim emergency powers in March, and using the police and military to enforce the region’s most stringent lockdown. He has shut down the country’s most popular radio-television news network ABS-CBN and gone after the popular news site Rappler and its editor Maria Ressa. He has threatened numerous critics with sedition and other charges.

And now, in a time of lockdown, cases of alleged police brutality have been on the upswing – which partly triggered the wave of protesters against the Anti-Terrorism Act. They say it was the last thing needed during strict quarantine when people are losing their jobs, families are starving and health authorities are unable to deal with flattening the curve.

What happened on Sulu is an ominous demonstration of what the police have become, metastasizing into Duterte’s Frankenstein’s monster, with the military, no less, as their latest victim. This may be why he had to move swiftly to placate an institution that forms the backbone of his powers as commander-in-chief.

No other president, he said, had looked out for the military as much as he did, doubling their pay, giving them better weapons, augmenting a hefty budget for their hospitals.

On that score, he may be right. He has succeeded in making the military almost as pliable as the yes-men in his cabinet. His speech struck either way, one of a father’s love note to quarreling siblings (the soldiers and the police), or emotional blackmail to his favored men to whom he had given so much and may want something in return. He said they could wait for the outcome of an investigation and punishment will be done.

When Congress was deliberating the military budget, he recounted that he “threatened to resign if they don’t increase their salary.” And if the military were to plan a coup against him, in the event that they would be dissatisfied, he would step down.

On this point, he’s missed true exercise of power by the military. Mutinies of the past are no longer on the current agenda of armed forces that are more in need of professional leadership serving the constitution and following meritocracy. It came as a surprise that the chief of the Army, Lt. Gen. Gilberto Gapay, categorically defied the police report in public, effectively bringing out into the open the decaying culture of the national police force.  

Duterte’s partiality to the men in uniform goes to a personal level from the kind of history he had in Davao City, where he was mayor for many years dealing with strife, crime and violence. His national policies bore that trademark, wherein the word “kill” easily comes out of his mouth and the penchant for weapons he shares with them is akin to a blood compact.

The Anti-Terrorism Act had been a long time coming for the military. It is an upgrade from the Human Security Act of 2007, which officers say was toothless compared to the internal security of their Southeast Asian neighbors, Malaysia and Indonesia. The warrantless detention of up to 24 days was increased from an original three days. It would also give power to an anti-terror council to authorize the arrest and permit wiretapping and surveillance for as long as 90 days. Only the Supreme Court can nullify the bill.  

Sulu, the site of the shooting, limns the complexities of terrorism, particularly in the south. The officers who were shot were on the trail of suicide bombers threatening on social media to take action again in the shape of the January 2019 bombing of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo, killing 20 and injuring 111. It hadn’t happened before and Sulu has so far been the target, in a small capital town where people are familiar with armed groups, including the police, which many say have become thugs who increasingly have come close to confrontations with the military.

Without any institutional reforms, the bill could be dangerous in the hands of untrained and trigger-happy enforcers. It could wipe away efforts to track down real terrorists, as it did in Sulu. It could likely, if unchecked, amplify a vision of martial rule. The president disturbingly seems increasingly capable of it.