The honest truth about our government and leaders is that they have never been truly honest at all.
Since the First Republic, the Philippine government has been rocked by corruption, a dysfunctional political behaviour inherited from American tutelage during the colonial days and the Commonwealth era. Yet, no one has ever been prosecuted and sent to prison for government malfeasance, except for former President Joseph Estrada. Estrada eventually was pardoned and allowed to run again for the presidency in the last election.
Our own experience with Truth Commissions or similar initiatives in the past is a good indicator of their futility. When opposition leader Senator Ninoy Aquino, the father of the new president, was assassinated upon his return from exile in 1983, Ferdinand Marcos set up the Agrava Commission to investigate the cold-blooded murder of the former senator. Everyone had an inkling at that time who ordered to kill Ninoy Aquino but the Agrava Commission kept probing as if they didn’t know. In the end, the commission linked the military to the Aquino assassination, its mastermind remains unknown (or so they say) up to this day.
Then, we had the Davide Commission (named after its chair, the former Supreme Court Chief Justice Hilario Davide, Jr., who has been personally selected by President Noynoy Aquino to head the present Truth Commission) and the Feliciano Commission (Oakwood mutiny, 2003), which were both formed to look into the failed putsches against the government.
The Davide Commission treated the coup instigators with kid’s gloves and nothing vital was achieved by its investigation. Leaders of the Oakwood mutiny were detained and tried but the issues they raised about corruption in the armed forces had fallen on deaf ears.
In 2006, the Melo Commission was established by the Arroyo government to investigate political and extra-judicial killings. The Commission was used as a political ploy by the Arroyo administration to whitewash its complicity with the abuses of the military and neutralize the growing international outrage over extra-judicial killings and systematic human rights violations in the Philippines.
When confronted in the early months of his presidency with demands to set up a commission to investigate excesses of the Bush Administration’s war on terror, U.S. President Barack Obama told Congressional leaders that it would be a big mistake. With his hands full with the pressing issues facing the country, Obama said that a backward-looking investigation would not be productive. He also added that it was important that there be no witch-hunt.
So, what can this current Truth Commission really accomplish?
President Noynoy Aquino’s Truth Commission was formed to investigate Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo’s alleged wrongdoing during the nine years of her presidency. Most notable among these allegations are the bribery scandals, the Chinese company ZTE-NBN (National Broadband Network) deal and the fertilizer fund scam. It could also look into the huge political cover-up, the “Hello Garci” election cheating scandal that caught President Arroyo on tape in a clear attempt to rig the May 2004 presidential election.
Nothing new in these scandals that the public doesn’t know already. There are courses of action open to independent groups in prosecuting former President Arroyo without waiting for the Truth Commission to complete its mandate, or for President Noynoy Aquino to fulfill his campaign promise to prosecute the previous administration for graft and corruption.
During her term as president, four successive impeachment complaints were brought against Arroyo for election fraud, major cases of corruption, plunder, and gross and systematic human rights violations. But with the complicity of her allies in Congress, members of her cabinet, business cronies, military generals and others, Arroyo marvellously survived all attempts to impeach her.
Justice has already been denied before. Now with this Truth Commission—how independent could this body be when it is headed by a former Chief Justice who has been tainted, whether true or not, with allegations of disregarding the rule of law and misuse of the Judiciary Development Fund that prompted attempts to impeach him? The former Chief Justice was involved in the impeachment trial of Joseph Estrada and he had sworn Arroyo to the presidency in what many had thought was a violation of the Constitution. He also assumed the position of Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations without first being confirmed by the Commission on Appointments.
President Noynoy Aquino should have chosen someone without the stigma of previous allegations of improprieties and ties with the previous administration. There are a few good men and women still out there, with clear hearts and ideals, who could have easily championed Noynoy Aquino’s campaign promise to truly discover and reveal the previous government’s wrongdoings with the hope of achieving justice and reconciliation over the past.
The new president appears prone to repeat the same mistakes made by his mother, former President Corazon Aquino. After Ferdinand Marcos was ousted by people power in 1986 following almost two decades of corruption, plunder, abuse of power, and human rights abuses, the first directive issued by Cory Aquino when she took over the presidency was to provide immunity from prosecution to all Marcos officials and generals involved in human rights violations.
Cory Aquino rationalized her decision under the mantra of “justice with reconciliation.” But it was reconciliation with the oppressors, at the expense of the victims who have long been forgotten until today. Thousands of torture victims would later file a class suit against the Marcoses in Honolulu in order to get a conviction after the Cory Aquino government betrayed their cry for justice.
Justice with reconciliation rings hollow if the truth is revealed without punishment, especially when those guilty of corruption would continue to enjoy the bounties of their plunder.
Should this Truth Commission expand its work to include human rights violations, the search for the truth could be a benefit in itself. For instance, for the grieving widows and mothers of those who have disappeared and become victims of extra-judicial killings, knowing where their loved ones are buried is in itself a form of justice.
It would serve us well to refresh our memories that human rights violations during the martial law years remain unresolved. Until today, we have neither punishment nor truth. The justice system in the Philippines or any truth commission formed by the government has evaded this issue for so long and failed to render a true account of the tortures and killings that happened.
History also tells us that the quest for justice cannot entirely rest upon the shoulders of the government. Those who could be involved in the investigations are still entrenched in powerful positions in government, and should they ever cross the divide and cooperate, this present Truth Commission may grant them immunity from prosecution. The process defeats itself and self-destructs.
A better alternative is for the victims of human rights violations and those directly or indirectly affected by corruption, plunder and electoral fraud to take the matter into their hands and let justice bear upon the perpetrators.
Legitimate cases can be filed against Gloria Arroyo and her ilk. Let the collective will of the people restore the hope that this could be done.
The Truth Commissions that emerged from civil strife in South America, Africa and Asia during the 1970s were part of the healing process that aimed to bring closure to a period of repression and provide restorative justice to its victims and their families. Naturally, expectations were high but they were not generally met because of the lack of impartiality or independence of these commissions. As had happened in the Philippines after martial law, amnesty was given right away to the perpetrators at the expense of the victims.
The philosopher George Santayana once wrote that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. President Noynoy Aquino’s present Truth Commission is likely to suffer a similar fate. This could be Noynoy Aquino’s personal struggle to come to terms and reconcile with the past, but at a heavy price of denying justice to the victims.