Column: Becoming blind

Published today, April 4, 2017 — but in a different time zone, and in a different frame of mind.

I find the phenomenon of willful blindness in the Duterte era vexing, and would like to take a closer look. To begin: There are degrees of not seeing.

Some are born truly sightless, or qualify as legally blind. Different institutions would have different definitions for legal blindness, but I think the nontechnical phrasing used in Merriam-Webster comes close to a common basis: “having less than 1/10 of normal vision in the more efficient eye when refractive defects are fully corrected by lenses.” (That means that seriously visually impaired people who can see well enough to drive with the help of corrective lenses are not, in fact, legally blind—a common misconception.)

Some are blind because they are unable, or unwilling, to question what they see. Continue reading

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Column: Should Leni dine with the President?

Published on March 28, 2017.

Here’s a sign of our parlous times: An invitation to dine with the President of the Philippines has become politically fraught. Instead of the privileged act of mutual courtesy it has traditionally been (the President honors the citizen with the invitation, the citizen pays his or her respects to the President by accepting the invitation), it is now a simplistic political test. If you show up (say at a private dinner with senators), you will be seen as an ally of the President’s. If you are seen laughing at some of the President’s risqué or offensive jokes, you will be criticized by his critics. And if you are the duly elected vice president, you will be warned about the risks of falling into a trap.

In keeping with the schizophrenic quality of some of President Duterte’s rhetoric, the invitation to Vice President Leni Robredo and her three daughters came after he both ruled out the possibility that she was involved in any destabilization campaign against him and also suggested that she was eager to replace him. It also comes in the wake of the controversial dinner between the President and the members of the newly reconstituted majority in the Senate.

Should Robredo accept the President’s invitation? Continue reading

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INQxIJF17

En route (literally) to the 11th International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy. According to the Etihad flight path map, we are currently flying over Turkey — an appropriate place to begin any discussion about journalism as it is practiced today (or not allowed to).

 

The programme features some 600 speakers, panelists, authors, performers. (It is the biggest journalism conference in Europe.) Here’s the link to the PDF version of the programme.

The panel discussion I will moderate is scheduled for April 6: Reporting Emerging Authoritarianism.

A sign of the times: The panel includes journalists from Hungary, the Philippines, and yes Turkey, and a human rights expert from the US.

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Column: The Duterte camp’s internal contradictions

Prompted by the last line of the previous column. Published on March 21, 2017.

I use the word “camp” advisedly, because the fundamental inconsistencies exist not only inside the administration but also among its political allies in and with the administration’s support apparatus. Here are 10 internal contradictions that may pose a threat to the harmony, unity, or even viability of the Duterte camp.

Dominguez vs. Lopez. I cannot recall an instance where a sitting member of the Cabinet testified against another member before the Commission on Appointments. But that’s exactly what Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez did a week ago, expressing his opposition to Gina Lopez’s appointment as environment secretary. It was an extraordinary scene, one of the President’s alter egos coming out publicly, methodically, against the confirmation of another of the President’s alter egos. The President has renewed his public declaration of support for Lopez. But people close to the President say that in fact he wants Lopez to read the handwriting on the wall and gracefully resign her appointment. Whatever the true situation, it is unusual for a policy difference like the administration stance on mining to be fought, in the CA, by dueling secretaries. Continue reading

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Column: Destabilization? Opposition can’t even unite

“Criticism of the President is not destabilization.” Published on March 14, 2017.

A concerted campaign to destabilize the Duterte presidency exists—but only in the opportunistic minds of political entrepreneurs like Sandra Cam or the anxious imaginations of political virgins like the President’s diehard devotees. I can also include the likes of the smart, articulate political veteran Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, whose fortunes now depend completely on his erstwhile running mate.

They have one thing in common: no real power in the Duterte administration, only access or the promise of access to the inner circle. Continue reading

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Column: Pacquiao misunderstands ‘spiritual renewal’

Pastor Manny Pacquiao takes center stage, again. Published on March 7, 2017.

Yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, the following trended on Twitter: #DDSBigReveal, Lascañas, Senate, Manny Pacquiao, Davao Death Squad, and Spiritual Renewal. The six trends were all related to the Senate hearing conducted by the committee on public order to assess retired policeman Arturo Lascañas’ dramatic accusations against President Duterte.

The last, in particular, referred to the witness’ explanation for changing his testimony. Last October, before the Senate committee on justice, he denied the existence of the Davao Death Squad. It was just “media hype,” he said. On Feb. 20, at a news conference in the Senate, and then yesterday, under oath a second time, he said he had been forced to lie the first time because his family’s safety had not yet been secured, but that he really wanted to tell the nation what he knows about Mr. Duterte’s alleged personal liquidation squad because of a “spiritual renewal.”

I can understand why several senators questioned Lascañas’ conversion story. (I use “conversion” here to mean, not a moving from one religion or denomination to another, but rather a turning—that’s the root of the word—from one path to another.) It goes to the issue of motivation. Why change one’s mind, and perjure one’s self? The senators are right in assuming that neither should be taken lightly. Lascañas does have some serious explaining to do.

But I think one reason “spiritual renewal” trended on Twitter yesterday is people reacted to the narrow view some of the senators held about that religious experience. Continue reading

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Column: Duterte’s math: the ‘tokhang’ surrender fallacy

The politics of the so-called war on drugs is addition. Column No. 431, published on February 28, 2017.

Before the Duterte administration resumes its so-called war on drugs in earnest, we should ask ourselves: Is the “surrender” of a “drug personality” addition or subtraction? Let’s say there are 1,000 residents in a barangay. The local police and barangay officials agree that an estimated 100 residents are into drugs, whether as user or as pusher. If 50 residents surrender to the police when the authorities conduct what is now known as a “tokhang” drive, how many drug personalities will the barangay now have? Is it now 50, because the number of 50 surrenderers has been subtracted from the estimate? Is it still 100? Or is it 150, because the number 50 has been added to the base?

Allies and supporters of the President have called on those who criticize the war on drugs for its high death toll to consider the bigger picture—starting with the number of surrenderers. On Jan. 18, the Philippine National Police spokesperson gave an update: Since the national “tokhang” plan went into effect (it is officially known as Oplan Double Barrel), the police have visited some 6 million houses, and processed over 1 million surrenderers.

What does it mean to surrender? Continue reading

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One difference between Congress and the Senate, Philippine edition

A memorable phrase from prominent political analyst Mon Casiple, our guest in tonight’s INQ&A radio/Facebook program: “In the House [of Representatives], a congressman has one eye on the President. In the Senate, a senator has one eye on the presidency.”

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“Law in the land died …”

“Law in the land died. I grieve for it but I do not despair over it. I know, with a certainty no argument can turn, no wind can shake, that from its dust will rise a new and better law: more just, more human, and more humane. When that will happen, I know not. That it will happen, I know.” — The great Jose W. Diokno, who died 30 years ago today

From the Diokno.org memorial website.

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Column: The unfortunate Calida, ‘16th Justice’

Published on February 21, 2017.

I have not met Solicitor General Jose Calida, but his reputation precedes him. He likes, shall we say, to cut a figure. Arriving at a function in a convoy with flashing lights; deliberately ignoring his candidate’s vice presidential running mate at a campaign rally; going around town telling officers of the court he is replacing Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, and soon. So it wasn’t exactly a surprise when he justified his startling intervention in Janet Lim Napoles’ serious illegal detention case with yet another act of immodesty.

“It is up to the Justices of the Court of Appeals to assess the weight of our pleading. And, modesty aside, the Solicitor General is considered as the 16th Justice of the Supreme Court,” he told reporters on Thursday.

Of all the things he said in that disturbing news conference, this was in my view the most upsetting.

In the first place, no solicitor general publicly refers to himself as the unappointed member of the Supreme Court; it just isn’t done. The boundaries that divide the work of the executive’s chief lawyer from the work of the judiciary are not only constitutionally determined but also ethically set.

Continue reading

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Column: Jollibee, and the many kinds of love

Published on February 14, 2017.

Last week the largest fast-food chain in the country “broke the internet”—as people have learned to say these days, with enthusiastic and forgivable exaggeration. Jollibee released three television commercials with compelling storylines, all variations-with-a-twist on a theme of love, and Filipinos had a collective sob. I liked the ads; I think they have the potential to teach us something we often forget about love’s true and varied nature. They also make me, a political journalist, realize that Jollibee has the unusual opportunity to remind us about yet another kind of love—but I’m getting ahead of the story.

Make that “stories.”

The three commercials are part of a continuing series of narratives each “inspired by a true story.”

“Vow” is what is known as a meet-cute: Boy meets girl in unforgettable fashion. In this ad, the boy and the girl are side by side at the counter and order the exact same thing, even the exact same upgrade, at an auspiciously empty Jollibee store. The story ends with a wedding, but with a twist in the final frames.

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Column: ‘A bunch of shameless hypocrites’

Published on February 7, 2017.

After the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued its pastoral letter on extrajudicial killings, one of President Duterte’s closest allies took direct aim at the bishops. “Sinners [that] they are, the Catholic Church has no moral ascendancy to judge what is right and wrong,” Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said via SMS. “They are simply a bunch of shameless hypocrites.”

It is good that the Speaker, by all accounts a straight talker and a practical man, was clear about his antecedents, because anyone else paying attention to Philippine politics would have thought he was referring to his own chamber of Congress. Having engineered the most recent wave of political turncoatism in our history, he is no stranger to accusations of hypocrisy. What is a majority composed of newly elected or reelected politicians who changed political parties for power and convenience, after all, but a bunch of shameless hypocrites?

But Speaker Alvarez is a power center in the administration, not only because he is one of the handful of true believers who pushed a reluctant Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to run for president, but because he shares the President’s core beliefs. His broadside at the Catholic bishops, generalized to include the entire Church, springs from the same source as the President’s contempt for the religion of his strong-willed, sainted mother. That the Church has “no moral ascendancy”—this is the authentic Dutertismo note. Continue reading

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Column: Question: Will vigilante killers follow Bato?

Published on January 31, 2017.

The details are still scarce, but the big picture is clear: Upon instructions of President Duterte, the chief of the Philippine National Police has ordered a temporary stop to the administration’s so-called war on drugs. This is a good thing. Even if it is only temporary, it is welcome news, because it means—very simply—that fewer poor people will die in police shootings in the next several days.

I had joined my voice to the chorus of concern about the killings continuing even as the country hosted the Miss Universe beauty pageant, for only the third time in the competition’s history. We urged a temporary stop to the killings, to avoid the demoralizing, indeed immoral, spectacle of an entertainment extravaganza conducted against the backdrop of antipoor violence.

This much was clear to many of us from the start: Mr. Duterte’s war is being waged largely against people who are guilty of the crime of poverty. Take a look at the casualty lists; read the news stories; listen to the witnesses. Very many of the killed were poor. To have more of them die in the streets—without benefit of due process, under the murkiest of circumstances—while the world’s most beautiful women paraded in their swimsuits and evening wear made for an even greater scandal.

The order of Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, announced the same morning the nation was avidly following the finals of the Miss Universe pageant, is belated then, but bracing.

Continue reading

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Column: Why we MUST fight fakes

Published on January 24, 2017.

The inauguration of the Trump presidency is a true, deeply disorienting pivot in history; it may lead to the end of the post-World War II international order. The only certainty is uncertainty: As his dark inaugural address reminded us and his first acts in office confirmed, Donald Trump will upend many rules and traditions designed to limit the power of the American president, and as a consequence dramatically reshape US relations with the rest of the world.

But many Filipinos watching the Trump takeover over the weekend may have felt a shiver of déjà vu. We’ve seen this kind of brash talk, media hostility and enemy-oriented war footing before; when President Duterte speaks of the illegal drugs problem he is fixated on, it can assume the contours of the apocalypse. If Trump has his American Carnage, Mr. Duterte has his Philippine Collapse (or, maybe, Pambansang Bad Trip). If Trump has his “movement,” Mr. Duterte has his 16 million voters (a part of the body politic he sometimes mistakes for the entire country). And if Trump has his Twitter-enabled, cable-news-fueled campaign against media, Mr. Duterte has his social media army (and his sometimes uncontained contempt for inquisitive journalists).

But in at least one aspect, President Trump has trumped President Duterte. From Day One, the American president and his administration have declared war on reality; both Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer have for instance falsely claimed a much larger estimate for the inaugural crowd, despite overwhelming TV, photographic, and eyewitness evidence; and adviser and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway rationalized the false claims as “alternative facts.” The most that Mr. Duterte and his various spokespersons have done is either blame the media for reporting his statements, or ask journalists to exercise “creative imagination” in interpreting the remarks. Continue reading

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Column: No conspiracy, only resistance

Published on January 17, 2017.

From where I stand it is clear to me that there is no conspiracy to oust President Duterte; what there is is growing resistance to Dutertismo. Those are two entirely different things.

On previous occasions I have identified three troubling aspects of the Duterte presidency: the high number of killings in the war on drugs, the hasty pivot away from the United States and toward China, and the rehabilitation of the Marcoses. As best as I can tell, these are the sources of rising public discontent, and the proof is accumulating both in the surveys and in the streets. The same polls that show a general support for the war on drugs reveal an equally robust majority concerned about the killing of mere suspects; a majority also mistrusts both China and Russia, countries the President likes because they share his contempt for human rights. The corpses, mainly of poor Duterte voters, continue to pile up in the alleys, while anti-Marcos protesters have taken to the streets and will do so again.

But to appreciate that there is no conspiracy, all one needs to do is take a look at the disarray of Duterte critics, who cannot agree on messaging, plan a sustained program of political action, or even unite behind Vice President Leni Robredo. There ARE movements, or stirrings at least, but as far as I can tell they are issue-oriented: fighting the culture of death, including the proposed lowering of the age of criminal liability; determining the future of the Philippine-American military relationship, especially in discussions within the armed services; campaigning against the Marcoses’ return to power.

All these are legitimate political exercises; only those who equate criticism with ouster plans would see them as destabilizing. Continue reading

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Column: Obscene Miss Universe

Published on January 10, 2017.

I am one of many Filipinos who look up to Pia Alonzo Wurtzbach. She has done her beauty-contest-besotted country proud, not simply because she won the biggest prize of them all, but because of how she has conducted herself during her year-long term—her reign, in pageant-speak—as Miss Universe. Poised, smart, well-spoken and, to use her own meme-spawning phrase, confidently beautiful, she understood the most important albeit least known part of the beauty queen’s job description: diplomacy. She put that to good use when she championed the idea of the Philippines hosting the Miss Universe 2016 pageant.

The politician-businessman Chavit Singson is mainly responsible for pooling the resources that allowed the country to host this year’s competition, but Wurtzbach played a key role. Something she said at the pageant’s “kick-off” party last December is worth repeating: “It started with an idea and I asked Paula (Shugart, the president of the Miss Universe Organization) if it’s okay for me to, during my interviews, during my homecoming, if it’s okay that I mention that we would like to host the next Miss Universe competition here because, who knows, it might actually happen!”

I am sure there are others like me who supported the idea, not only as an initiative to shine the light on the Philippines, but as an opportunity to temporarily stop the killings in President Duterte’s war on drugs. Our reasoning was: Surely the administration would signal to the police, and to the vigilantes who read the same cues, to observe a ceasefire in the ongoing war while international attention is focused on the country. After all, when the competition is in full swing, women from around 90 countries will be competing for Wurtzbach’s crown in different locations in the Philippines. Who would want glamorous images of beautiful women in tourist spots in the news every day, side by side gritty pictures of dead suspects on the streets? Continue reading

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Column: The most-read opinion of 2016, and why

Published on January 3, 2017.

A look at the most-read opinion pieces published by the Inquirer last year shows that politics, especially political anxiety over the Duterte presidency, was the dominant concern of our readers. It also shows a healthy mix of the types of opinion that resonated with the audience: columns, of course, but also an editorial, a contributed commentary, a letter to the editor—and a vivid illustration of the digital “long tail.”

But let me begin with a word about the limits of this overview. I am using statistics from the online consumption of the opinion pieces (both web and mobile). I am limiting myself to only the Top 10 pieces read online, which together account for almost one-twentieth of all Opinion traffic. I am basing the ranking on page views, as tracked by Google Analytics (not on share numbers, which can help show consumption only on social media). And I can tell you that all these 10 opinion pieces enjoyed a minimum of six-digit traffic.

(I can also add that traffic increased substantially over 2015 levels, for both Opinion and the website as a whole.)

By far, the most-read opinion piece of 2016 was Solita Monsod’s Aug. 27 column, “De Lima’s record speaks for itself.” This essay on the politics of vindictiveness generated 2.5 times more page views than the last item in the Top 10 list. It begins forthrightly: “This persecution of Leila de Lima is getting out of hand. That it is led by President Duterte makes it even worse. The President, who, in his State of the Nation Address just last month, described himself as ‘not vindictive,’ has proved otherwise.” (It was also shared almost 50,000 times.)

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Column: Why we must criticize Duterte

Published on December 27, 2016.

Today marks President Duterte’s 180th day in office; by one measure, his famous campaign pledge to crack down hard on crime and illegal drugs in six months has reached its deadline. Of the 6,000-plus Filipinos who have been killed in the President’s war on drugs, however, many have been clearly innocent: children caught in the crossfire, victims mistaken for other people. Tomorrow, the Catholic Church remembers the Holy Innocents—the first-born children massacred on Herod’s orders in the jealous king’s attempt to kill Jesus. It should also be an occasion for Christians throughout the country to reflect on the true costs of Mr. Duterte’s war, and to harden our opposition to it.

I have argued before that because “Christianity believes in the possibility of redemption,” any initiative which does not respect this belief, such as the President’s all-out offensive, mocks the Christian faith. “I realize that …. it is certainly the duty of the policeman to protect the community from criminals, even to the point of shooting them. But the police killings in the war on drugs share a common characteristic: Except for the odd case, all of the suspects were shot in the head or in the back. There was no attempt to disarm or to maim, if the suspects were in fact fighting back.” (We should note that this is exactly how ex-president Fidel Ramos criticizes Mr. Duterte’s war, as an abandonment of long-standard rules of engagement.) The way the war on drugs is conducted, however, “does not only run counter to the best practices of effective antidrugs campaigns in the world, or to the constitutional guarantees of due process and the protection of human rights, but it is also, strictly speaking, unchristian.” Continue reading

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Column: This President needs help

Published on December 20, 2016.

If they haven’t yet, President Duterte’s friends and allies need to organize an intervention. He has been shooting himself in the foot even more than usual these last several days; his closest friends should recognize this self-destructive behavior for what it is: both compelling proof that the messenger is running away from the message, and a cry for help.

The President’s many variations on the theme of giving up are not the cause for concern. All presidents have spoken of the terminal loneliness of the job; every president since Marcos has said something about how forbidding or fundamentally unfriendly Malacañang is. Mr. Duterte’s repeated expressions of regret or wistfulness about running for office and winning the presidency—summed up in his ejaculation, “Susmaryosep! If you only knew, if I could just take it all back”—are perhaps more poignant than those of other presidents, but they follow a pattern. They are, in a word, familiar.

It is rather the President’s statements, where he speaks against his own interest, that should concern his friends and allies. This conduct is not normal. Continue reading

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Column: Seven ‘life hacks’ I learned at the Inquirer

Published on December 13, 2016.

I was one of two Inquirer employees who had the privilege of speaking on behalf of this year’s service awardees in simple rites last week. Please allow me to share excerpts from my response:

… The first of the [seven] “life hacks” I learned at the Inquirer is: Stay humble. I learned this lesson well working closely for over a dozen years with longtime Opinion Editor Jorge Aruta. His approach to editing is exactly the same as his approach to life: Know what’s important, and keep a light touch…. Very few people know that he was, as I wrote back in 2012, one of the most influential opinion journalists in Philippine history. His example of serene confidence and sincere humility continues to inspire me.

… the Inquirer has grown its various audiences and kept its agenda-setting leadership in part through doing new things. The second of the life hacks I learned then is: Stay hungry. I think of Tess Samaniego … who has created a new advertising lifeline for the Inquirer. How did she do it? She looked at the landscape with new eyes, and was able to imagine new possibilities. Continue reading

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By the Seine. December 22, 2015, 2:47 pm.

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February 25, 2017 · 3:01 pm

Column: Why Marcos IS the dividing line

Published on December 6, 2016.

In recent weeks, I had a chance to meet with student leaders involved in organizing the mass actions to protest the Marcos burial, and I came away deeply impressed. One group, in particular, stood out for how they embraced the complexity of the issue (it wasn’t simply the Marcoses trying to deceive the Filipino people again, although there was that); they understood that President Duterte was pivotal (none of the other post-Edsa presidents had green-lighted the burial), but intuited that Gloria Arroyo was also possibly another, crucial factor.

They were clear about the help they needed, especially in processing the terabytes of information they were receiving, both online and off. But one of the students shared an organizing principle that helped guide their decision-making process on Nov. 18, the day the Marcos family carried out the burial. “At what scale,” he said they had found themselves asking, “will we make an impact?”

We didn’t ask penetrating questions like these when it was our turn to take to the streets a generation ago; I believe this generation is in very good hands. Continue reading

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Column: Different from other presidents

Published on November 29, 2016.

At a forum hosted by the Asian Media Information and Communication Center last Friday, I had a chance to paint a picture of the conditions journalists labor under when covering President Duterte. With Marites Vitug’s own take, it was meant to prompt discussion:

President Duterte is an unusual subject, different from most other presidents, in many ways. A large part of the challenge of covering him can be explained by these differences. Let me cite four related pairs of unusual.

He was a truly reluctant candidate. This helps us understand why, six months after the election, he can still startle with unexpected talk about his readiness to give up his post. He is the only president who speaks of resigning if certain policies are already set in place, who talks of sitting down with alleged coup plotters, who pledges to leave the presidency if his critics can meet certain (admittedly impossible) requirements.

At the same time, he is the one president who is fully committed to use the full range of presidential powers, the one who casually mentions imposing martial law or suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, who threatens to marshall legislative consensus to abolish an office created by law, who readily takes to the bully pulpit to name suspect oligarchs or suspected criminals.

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Column: Why we MUST protest

Published on November 22, 2016.

We should join the mass actions to protest the Marcos burial—especially the ones called for Nov. 25 and Nov. 30—because the times call for it. Our dignity as free Filipinos has been challenged, our sense of heroism, of honor even, has been gravely insulted; the democratic project itself is under threat. Allowing the dictator’s remains to be buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, a national shrine, undermines the constitutional order.

We must show up in force in protest sites across the country.

We should protest the miscarriage of justice that is the Supreme Court decision in the Marcos burial cases. It is an abhorrent outcome not because it favors the Marcoses but because it is manifestly unjust; it disregards settled jurisprudence, minimizes the import of history, bends over backward to accommodate the incumbent President, and above all self-emasculates the judiciary, in order to favor the Marcoses. I have criticized the careless thinking and cowardly positions of Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s unfortunate majority opinion, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Associate Justice Benjamin Caguioa’s comprehensive rebuttal (every point of Peralta’s is dealt with, decisively) ends with the following deeply moving reflection. Continue reading

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Column: The unfortunate Justice Peralta

Published on November 15, 2016.

There is none so blind as he who refuses to see. Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s ponencia in the Marcos burial cases will go down in history as the cowardly rationalizations of a willfully blind man; he deserves the opprobrium coming his way. He still has six years to serve in the Supreme Court, but his legacy will be forever defined by this badly written, ill-thought-through, deliberately obtuse majority decision.

Peralta’s opinion begins: “In law, as much as in life, there is need to find closure. Issues that have lingered and festered for so long and which unnecessarily divide the people and slow the path to the future have to be interred. To move on is not to forget the past.” This New Age-speak is nonsense, misleadingly so, because closure does not come from any Court ruling but from a ruling that is truly just.

The opinion ends with a similar lame attempt at an overview: “There are certain things that are better left for history—not this Court—to adjudge. The Court could only do so much in accordance with the clearly established rules and principles. Beyond that, it is ultimately for the people themselves, as the sovereign, to decide, a task that may require the better perspective that the passage of time provides.”

That squeaking you hear? That’s the sound of Peralta and the eight justices who joined the majority trying to fit their bottoms on the fence they’re sitting on. The people had already decided: They ousted Marcos, supported the restoration of democratic institutions, overwhelmingly ratified the Constitution. It takes an extra amount of determination to ignore history.

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