POSTSCRIPT / November 1, 2018 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Troops sent to BoC to test law’s limits?

WE EXPECT the military takeover of the Bureau of Customs to be brief, it being just a part of President Duterte’s continued probing into the limits of the law and the people’s tolerance for martial rule.

The President knows the economic and political cost of having uninitiated soldiers run the arrastre service going into the busy Christmas season, but it helps condition the people to possibly living in a militarized regime.
It also helps dissipate stubborn suspicion that big-time smugglers, including drug lords, enjoy protection from the very top.

Duterte continues to explore the limits of Filipinos’ resistance to despotism. To what extent have the libertarian ideas brought by the American colonizers loosened the tribal chains that bind the natives to strong chieftains and warlords?

The dictator Marcos’ rule in the 1970-1980 period showed that while some Filipinos first resisted because of the disruption of their lives and careers in a democracy, many of them later conceded the benefits of the discipline and relative peace of martial law.

It was much like a horse initially chafing in its new harness but getting used to it in time. How soon or how easily can Filipinos get used to life in a new variation of a military-backed regime under Duterte?

A budding despot would want to know to what extent Filipinos would allow a tampering of their civil liberties — if he could demonstrate that their “sacrifice” would redound to the greater good of the bigger number.

Early on, Duterte offered to solve the EDSA traffic mess if he would be granted certain “emergency powers.” But he was addressing Metro Manila, the hallowed grounds of the 1986 Edsa Revolt, so he pulled back when his request for emergency powers was ignored.

The probing, his testing of the limits, continues. In Mindanao, Duterte imposed martial law for 60 days, and later extended it until the end of this year — by the tolerance of the citizens affected, on the recommendation of the military, and the approval of a complicit Congress.

Martial law was imposed on Mindanao, far from the critical eyes of “imperial Manila” (a term used to drive a psychological wedge between the probinsyanos and urban dwellers), despite the absence of an invasion or a rebellion — the only situations that could justify martial law.

Aside from discovering the weak sections of the libertarian perimeter fence, Duterte in his experiments is also able to condition the public mind to accept that there is nothing seriously bad with martial law, and that in fact it helps keep the peace.

Duterte is a lawyer surrounded by creative legal advisers, so he cannot be unaware that the Constitution says in Art. XVI, Sec. 5(4):

“xxx No member of the armed forces in the active service shall, at any time, be appointed or designated in any capacity to a civilian position in the Government, including government-owned or controlled corporations or any of their subsidiaries.”

This point alone was enough to raise a howl that military takeover of customs violates the Constitution – by no less than the President who is sworn to preserve and defend the charter.

 How will Duterte’s soldiers clean customs?

ONE wonders what the Commander-in-Chief meant when he said that “my” soldiers would clean up the customs bureau.

We remember the bad old days when then crusading Customs Commissioner Cesar Climaco, the first BoC chief of President Diosdado Macapagal, asked for the services of idealistic fresh graduate of PMA Class of 1962.

A few months after, a broken Climaco went to “Cong Dadong” begging for their pullout “because they (customs old dogs and syndicates) are corrupting them.” It seems the kids learned too quickly how to “clean up.” In fairness, Class ‘62 had plenty of upright members.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said the sending of the military to customs was an exercise by the President of his power as Commander-in-Chief under Art. VII, Sec. 18, to call out the armed forces to “prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.”

The smuggling of shabu, he said, was a violation of law and the rampant corruption at customs amounted to “lawless violence,” a term that he pointed out did not refer only to physical violence.

He added: “If you can bring in hundreds of kilos of drugs, there must be some grave wrong in that area (at customs). And there is state of lawlessness there, it violates the law, it violates the Constitution.”

Panelo clarified that the President was not appointing or designating any member of the armed forces to customs, that the soldiers would just “make their presence felt, to create the military presence and hopefully will intimidate those corrupt people there.”

That, of course, is his opinion – in the same way that the President’s detractors and those in the middle may hold contrary views. The issue looks headed for the Supreme Court.

Lawyer Romulo Macalintal, meanwhile, recalled that when P6.8 billion worth of illegal drugs slipped through the Manila port in August, the President asked: “How can I control it in three to five months – the generals and policemen are involved; the bureau of customs is into drugs.?”

Macalintal asked: “If generals and policemen are involved, why would the President designate military officials to take over customs? Besides, such act is of doubtful constitutionality in view of the very clear provision of Art. XVI, Sec. 5(4).”

He said: “The only time the President could call on the armed forces is to ‘prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.’ Smuggling and irregularities at customs cannot be considered as violence, invasion or rebellion to justify calling our armed forces to action.

“The ultimate test in solving corruption or irregularities there is for President Duterte to take over as head of the bureau even for four months to fully understand and solve this never-ending problem. He can do this under Art. VII, Sec. 17, which provides that ‘the President shall have control of all the executive departments, bureaus and offices.’”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 1, 2018)

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