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Replay of a revolt

Manila will be in the hands of demonstrators on 21 September 2017

In three days time, Manila will be in the hands of demonstrators. They’ll be able to march, chant, bellow through their loud hailers, even burn effigies of the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte – as many as they like. They won’t be stopped or harassed by the police; in fact the only police on the streets will be a few here and there directing traffic. Not only that, they won’t need to take time off work or miss school to take part. That day, Thursday 21 September, declared by Duterte as a “Day of Protest,” is effectively a national holiday.

Everything’s been laid on for them; no effort spared to accommodate the protestors and make their day of revolt hassle-free. And yet, for them, all that won’t be enough. They want more; much more. They want Duterte to go – in effect that’s really what this planned mass demonstration is about.

21 September marks the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos. That’s not a coincidence; to the protestors, Marcos is Duterte’s alter ego and the most odious creature that was ever given breath. The protest’s purpose is crystal clear – it’s to draw a parallel between the Philippines under Marcos and the Philippines under Duterte.

By establishing that parallel, the organisers believe they’ll strike a chord with the public. To help that, the whole thing is being choreographed like a remake of the People Power protests of 22-25 February 1986 when Filipinos took to the streets of Manila and drove Marcos from power and 17-20 January 2001 when they gathered again to remove Joseph Estrada from the presidency.

The plan, then, is to re-create the People Power spirit. The theme for the day is “Stop the killings! Never again to tyranny and dictatorship”. The name of the organiser, is the ‘Movement Against Tyranny’. The message is unambiguous – Duterte is Marcos incarnate; he’s a tyrant and a dictator and like Marcos he must be stopped. The unwritten subtitle is this – ‘We did it then; we can do it now’.

To that end, Thursday will be a re-enactment of the glorious people’s victories of the past – the script and the scenery is the same: to bring down a president by rallying the people to the cause on the streets of Manila.

They’ll have all the usual props. Placards written in God’s name; clerical garb and religious paraphernalia – nuns in their habits, robed priests; crosses, rosaries – will be on display; hymns of struggle and victory will be sung; solemn prayers for that victory will be said. Leftist groups will have their shingles out; they’ll wear headbands in their colours and carry flags. The day will project itself as a carnival of unity and grace confronting an administration of disgrace; a classic quest of good against evil.

There are some very serious groups involved here. The Movement Against Tyranny is packed with anti-Duterte people. It’s a Yellow Pages of Hard Left and Liberal groups – student bodies, party-list organisations, communists, civil-rights lawyers, human-rights advocates, indigenous groups, martial-law veterans, activists and progressives of every strain and, not least, nuns and priests of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Church has a large stake in this event. It wants to show that episcopal power is back at the centre of Philippine politics. For some members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) – the episcopal hierarchy of the Church – they’ve spent too long in the political wilderness since their glory days as queen-makers when they presided over the presidential coronations of Corazon Aquino and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the respective replacements for Marcos and Estrada.

The bishops gave their blessings to the new monarchs of state, remained the power behind their thrones – at least initially in the case of Arroyo – and their taste for that power has never dissipated.

They believe the Church is a rightful branch of government. They’ve never subscribed to the notion of complete separation of church and state; indeed for them the Philippine Roman Church is the true representative of the state. It speaks for the people – as it believes it will be doing on Thursday.

It was no surprise then to see two very familiar names among the “Convenors” of the Movement Against Tyranny – shepherds of the Left, bishops Broderick Pabillo and Doegracias Iñiguez (photo: left and right respectively); two of the most political priests the Philippines has ever produced. Their mentor was the late Archbishop of Manila, Jaime Lachica Cardinal Sin who took centre stage during the overthrow of Marcos and later oversaw the removal from power of Estrada. For these two clerics, those were the good old days – and they’d like them to return.

Sin played a major role in the enthronement of both Aquino and Arroyo. He gave them both his personal blessing. Pabillo and Iñiguez, were part of all that and we’re fairly sure they’d like to set the crown of state on the head of another princess of their choosing, the current vice president, Leni Robredo. If they can ever pull that off, they know that they’ll have brought the Church back to the heart of Philippine politics where, in their minds, it rightfully belongs.

So who are these two priests. First Bishop Broderick Pabillo. As the Auxiliary Bishop of Manila, he’s next in line to become Archbishop of Manila and the de facto Primate of the Philippines – though seeing as the present archbishop, Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle, is 60 and Pabillo is 62, his chances of ruling the Philippine Church are slim under ordinary circumstances. It would need Tagle out of the picture for that to happen – either elevated to some higher position in the universal church, or through either illness of death.

But, like Sin, he’s ambitious and particularly politically. As an understudy for the late cardinal, he’s adopted much of his mentor’s confrontational style. Like Sin he believes Congress should be led by the Church on a number of issues and be involved, in some form, in the policymaking process.

Far to the Left he believes in mob power and has used it on the streets on a number of occasions – such as in Tondo to protest the deployment of Philippine Army personnel in parts of Metro Manila, and as the self-appointed people’s land-reform spokesman to stage anti-government protests in support of land claims by Bukidnon farmers.

An elder statesman of the CBCP, Pabillo is a former executive secretary of the potent and politically progressive National Action for Social Justice and Peace (NASSA) whose network reaches down to every parish in the archipelago.

As NASSA head and also head of the CBCP’s Episcopal Commission on Social Action and Peace, Pabillo worked at the forefront of the Church’s political campaigning for years. And he still does. As one CBCP admirer of Pabillo’s firebrand style of confrontation politics remarked shortly after Sin’s death: “He will energise the social action of the Church.” If Duterte is Marcos incarnate, Pabillo is the reincarnation of Sin.

Bishop Iñiguez, the former bishop of Caloocan and now retired – we’ll come back to that in a moment – was chairman of the CBCP’s Public Affairs Committee and its self-appointed spokesman on gay issues. Under his forceful leadership, the bishops banned homosexuals from taking part in a two traditional public festivals – Flores de Mayo and Santa Cruzan – stating that their participation would be “abnormal”.

In 2009, he called for radio stations to ban the song, Nagmamahal Ako ng Bakla (I Love Gay Men) by Dagtang Lason. Earlier he’d successfully pressured Alpha Music Inc. to withdraw all copies of Banana by Blank Tape from distribution. The following year he attacked a Supreme Court decision that allowed a gay-rights party-list group – Ang Ladlad (with 22,000 registered members) – to participate in the May elections. “Allowing them to have a chance to take a seat in Congress is approving and encouraging an abnormality,” he told reporters at the time.

So Iñiguez is a champion of the people – hence his participation on Thursday – just not the gay ones.

Interestingly, Iñiguez ‘retired’ in 2013 – two years before his 75th birthday; the official retirement age for bishops – without any proper explanation. His resignation was accepted by Pope Benedict XVI under Canon Law 401 [paragraph 2] which states this: “A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office”.

There’s no record of Iñiguez being ill that we can find. But what we do know is that the former bishop of Caloocan had filed an impeachment complaint against Arroyo in 2006 – a complaint that was not supported by the body of the CBCP following a sizzling admonition from the Vatican that the bishops should refrain from getting involved in politics. Pope Benedict had dealt with this issue specifically in his 2006 encyclical, Deus Caritas Est, which stated that social justice “must be the achievement of politics, not of the Church”.

As then, Iñiguez seems prepared to flaunt the Pope’s directive. The Vatican, as far as he’s concerned, should not be the overriding authority where social issues in the Philippines are concerned. He’s reported as saying this: “the bishops are always called to guide the people. It is our obligation to give proper moral guidance to the people … [political activism by the church] may be called for”.

There is, however, one very large difference between today and 1986 and 2001. And that is that on those occasions they were dealing with unpopular leaders who were virtually down and out anyway. Duterte is not. He remains hugely popular across the country while the groups that oppose him – particularly the Liberal Party and its affiliates – are held in derision.

The Church too, is regarded with suspicion; it no longer has the hold over the people that it had back then. Philippine society has changed; it’s become more questioning – and particularly of its church leaders. There are scandals in the Church which the bishops are not addressing – paedophile priests, the Church’s opposition to providing the poor with free birth control, and – not least – the bishops’ interference in affairs of state.

One of the things which the Movement Against Tyranny is highlighting is the threat of a declaration of martial law by Duterte. There will be some among their number, however – certain elements of the communist bloc; the New People’s Army (NPA) for example – who hope he does. That’s exactly what they want to fulfill their dream of a Proletarian Revolution; an uprising a la Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution. And they may just have been given the opportunity.

In announcing that policing would be minimal on Thursday Duterte said this to the demonstrators: “These are the things I’m asking from you: Don’t destroy, don’t vandalise. Do not take the law into your own hands. Don’t ever make the mistake of destroying this and that. If you do that, the military and the police will be in front of you. Don’t allow armed communist[s] in your ranks”.

NPA militants may take that as an invitation. And if they do there will be a response in kind and no doubt after that – an armed insurrection on the streets of the Philippine capital – the president will impose martial law. Then, of course, the Liberals predictably will claim that was Duterte’s plan from the start – to use their peaceful protest to goad the communist militants to provide an excuse for him to suspend civil law, civil rights, the writ of habeas corpus; instigate curfews and put soldiers on the streets.

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