A Bombing in Davao

It’s just one among many — there have been many bombings in the Philippines — but this one has been the root of more trouble than any one before. It could have been set off anywhere but it had to be Davao, the city that the current president of the Philippines used to be the mayor of. If the perpetrators wanted to send a message, then they can be pretty sure the president heard it but the message, whatever that may be, appears to have been lost in the chaos after the bomb went off.

The old joke goes that in every crime committed in the Philippines, there are only three possible motives: away sa pera (disagreement about money); agawan ng lupa (land disputes); or love triangle. In this case, the first suspects were the Abu Sayyaf Group because the government had recently launched an offensive to destroy the ASG in Sulu. The ASG has denied any involvement in the bombing and instead pointed to another group that is supposed to be sympathetic to them. Regardless, the police appears to have another suspect: disgruntled vendors. It appears that the local government had recently awarded stalls in the market and those who didn’t get one supposedly set off the bomb in the market in retaliation. (If you’re wondering where this would fall in the three motives above, then it would be a variation of number two.) All kidding aside, however, whether it is any one of these groups or not, this bomb set off something more in the Philippines.

It is no secret that the current president won the last elections by mere plurality and not a majority. The majority voted for someone else. Unfortunately, they voted for different candidates and, in the end, out of the five who ran for president, Rodrigo Duterte got the most votes. The former mayor of Davao prided himself with making the city, the nation’s largest, safe. How he did it is wrapped in controversy. As the story goes, death squads have allegedly been set loose killing drug pushers and other suspected criminals. He is a populist leader whose campaign promise to be tough on crime within the first six (6) months of his term he carried out with singleminded ruthlessness. In just two (2) months in office, there have been around 2,000 deaths reported. These deaths were attributed to police operations where the victim allegedly resisted arrest, hitmen allegedly paid by the police following a kill list, and vigilantes allegedly emboldened by the pronouncements of the president to go and shoot drug pushers and users. To be fair, the police have denied any involvement with hitmen and so-called extra-judicial killings. Still, his war on drugs and his declarations against the observance of human rights has caused many, both here and abroad, to criticize him and his war. He couldn’t care less. His critics despise him and his tactics, while his followers are quick to defend him and occasionally troll his critics. Then the bomb went off.

In an already divided land, this bombing has turned rifts into chasms with the anti-Duterte group gleefully pointing out the failure of the government to prevent the bombing and its terrible consequences. Some even said that the president or his government deserved it. That is just wrong. While this government may not be the ideal we want it to be, we also cannot indirectly support such criminal acts with unfair criticisms of the president and his government. Like I said, this bombing could have been done anywhere in the Philippines. Had it gone off in Cebu, Ilocos or “Imperial” Manila, what then? Would our attitudes change? The hardest critics perhaps wouldn’t because it would still be a picture of this government’s failure to protect its people. Still, the death of innocents, whether caused by terrorists, plain criminals or the government itself deserves but one reaction: condemnation and a resolve to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately, the government isn’t helping the situation and appears to have overreacted. The president decided to declare a state of lawlessness, which is less than a declaration of martial law. Still, the Constitution appears to require more than just one bombing to authorize the president as Commander-in-Chief to call out the armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion (Article VII, Section 18). By grouping lawless violence with invasion and rebellion, it appears that a major emergency should be on hand before the army can be called out. Think of riots where properties are burned and people injured that is quickly spreading or becomes prolonged. While the results of this single bombing was certainly terrible, it was no different from any other single bombing the Philippines have gone through before. Had it been a series of bombings over a wider area, then I could have understood the response better. What happened was a crime, and undoubtedly violent, but I don’t think it’s enough to call out the armed forces. Proclamation No. 55 of the president declaring a state of emergency in view of lawless violence appears to admit this point and instead views this incident as the latest in a long line of lawless acts committed by various groups or individuals over the years in Mindanao. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a stretch if I ever saw one.

It is that overreaction that has people criticizing the government all over again. With suspicions against it already high because of his war on drugs, the declaration is suspected of being used to condition Filipinos to the presence of the armed forces in the streets. It should be noted that the war on drugs has policemen knocking on doors and searching houses even without warrants. Such practices, while cloaked under a police operation, may be legal but it should not violate the rights of the homeowners. If they refuse entry to  the police, then that should not be taken against them. If the police has probable cause to believe the homeowner is involved in a crime, then it should get a warrant to search the house. Without it, they cannot force their way in or arrest the homeowner. The police is banking on the idea that people will accept the intrusion because, well, if they have nothing to hide, then all will be well but that is not how the law works. They should not even be there in the first place unless that have probable cause or a valid warrant to make a search or arrest. In a way, people are getting bullied into submission. Martial law by acquiescence. That’s something people should really seriously worry about.

I believe that the government can conduct police and military operations it deems necessary to keep the country safe. It should be noted that the army has been out there fighting the New People’s Army  as well as Muslim separatists who have been conducting rebellions for decades. During all that time, the Supreme Court has been able to guide the executive on the conduct of such operations in ways that would respect the rights of the citizens. If this government can restrain itself and operate within the parameters set by the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court, then everything should be fine.

But there lies the problem: can we actually trust the government to respect the law and the rights of individuals? I wonder. I really do. The collective pronouncements and actions of the president appears to show a propensity toward disregarding it. His chief of police is no better in his statements. In one speech, he actually told the audience to go out and kill the pushers and burn their houses. This is the chief of police calling on people to commit the crimes of murder, homicide and arson. One can presume that these people have the best intentions for the Philippines. However, their lack of filters when they speak publicly gives people cause to doubt their methods.

We Filipinos must criticize the president if and when necessary but we should do so in a manner that respects the office even if he himself cares little for such niceties. Critics must also reach out to his die-hard supporters and bridge the gap between them to let them see that we all mean the best for our country and the president. The critics must realize that for good or bad, he is the president and must act accordingly. The supporters must themselves correct the government when proper. The government listens to them. They should use that power to good use. We really cannot afford to continue to divide ourselves into factions; otherwise, we will cause more harm than what a single bomb can sending shockwaves through the generations. We have to learn to live us one, and with one voice proudly cry “Mabuhay ang Pilipinas” (Long live the Philippines)! When we are able to do that, we will be invincible.