Martial law in the ‘land of the free’

It was ironic that on the very same day my column on martial appeared last week, I had first hand experience on the pernicious face of martial law, albeit in Thailand.

The occasion was an international conference on “Southeast Asian Views on the Convention Against Torture (CAT) and its Optional Protocol”. Apparently, the forum was organized long before the declaration of martial law. Originally, the focus was only on Thailand’s compliance with the said Convention. Fortunately, the Hanss Seidel Foundation provided funding that enabled participants from the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia to attend the forum.

My talk itself should have been uncontroversial in Thailand. While the Philippines has ratified the (CAT) way back in 1986, it took us almost 30 years to comply with our treaty commitment to pass domestic law punishing torture as a distinct crime. Moreover, I presented the results of a multi-stakeholder meeting on the challenges to the Philippines compliance with the convention. These include the fact that pretrial detentions, which breed torture continue, failure to investigate torture cases adequately, and failure to readily provide free medical assistance to torture victims. Moreover, there is the persistent problem in our rules on criminal procedure, which makes it the burden of the victims to establish prima facie evidence for the crime of torture for the purpose of filing Information in court. Under the Convention, it is the State, and not the victims, that have the obligation to investigate, prosecute and punish torture even in the absence of a formal complaint.

The otherwise innocuous presentation proved controversial because the ruling Thai military junta sent censors with a clear warning that none of the speakers should talk about Thai domestic matters, including the prevailing martial law in that country. The warning was given to me thrice: by the academic from Thammasat University that sponsored the event; the German expat from Seidel foundation, that paid for the event, and the event organizer. I sensed that they specifically had to remind me about the presence of censors from the country’s “ National Council for Law and Order” because my last engagement in Thailand a couple of months back, also in Thamassat, dealt with the very sensitive topic of Lese Majeste, or the Thai law that prescribes up to 20 years of imprisonment for anyone criticizing their King. The organizers knew too that I am the counsel for Thai nationals behind bars for Lese Majeste, which includes Thailand’s counterpart of our own Ninoy Aquino, Somyot Prueksakasemsuk. Centerlaw, an advocacy group that files public interest cases of which I am the Chair, appears as counsel of record for Thai activists before international bodies in actions that seek to declare Lese Majeste, and incarcerations because of the law, as contrary to freedom of expression and hence, a form of arbitrary detention.

So I found myself in a bind. Neither Marcos, Arroyo nor PNoy have been successful in shutting my otherwise big mouth particularly in my advocacy to promote freedom of expression. Even my most outspoken critic in Facebook, an ex-envelopmental journalist who is suspected of having killed his common law wife and his two children in an act of arson, and his pagan cabals, has not succeeded in shutting me up. Should I allow the Thai junta to shut me up for once?

Certainly not. But to placate my hosts, I did not speak specifically about Thailand’s martial law. Instead I spoke about the Philippines experience with Martial Law and why despots like Marcos, resort to them.

I explained to my audience that despots declare martial law because of their unmoderated greed for power and money. Marcos, like other despots, resort to military rule because they have lost democratic legitimacy. Marcos then was already disqualified from seeking a new term. And so, the solution was to do away with the 1935 Constitution prescribing for term limits and declaring himself as leader of a martial law regime. This enabled him to rule as an absolute dictator for in excess of 20 years without a popular mandate. And why do despots seek to be in power? Simple. It’s because of their unmoderated greed for wealth. Marcos of course today has had at least 150 billion pesos of his ill-gotten wealth already sequestered by government. My guess is that this is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Certainly, unless the rest of his assets are found, none of his descendants would have to ever worry about financial survival.

The Thai audience was very much amused by my discussion. Although an open forum was not encouraged, I am sure that the audience saw the parallels between Marcos martial law and the current situation in Thailand. There is of course a subtle difference. In Thailand, the struggle is between a revered King bereft of a popular mandate and a popular Thaksin. Whenever the sovereign people install the popular Thaksin in power, the Thai military, ever loyal to the King, will depose the Thaksin administration. This latest coup is already the second against Thaksin.

Make no mistake, though. Thaksin is no Ninoy Aquino. He’s probably akin to the Marcos cronies who relied on a system that breeds crony capitalism to enable them to amass their tremendous fortunes. The Problem started when Thaksin thought that his wealth was sufficient to challenge the supremacy of the King in Thai society. Recent Thai history has proven him false.

For the record hence, the Thai martial law regime attempted to censor me but did not succeed. They of course resort to censorship to hide the truth from the public. Guess what, try as they do, the truth always has a way of getting out.

Meanwhile, all freedom-loving Filipinos should condemn the lack of legitimacy of the Thai junta and express our solidarity with genuine peoples’ organizations seeking to restore democracy ironically, in the so-called “land of the free”.


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