National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. has a peculiar way of offering reassurance and trying to soothe public fears about the newly-approved Anti-Terrorism Act. A day after President Duterte signed the law, he said those who are protesting against it have nothing to worry about—as long as they do their protest “peacefully” or “quietly”: “Kung tahimik naman sila, huwag silang mababahala. Kung ang pakay mo bilang aktibista ay magsaad ng iyong mga hinaing, social injustices, or request for better treatment or ideas, papayagan natin ’yan.”
“Kung tahimik naman sila…”? He may have meant differently, but what Esperon’s words conjure instead is the specter of a cowed, silent citizenry—exactly what many citizens and various quarters have warned that the anti-terrorism law, with its sweeping provisions prone to abuse and violative of constitutional rights, would be employed to achieve, especially among dissenters and critics of the administration.
The charged, oblivious tenor of Esperon’s language was even more pronounced the next day, when, apparently piqued that criticisms against the law had not abated, he declared that those who were protesting the law’s infringements on civil rights—despite Section 4, he pointed out, where “sinasabi doon na hindi kasali ang mga dissent, advocacy, mass actions, and other similar exercise of civil and political rights”—were perhaps coming from a compromised position: They could be “supporters” of terrorists. “Anong sinasabi nila na mawawalan ng human rights? Palagay ko ’yung mga nagsasabi niyan, ’yung mga supporter ng mga terorista.”
Even in ordinary times, that is an outrageous, reckless accusation to fling at anyone. But in the context of the anti-terrorism law in which, not the courts, but a newfangled Anti-Terrorism Council made up of Cabinet officials—including Esperon—can now order the warrantless arrest and detention of individuals up to 24 days on its mere determination of “incitement to terrorism,” the National Security Adviser’s quick equation of civic pushback against the law with support for terrorism is precisely the kind of dangerous, arbitrary thinking this law enables and institutionalizes.
And who might he have in mind with his conspiracy theory? Among the last groups to express their opposition before the bill became law was the entire Bangsamoro parliament, which appealed to President Duterte to veto the bill on grounds that “incidents of violations of human rights will be on the rise and the Bangsamoro people, easily labeled as terrorists, would again be subject to discrimination and abuse.” A number of Mindanao lawmakers, whose constituencies have suffered directly from extremism and terrorist activity, also rejected the measure (Basilan Rep. Mujiv Hataman: “This law is not meant to combat terrorism. It is meant to give the state the power to tag whomever they please as a terrorist.”).
On July 4, a day after President Duterte approved the law, more than 100 of the country’s most prominent artists, all awardees of the Cultural Center of the Philippines’ 13 Artists Awards from 1970 to 2018, released a statement expressing their “collective disagreement and outrage” at the signing of the bill. “As concerned artists and citizens, it is our role to safeguard cultural values which embody our Constitutional rights to liberty, democracy, and freedom of expression. The Anti-Terror Law is an attack against these rights and values,” said the statement, whose signatories included National Artist Ben Cabrera, Jose Tence Ruiz, Soler Santos, Agnes Arellano, Nona Garcia, Bernardo Pacquing, and other leading names in Philippine art.
Two days after, it was the turn of the framers of the 1987 Constitution. In a statement, Felicitas Arroyo, Teodoro Bacani, Florangel Rosario Braid, Edmundo Garcia, Christian Monsod, Chito Gascon, and Bernardo Villegas warned that “through the Anti-Terrorism Council in RA 11479, we many be unwitting witnesses to a return to a past of unwelcome experiences.”
Before them, the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, the mandatory organization of Filipino lawyers, also came out squarely against the bill. So did the Makati Business Club, representing some of the country’s largest companies and preeminent business leaders. Likewise the National Council of Churches of the Philippines and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, as well as a network of over 250 people’s groups and nongovernment organizations, on top of the innumerable voices of ordinary citizens who have denounced the law.
In short, a vast cross-section of Philippine society, united against what the Constitutional framers have described as the “unprecedented powers” given to the administration by the anti-terrorism law. But they could all be, who knows, terrorist “supporters,” per the National Security Adviser’s all-too-casual insinuation.
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