Mythologizing the Police

Vantage Point | BusinessWorld

In arguing that President Benigno S. C. Aquino III could not have broken the “chain of command” because the Philippine National Police (PNP) is a civilian agency, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima assumed that no such system exists outside the military bureaucracy.

De Lima was taking exception to the PNP Board of Inquiry (BOI) conclusion that Mr. Aquino did so by communicating directly with Getulio Napenas, the relieved ground commander of the PNP Special Action Force (SAF), and by putting his bosom buddy, suspended PNP Director-General Alan Purisima, on top of Oplan Exodus rather than the PNP officer-in-charge.

De Lima might have been interpreting the phrase literally because of its “command” part. The common meaning of the phrase “chain of command” is that it is “a series of executive positions in order of authority.” It does not refer solely to the military, and applies equally to the civilian bureaucracy in that the head of every agency is subordinate to a higher authority. There is a “chain of command” in both the civilian and military bureaucracy.

The system recognizes the limits of the power, access to information, understanding and accountability of bureaucrats at each level, and assigns to the President of the Philippines the role of final decision-maker. Mr. Aquino is not the commander-in-chief of the PNP, but he is the country’s Chief Executive and in that role has command over every executive agency including the police.

But “chain of command” does resonate with military significance when the police are involved. Most Filipinos, including some journalists and media organizations, use the term “troopers” interchangeably with “police officers,” for example. In some cases, the latter have even been referred to as “soldiers,” an error indicative of some citizens’ ignorance — or rejection — of the oft-repeated claim that the PNP is a civilian agency.

The confusion is understandable. Although a civilian agency, the PNP is heavily militarized. Its claims to a non-military character rest only on its being part of the Department of the Interior and Local Governments (DILG) and its being under the administration and oversight of the Police Commission. The entire country saw this clearly during the Mamasapano incident when Purisima was apparently so certain of his prerogatives that he chose to keep DILG Secretary Manuel Roxas II out of the Oplan Exodus loop.

Purisima is himself referred to as a general, as are his cohorts at the highest levels of the PNP bureaucracy. But it is not its being run by people widely presumed to be generals that makes the PNP a veritable military bureaucracy. It has more to do with its history, the role it has been assigned to play in Philippine affairs, and its sharing with the Armed Forces of the Philippines the same ideological assumptions that make both bureaucracies internal pacification forces.

The PNP’s roots go back to the Philippine Constabulary (PC), which the US colonial government organized from the Spanish-era guardia civil to crush what remained of the armies of the Philippine Revolution. The Revolution was officially over in 1906 when the last of its generals, Macario Sacay, was hanged by the US, but the Constabulary continued to be used by the colonial government to fight “bandits” and “insurgents” — terms that in most cases referred to the rebellious poor — throughout the US occupation. Its primary task was clearly evident in its Tagalog name: Hukbong Pamayapa ng Pilipinas, or Pacification Army of the Philippines.

Although there were municipal police forces, the PC continued under various names as the national police force until the Marcos dictatorship. It was recognized as one of the four armed services in 1950, together with the Army, Navy and Air Force. It gained notoriety for committing some of the worst human rights abuses during the martial law period, and has been consistently named by human rights defenders as still engaged in torture, among other inhuman arts.

What is now known as the Philippine National Police was established in 1991 with the merger of the Philippine Constabulary with the Integrated National Police (INP). Its role in Philippine affairs has remained the same as that of its PC precursor. While curbing criminality is among its functions, it is basically charged with the task of keeping social unrest at manageable levels, thus its role in dispersing and suppressing demonstrations, pickets and other mass actions by disaffected sectors, and its anti-“insurgency,” and lately, its anti-terrorism roles.

It was in the name of anti-terrorism that nearly 400 SAF personnel entered what turned out to be an area teeming with Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters guerillas as well as private armed groups, in terrain they were not familiar with, in pursuit of alleged terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir alias “Marwan” and Basit Usman.

The question of whether either man is (or was, in the case of Marwan) indeed a terrorist aside, what has become clear is that Oplan Exodus was driven by the US goal of apprehending or neutralizing both men. This element has been conveniently shunted aside by the hype, encouraged to no little extent by the media, which mythologizes the so-called Fallen 44 as the epitome of patriotism and heroism and demonizes the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and its fighters.

In the poisoned atmosphere generated by unscrupulous politicians, the media, and the PNP itself, it has become virtually impossible to even suggest that the SAF contingent was not driven by the purest of motives that have been assigned to its members, or that they entered Mamasapano without due regard for its consequences to the peace process, not to mention the possibility of civilian casualties.

The PNP BOI report glosses over these issues, and, while receiving an inordinate amount of praise for the supposed independence of those who put it together, in fact exonerates Mr. Aquino while seemingly assigning blame to him. While it does declare that Mr. Aquino broke the chain of command, it nevertheless states that doing so is his prerogative.

The report instead lays the blame for the Mamasapano catastrophe on Napenas, as Mr. Aquino has repeatedly done himself. But in the public mind the police are as independent as they have been heroic — and driven, not by the thought of reward, but by patriotism. By describing the clash as a “massacre,” the Senate’s own report, which it released on March 18, also suggests that the SAF combatants were defenseless — the term “massacre” means exactly that — despite their number and their being heavily armed.

Forgotten are the police’s anti-people past and present, their serving as the guardians of vested interests and the protector and partner of one of the most corrupt and puerile political classes in Asia, as well as their ignoble human rights record. If the Mamasapano clash has benefitted anyone at all, it is the police, whom the current orgy of media and mass adoration is threatening to elevate to the same exalted level of service to the nation as the Katipunan, despite their origins in the guardia civil, which under US colonial auspices they replaced at the turn of the 20th century to hunt down and eliminate authentic patriots like Macario Sacay.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

Published in Business World
March 19, 2015

Share This Post