Screencap from RTVM
When President Rodrigo Duterte addressed the nation in a live broadcast on Thursday night, March 12, the master shot showed Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Felimon Santos Jr in the background to his left, and Philippine Army chief Lieutenant General Gilbert Gapay to his right.
Wider shots taken from other angles showed other members of the uniformed services seated in array along the walls of the cavernous Malacañang hall from where the President spoke.
It was hardly a surprise for people in the metropolis. Leaked copies of the unsigned order went viral earlier in the day, and they headed to supermarkets and drugstores to stock up on food and supplies, anticipating that lockdown.
In fact, people have been “panic buying” ever since the first local transmission of the virus was reported over the weekend.
By the time the President addressed the public two hours behind schedule on Thursday night, the number of cases had exceeded 50.
If the goal was to reassure the public that things were under control, then it was Duterte himself who painted a grim picture of what the lockdown could lead to – not because the police and military were involved, but because of what he imagined he would need them to do if worse comes to worst.
“Mayroon po kami, itong Inter-Agency Task Force, kasali na ang military pati police, kasi kailangan namin ang tulong nila kung sakali man lalala talaga ‘to,” he said. (We have this Inter-Agency Task Force, now including the military and police, because we need their help in case this really gets out of hand.)
“Maybe this would create a public disturbance, disorder, pero ang tingin ko hanggang diyan lang naman (but I think that’s all) because I know you want to follow because you want to help everybody including yourself and your family,” he also said.
Midway into the broadcast, Duterte got more vivid:
“I do not want anybody interfering in your enjoyment as a citizen of this republic. Ayaw ko na masita kayo ng police pati ng military (I don’t want you to get accosted by the police or the military). It could be messy kasi yung mga iba sa inyo, soplado (because some of you are snooty). And these police and military, they have their orders to enforce.”
“So that if you are in this category of a, grupo kayo tapos pag malapit, yung social distancing is no longer obeyed, and you, you are violating the rules, and if you insist, it is one of just mere confrontation to something like disobedience, which is punishable under the Revised Penal Code,” Duterte said, describing an imagined tussle between civilians and law enforcers.
“Kung makipag-away ka…baka masuntok mo o ano (If you pick a fight…you might hit them or something), then it becomes an assault on an agent of a person in authority. In which case, from a simple violation of a rule, it will now ripen into a crime that is punishable by law and you can go to prison. That’s the problem.”
So just do what the police or military officer tells you, to stay out of trouble, Duterte concluded.
On the defensive
Then he went on with the broad strokes of the lockdown: classes suspended, government and private offices to wind down operations, no outsiders coming into the metropolis unless necessary, restrictions on domestic and international travel.
Again, Duterte went on the defensive:
“But it’s a lockdown. There is no struggle of power here…. It’s just a matter of protecting and defending you from COVID-19. That’s about it. It has nothing to do with the power of the military nor the power of the police nor my power and these guys beside me. It’s just an issue of protecting public interest and public health. ‘Yun lang (That’s it).”
Saying he did not have enough military and police personnel to cover every inch of the country, Duterte planned to enlist barangay captains to help enforce the lockdown.
At this point, the picture was clear, and again, the President defended his vision:
“Hindi ito martial law. It is not a martial law. It’s not even something extraordinary. But what is sought to be solved here is the, again, walang iba (nothing else) except to fight the virus and to exact compliance.”
“Mas mabuti talaga yung maniwala kayo (You’re better off believing),” he added.
The Philippines had its first confirmed case of the virus on January 30. Containing the virus is difficult, and even countries with efficient governments and health care systems are struggling to quell it. Naturally, Filipinos are afraid.
Somehow, Duterte sensed that his military approach to the matter was adding to that fear.
Military presence is a touchy subject among Filipinos still traumatized by martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who cracked down on all dissent and criticism through intimidation, torture, and murder, as he and his cronies ransacked the public treasury.
More recently, Mindanao just came out of two-and-a-half years of martial law following the terrorist siege of Marawi City in May 2017. It was a time of heightened tension as police and military went after extremists and communist rebels in a region long battered by armed conflict.
In so-called “imperial Metro Manila,” where people are more used to relative order and comfort, the idea of a lockdown might be alarming to some.
But for Duterte, it is the only way to fix the problem and already, he anticipates a “total breakdown.”
“Because in a total breakdown, I would need their help to carry on with the governance…. Do not try to play with ‘martial law-martial law, military.’ Pero ang sa totoo (But the truth is), in a total breakdown, public disturbance…. It’s always the military who keep things in the country in order,” he said.
He explained further:
“To do that, if things deteriorate, I said, the military and the police will maintain order. Kaya nga tawag diyan (That’s why it’s called), peace and order. There has to be peace, and that peace, nakalagay na (has to be), orderly. There has to be order in the country and that is all.”
From these words, the nation is expected to draw a sense of security and assurance that the situation will not devolve into chaos. Otherwise, they know what course of action the President has in mind. – Rappler.com
JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.