5 Signs the Philippines is Drifting Toward Dictatorship

5 Signs the Philippines is Drifting Toward Dictatorship
Photo Credit:AP/達志影像

What you need to know

Filipinos are accustomed to chaotic periods in politics, but the killings of several young boys by police brought tens of thousands of protesters onto the streets. As tension between Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and the public escalates, the threat of martial law and a repeat of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos is all too real.

We have dealt with this sort of thing before. A generation ago, Filipinos endured the tyrannical Ferdinand Marcos for 21 years until he was finally deposed by the People Power movement in 1986. Fascism’s latest champion comes in the form of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. His administration is starting to look eerily similar to that which presided over the martial law that wracked the country for almost a decade during Marcos’ reign.

Duterte has recently come under heavy public scrutiny following a spate of killings in which police targeted young boys as part of the regime’s war on drugs. He is also on the back foot after refusing calls to open his bank accounts to public scrutiny and refute accusations that he has vast sums of undeclared money. But among all the alleged abuses – his son and close family members have also been in front of a Senate inquiry to defend accusations of involvement in the drugs trade – it is the loss of innocent lives that is pushing people onto the streets to protest.

Kian Delos Santos, 16, Carl Arnaiz, 19, and Reynaldo De Guzman, 14, all lost their lives in brutal fashion. Evidence showed signs of torture and summary execution in each case. None of them were criminals or had exhibited an inclination to illegal activity. Even if they had – and police say Delos Santos was killed during a drug raid shootout – none of them deserved the ordeals they went through at the hands of the officers who murdered them. De Guzman did not deserve to be stabbed 30 times.

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Residents and activists chant slogans during the funeral procession of Kian Loyd Delos Santos in Caloocan, Metro Manila. Photo Credit:AP/ 達志影像

At the time of writing, a 13-year-old boy had just been slain by a vigilante gunman in broad daylight in front of his home. Drugs have been identified as a possible motive. Brondial’s elder brother was killed in February for alleged participation in the illegal drug trade. The age of criminal liability in the Philippines is 15, making both De Guzman and Brondial innocent in the eyes of the state that slew them. They are the tip of a blood-stained iceberg in Duterte’s war on drugs, a war that New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch estimates has so far involved more than 7,000 extrajudicial killings.

Marcos signed the martial law declaration on Sept. 21, 1972, some 45 years ago. The passing of the anniversary was particularly poignant this year. People sensed how history appears to be repeating. In response, a huge protest drew a staggering turnout – a show of pubic unity that was enough to fluster Duterte and his supporters.

As an activist, organizer and Philippines watcher, I have had a pretty good view of how things escalated in Manila over a week that saw the largest anti-Duterte protests since the president took office.

First, Duterte decreed Sept. 21 a holiday for the province of Ilocos (Marcos’ hometown). People didn’t like that. It spurred enthusiasm for the coming rally. Then Duterte said if the protests turned violent or if anything unruly occurred, he would be forced to declare martial law nationwide. People’s ire intensified.

The president tried an alternative approach. He announced there would be a national earthquake drill facilitated by the Department of National Defense on the 21st. Nobody cared. Then he said it could be a national holiday. Strange to celebrate a period usually viewed as a dark chapter in our history; it seemed like a ploy to discourage people from leaving their homes. Finally, he declared the occasion a “National Day of Protest,” to which the opposition groaned a collective “Wait…what? We are protesting you, can you do that?”

Despite all the efforts to dampen and de-legitimize the opposition, 60,000 people, comprising various political groups and concerned citizens, turned out to protest, according to event organizers.

Turns out, the president’s “protest” was basically a series of public gatherings that were promoting martial law. Slum dwellers were more or less coerced to attend. Outside our office on the eve of Sept. 21, we heard local government authorities announcing that everybody attending pro-Duterte gatherings would receive P450 (US$8.82) and a free meal. A big deal for the country’s poorest.

State-sponsored rallies were held in the vicinity of the anti-dictatorship marches. Some switched sides later on. Having received their money and food, boredom ensued and they took it upon themselves to venture solidarity with the other side.

I mention the protest in such detail because it reflects the urgency of the largest, broadest and most recent manifestation of Filipinos coming together to denounce an impending dictatorship. Surprisingly, it also evoked some fear in our “strongman” president. Yet despite this rattling, the regime still seems intent on pushing a totalitarian agenda.

How? Well, here are five signs the Philippines could be on its way to “Duter-tyranny,” as the millennials call it.

5. Duterte often talks about declaring nationwide martial law

This shouldn’t be taken lightly. What any president says is generally a big deal, and when one makes it seem like human rights aren’t a big deal, that’s an even bigger deal. Duterte has taken to declaring martial law as a go-to solution for anything that seems too difficult.

He had previously promised to put an end to crime within six months of his presidency, then it became a year, and now has drifted beyond his currently mandated term in office. Upon realizing that solving the crime problem is far from simple, he publicly pondered whether to introduce martial law to make everything easier. The latest martial law threat was made to quell the supposed participation of armed revolutionaries in the Sept. 21 anti-dictatorship rally.

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has toyed with the idea of imposing martial law in speeches. Photo Credit:Reuters/達志影像

4. He has already implemented martial law in Mindanao.

On May 23, Duterte imposed martial law for the entirety of Mindanao, the southernmost group of islands, equivalent to roughly a third of the country in geographical terms. This was prompted by the presence of radical Islamic groups engaged in a firefight in Marawi city. They were retaliating against earlier assaults by government troops.

Less than a hundred armed vigilantes in one city and the president thought it wise to implement military rule over the region’s 22 million citizens. The result is Marawi city looks like war-torn Syria, with hundreds of thousands of displaced people in ill-equipped evacuation centres where a growing number are dying of starvation and disease.

The fighting continues in Marawi and across Mindanao. Along the way, the authorities and soldiers have committed a string of abuses. The Lumad (a non-Muslim minority group in the southern Philippines) have long protested against the military presence in their communities. Assassinations, commandeering of public facilities like schools and places of worship by soldiers have been a persistent problem, one inevitably aggravated by heightened militarism in the region.

In July, when the Lumad people once again came to Manila demanding an end to the militarization, Duterte responded by threatening to bomb their schools. Fortunately that hasn’t happened, however a few weeks ago, Obillo Bay-ao, a sixth-grade Lumad student was gunned down by para-military forces.

I had a chance to speak with one of Bay-ao’s classmates who described him as one of the most hardworking pupils in their school. The feeling of fear was more palpable than ever in their villages – to such an extent they marched in Manila to rally support for their cause.

3. He’s in with the wrong crowd.

Not to say that Duterte himself is a mere recipient of bad influence, but his entourage is also culpable for the current state of affairs. He has filled his cabinet with generals, even appointing one implicated in human rights abuses as head of The Armed Forces of the Philippines.

Despite initially forming a cabinet with more progressive individuals at the helm of environmental, agricultural and social welfare concerns, they were all replaced. The last of them being Rafael Mariano, a well-loved figure in the peasant movement who started out as an activist in the fields and went on to be a representative for laborers in congress as well.

The individuals surrounding the president serve to consolidate the militarism this administration has pursued in managing the country. Aside from this, members of the Marcos family (still in power at various levels) remain influential in government and in Duterte’s good favor. They were also allegedly one of his major campaign donors, a powerful ally give their virtually unlimited coffers.

The Marcoses amassed P50 billion during their reign. Human rights group KARAPATAN, says that the following could have been bought with that wealth: 68 million hospital beds, 700 thousand classrooms, 380 million sacks of rice. To put it in terms that Filipinos would appreciate, this amount could have also funded 6.5 million Jollibee chickenjoy meals and 45 million Angel’s Burgers.

Duterte again irked the people recently by offering immunity to the criminal charges presented against the Marcos family if they would return some of their ill-gotten assets. Specifically, “just a few gold bars.” Ferdinand Marcos was given a Hero’s Burial last year by Duterte who also praised the former dictator’s style of governance. On almost every political question of note there seems to be agreement between the Marcos family and Duterte.

2. He bankrupts human rights institutions

The Philippines has a Commission on Human Rights (CHR) which was constitutionally enacted after the Marcos era. Its mandate is to investigate human rights abuses and issue strong recommendatory statements on various issues.

In past administrations, the CHR has been criticized for being selective in the cases it handles. Recently however, it has been vocal about the victims of Duterte’s drug war.

This provoked members of congress dominated by Duterte’s allies to allot a mere P1,000, or US$20, to the CHR’s budget for next year. Constitutionally the CHR cannot be dissolved so this is their next best move.

Pantaleon Alvarez, Speaker of the House and a Duterte fanatic, defended the action by saying, “They (CHR) don’t do their jobs. They protect the rights of criminals [victims of the drug war]. So they should get funding from criminals, not us. It’s that simple.”

But, isn’t going after criminals the police’s job? And if the police commit crimes, who investigates them? The CHR should; it’s just that they won’t be able to do that anymore. Predictably, this took place right after the police received a torrent of bad press for the deaths of the young boys mentioned earlier.

1. Killing, so much killing.

It was hard to arrange the order of the top five, but this undoubtedly takes top spot. Duterte’s genocidal drug war has claimed between 7,000 and 13,000 victims – estimates vary across human rights groups; exceeding more than 3,000 recorded deaths Amnesty International was able to account for under the Marcos government. It is highly debatable as to which period is worse; what’s clear is that Duterte is on a similar track.

The killings show no signs of abatement. Law enforcement is being rewarded for their commitment to violence. In stark contrast to the CHR budget, the Philippine National Police (PNP) is set to be granted an additional P20 billion (US$400 million) for their operations in 2018. Moreover the PNP received the highest bonuses in the institution’s history for their service in the drug war.

Were the officers who murdered the above-mentioned children punished? In Caloocan, the city where most of the recent high-profile killings occurred, around a thousand police officers were relieved and ordered to undergo 45 days retraining. This does not constitute punishment, according to the National Union of People’s Lawyers, a group involved in handling these cases. They say that relieving these personnel simply means transferring them to a new station or environment. Only the 13 officers implicated in the recent killings face investigation by the PNP head office and the possibility of a permanent ban from service. Nobody is going to go to jail for these killings.

Even before Duterte came into our lives, growing up in the Philippines entailed cultivating a peculiar sense of normalcy amid chaos. Yet even Filipinos are indignant at this level of violence. Rather than be numbed by it, they are being pushed to fight back.

I didn’t think it would go so far before a larger section of the public started questioning and standing against state terror. Through no fault of their own – rather their desperation for genuine change in the country – many believed Duterte was merely a propagandist and not truly a villain.

Dictators or would-be dictators eventually expose themselves. We’ve dealt with this sort of thing before. If martial law is declared nationwide, Filipinos know how to resist.

Editor: David Green