The Duterte Doublespeak: Exploring the Philippine President’s Long List of Lies

The Duterte Doublespeak: Exploring the Philippine President’s Long List of Lies
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG
Why you need to know

From backpedaling on promises to resign to ceding ground against China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is becoming known for playing fast and loose with the truth.

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In Orwellian terms, doublespeak refers to ambiguity in statements, projecting a soft image to mask a more sinister reality. For example, an ‘anti-drug campaign’ – this is, in fact, the administration’s policy for genocide. While Rodrigo Duterte does engage in this, he is usually anything but vague in what he wants to get across. He can disown the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos just before turning around and executing blatantly Marcosian policies.

Duterte recently celebrated two years in office of his six-year term. On July 23, he is set to give his third State of the Nation Address (SONA). I am no expert purveyor of people’s opinions, but I think it is safe to say that expectations are at an all-time low. More than anything, people expect to be disappointed and, since the President usually wings his speeches, they expect something controversial.

I thought about doing a top 10 of Duterte’s most controversial statements, but I would not know where to begin or end or how many weeks it could take me to sift through them all. Of course there is his order to soldiers to shoot female communist rebels “in the vagina,” brandishing his now infamous macho-fascism to the world. He has admitted to being a teenage murderer, remorselessly pledging to kill more people after being elected. No, simply addressing his penchant for controversy would not be enough to illustrate how poisonous Duterte has become for the country.

His lies and his doublespeak have taken on a whole new dimension. Apart from being ambiguous, he has a tendency to try and completely erase anything positive from his promises and implement the exact opposite. Almost as if to say: ‘Well, that wasn’t gonna work, so let’s do the worst imaginable alternative.’ His hordes of fanatics will stand and defend the strongman president, but even they are having an increasingly hard time. Many Die-hard Duterte Supporters (DDS) are turning into ‘Dating (former) -Duterte Supporters.’

"Change was never coming under Duterte."

During his last SONA, he invited criticism when he said he would bomb the schools of the indigenous Lumad people for their part in subversive activities against the regime. Children and educators are being accused of plotting against a government which rationalizes the fear-mongering of a madman. This year, we will be expecting plenty more of the threats, loose comments, and crass remarks that have come to characterize his public appearances.

What is important now is to pinpoint the policies he is peddling through lulling the public into a false sense of security and identify the actions by his administration that have done much more harm beyond simply offending the values of Filipinos.

4. The moment I assume the presidency, contractualization will stop.

This was one of the turning points in Duterte’s campaign to the presidency. This was when everybody took a more serious look at the candidate who boldly claimed he would end one of the longstanding problems of Philippine labor. He took an issue that was rarely covered by mainstream media (presumably since many of their employees are also contractual). So you would imagine the disappointment when he did the exact opposite, as we will often see in this list.

Contractualization is a dominant practice by capitalists by which, through various means, their workers are prevented from becoming regular employees no matter how long their tenure with the company. This opens up a host of problems, from lack of job security, banishment from forming unions, below minimum wage earnings, no benefits, and other labor abuses.

Duterte however opted to forward the both the DOLE (Department of Labor and Employment) Order 174 and Executive Order 51, which both legitimize and further entrench contractualization. The latter was signed on the most recent labor-day ironically. Both policies do not challenge the existing labor laws but merely dictate that workers can become regular through agencies of middlemen and not through their principal employer, meaning they gain none of the warranted benefits that come with regular employment.

Kilusang Mayo Uno (May First Movement), the country’s largest labor center and promoter of militant unionism, says that both policies “further establish labor contracting through agencies as the standard of employment in the country.” It seems an end to contractualization may only come along with the end of Duterte’s presidential tenure.

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Photo Credit: Nick Aspinwall
Jong Monzon, a representative of Mindanao's indigenous Lumad community, protesting Duterte's rule at Manila's February 2018 EDSA People Power rally. Duterte has threatened to bomb Lumad schools over alleged links to leftist rebels.

3. “Independent Foreign Policy” and “Separation from the United States”

Not long after assuming office, Duterte again boldly claimed that his government would enforce an independent foreign policy and a separation from a decades long neo-colonial bondage by America. The publicly collectively applauded, although it now seems that his supporters would gawk over anything as they hardly seemed to mind when he decided to withdraw this position.

America remains one of the top investors in the country, and its political and military influence is stronger than most. It has bases and operations all over the archipelago and every president who has come into power has sought to elicit the good graces of the western superpower.

When US President Donald Trump came to town for the ASEAN Summit last November, Duterte was singing a very different tune quite literally. When apparently asked by the foreign leader to sing a song, Duterte gladly belted out “Ikaw” (You) a Filipino ballad in which the lyrics proclaim “you are my light.”

This might have something to do with the fact that Trump has been very vocal in his endorsement of Duterte’s infamous and murderous drug war when other top foreign leaders and the UN have denounced it. Trump has been so supportive that after the ASEAN summit, the US approved $2 million in aid specifically for the drug war which in turn spurred more state sponsored human rights violations.

On the other hand – and in the same debate where Duterte made his statements on labor – he also drew cheers while sharing his platform for handling the territorial dispute with China. The tug of war over the West Philippine Sea has seen the International Court of Arbitration side with the archipelago. If China were to contest this, with a possibility of war, the soon-to-be President-elect said he would martyr himself by “riding a jet ski while bringing the Philippine flag,” declaring to China: “This is ours. Do what you want with me. I will not commit the Filipino soldiers to war, so I will go instead.”

Last month, former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario lambasted Duterte’s inability to protect its territory after China seized control over Philippine territory in the South China Sea. Its coast guard and militia fishermen are now constantly patrolling the area, and the Philippine presence has been ordered to evacuate. The administration’s spinelessness was put on further display when Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque dismissed claims of China’s encroachment by highlighting their “goodwill” due to the fact that Filipino fishermen have been allowed to ply their trade there.

This is all unsurprising when you look at Duterte’s statements on the matter from weeks before the incident. He justified good relations with the Chinese and President Xi Jinping (習近平) by assuring the public that the dominant neighbor promised to protect the country. The president also assured himself, publicly, that China would not let him get ousted.

No jet skis, no flag bearing, and no martyrdom. Just a 180-degree turn towards Asia-Pacific subservience.

2. I will resign.

The first time he said it, it bore some weight. The next three times, it became old and a way to detract from the many controversies he faces. He said he would resign if his administration failed to control drugs, a statement that already backtracks significantly from his initial promise of ending drugs, crime and corruption within six months of taking office.

This did not happen. In fact, the latest survey by the Social Weather Station (SWS), a local think-tank for quantitative studies, said that crime has only decreased by 1% (from 7.6% to 6.6%) from December 2017 to March 2018, despite the supposed all-out efforts to quell the illegal drug trade.

It is telling that his crusade against drugs has arguably led to more crimes than it sought to suppress. The Philippine National Police (PNP) reported recently that there have been only 2,000 drug related killings (an extremely conservative estimate), yet there have been over 23,000 murders under investigation since July 2016. The PNP claims that around half of these cases are unrelated to drugs.

“Show me your selfie with God and I will resign immediately,” dared Duterte.

Duterte also said that if any of his children in government were revealed to be involved in corruption, he would resign. Instead, his son Paolo Duterte, former Vice Mayor of Davao City, fell on his own sword. The younger Duterte resigned on Christmas Day last year after he was found to be heavily involved in smuggling illegal drugs into the country in cahoots with the Bureau of Customs.

For her part, Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter and his successor as Mayor of Davao City, has still failed to answer to allegations regarding her assets. She failed to declare P100 million (US$1.87 million) in investments, pretty astounding for a family which claims to have come from nothing to rise to the top.

And yet, no resignation from the president. In this case, Duterte finds a loophole by employing the word ‘proven.’ Why should he resign over mere allegations? However, after these recent exposes of both the president’s children, there has been a palpable drop in government trust from the public.

The latest charade in the president’s publicity resignation stunts came a few days ago when he angered the church when challenging the existence of God. “Show me your selfie with God and I will resign immediately,” dared Duterte.

I honestly don’t know where to go with this. What is he getting at? Does he even know what he is getting at? It may be the case that he thinks he can strong-arm just about every political matter that is given public attention. Or maybe this is an attempt to win over the public by making as many enemies as he can? I never said his doublespeak could be easily dissected.

1. "Change is coming."

Probably the most well-known campaign slogan in the country’s history, famed for its simplicity and for coming at a time when dissatisfaction with the previous president, Beningo Aquino III, was tangible. It encapsulated the aspirations of the electorate – and thus made disappointment in its emptiness all the more significant. The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

“I don’t want martial law,” he assured the public in his first year. This was an attempt to distance himself from his political ally, Bongbong Marcos, chief apologist and official during the dictatorship of his father, Ferdinand. However, he did what now seems the norm and declared Martial Law in roughly a third of the archipelago. He answered his critics by saying “I’m not like Marcos.”

No better indication for a looming dictatorship is the new proclamation that ‘tambays,’ or people who loiter in public, should be arrested. To lend a bit of context, ‘tambay’ is a slang word that came from the American colonial times when white people would refer to out of work Filipinos as on ‘stand by.’ Tambay now basically means hanging out in public or engaging in outdoor activities like doing laundry, taking a shower, or cooking, among others that would generally be reserved for indoors.

At present, more than 20,000 tambays have been arrested. Genesis Argoncillo was arrested for simply going to the store to buy some household items. Days later he was found dead in his cell, the security cameras suspiciously malfunctioning on the same day.

Children have also been swept up in the anti-tambay campaign. Duterte has ordered "police officers or barangay officials to take children into custody," according to a joint statement released by a coalition of Philippine NGOs including Bahay Tuluyan. The resulting disorder, they say, leaves children "extremely vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and even trafficking."

It should be noted that there is no actual legal basis for these arrests. Nothing about being a tambay or hanging out is illegal, and the NGO coalition notes the arrests violate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Philippines is a signatory. Yet the PNP has taken to the president’s few words as if they were the law of the land.

Aside from human rights, this is a matter of preserving public spaces. Most of the tambays arrested come from poor slum areas. Naturally, spaces in poor communities are scarce, and much of human activity associated with being indoors is thus done outside. No Filipino would be surprised to find slum dwellings with three to four families living in a makeshift home, so it is not surprising when much of their daily lives involve being outside.

All in all, this is a clear prelude to martial law. When the president’s mere words can be interpreted as absolutes. When the poor are criminalized for merely going about their lives. And when, of course, the drug war’s death toll continues to rise.

Change was never coming under Duterte. Every election has only brought hardship and grief upon the people, and the country’s elites have only found better ways to compete for the position of oppressor in chief.

Duterte’s doublespeak, however, looks to be on the wane. Its grip on the collective consciousness loosens with every foul word and malevolent lie. The upcoming SONA is always a date for protest. July 23 will see the broadest gathering of political and religious forces march upon the president as he gives his speech.

Expectations have been amped up by the news that the president is set to announce the proposal for amending the constitution according to the version written by his political allies. After everything you’ve read in this article, you would not want the constitution mangled by the hands of a madman, either.

July 23’s address will only provide more fuel for the dissenters. The only thing Duterte has been good for has been to unite those who do not usually associate politically. One nation angered by a president.

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TNL Editor: Nick Aspinwall

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