By Inday Espina-Varona*
It is easy to hate Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when he convulses with glee at killings, dismisses laws, and treats government as his personal fiefdom.
It is harder for Filipinos to examine and admit collective responsibility in nudging the country closer to fascism.
Three decades after booting out a dictatorship, the Philippines faces a tyrant who coats himself with populist glitz as he assaults structures of justice.
Duterte now wants a special commission to investigate the head of the government’s constitutional anti-graft body, which launched a probe into his alleged hidden wealth, Congress has started impeachment proceedings against Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, while police are dropping by homes of activists, warning of a crackdown.
All these show how much Duterte is hurting from an upsurge in unrest.
The Movement Against Tyranny movement gathered 25,000 people last month to accuse Duterte of being the mastermind behind an avalanche of extrajudicial killings. A recent national survey shows that more than half of respondents believe police have summarily executed thousands of innocent people.
In response, the president threatens to unleash the armed forces on critics. Rabid supporters urge him to topple democracy and establish a “revolutionary government.”
His justice secretary attended the launch of a paramilitary group “Citizen National Guard,” which includes retired soldiers and police. In purple prose that echoes Duterte’s rhetoric, they have vowed to go after “terrorists, communist rebels, drug cartels, and foreign intelligence agencies,” the latter accused of fomenting unrest.
The president now warns against a “yellow-red” conspiracy, referring to followers of former president Benigno Aquino and the hundreds of thousands of militants from the legal and underground Left.
The threatened groups are not blinking. The 40,000-strong Anakbayan youth movement has demanded Duterte’s resignation.
On Oct. 6, groups massed in Manila to show support for the defiant and targeted ombudsman, Conchita Carpio Morales.
The #StopTheKillings networks and the multi-faith coalition Rise Up for Life and Rights also continue with their Black Friday protests against summary executions. Church bells in Catholic churches across the country toll nightly for justice. The Archdiocese of Lingayen-Dagupan has taken in police whistleblowers remorseful for their role in Duterte’s drug war. More bishops are offering their churches as sanctuaries.
The fractious political opposition is slowly coming together. But there are many bridges to span and realities to confront. It will take plenty of unflinching honesty and the junking of discredited models to solve the problem that is Duterte.
It is easy to confront a monster and harder to face one’s reflection in the mirror. As Filipino actor Pen Medina said at an anti-tyranny protest, many who protest now against autocracy displayed the same tendencies through a series of governments since the 1986 People Power revolt that ousted Ferdinand Marcos.
The chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, an ally of former president Aquino, has admitted that the former president’s emotional distance from the people allowed Duterte to win the elections.
That barely skims the problem. Aquino defied the Supreme Court when it barred the executive branch from tweaking the national budget, taking away funds from critical areas to reward allies. His social welfare secretary subsumed almost all welfare services to his anti-insurgency campaign, resulting in new growth for Asia’s longest-running communist rebellion.
Aquino’s top aides sneered as police opened fire at hungry farmers protesting the lack of social safeguards against disasters born of climate change. Aquino’s friends charged with corruption were untouchables. The former president even jeopardized his own peace process in the southern Philippines by allowing a national police chief, suspended for corruption, to mount a secret operation that failed to coordinate military support.
It was easy for Duterte to brand himself the people’s wolf, a beast to turn loose on perceived enemies and oppressors.
Missionary priest Benjamin Alforque said Filipinos learned perverse aspirations from centuries of skewed power dynamics. When the rural poor, facing hunger and war, fled to urban areas, they carried a basic contradiction: They hated injustice and yet saw their tormentors as models of success.
“The horror of feudalism is the strong mesh of abuse and patronage that leave generations subservient, even thankful, for their oppressive state,” said Father Alforque.
Philippine leaders’ ruthless use of the state’s might and bureaucracy made the powerless accept their fate and turn on each other to scramble for scraps from their masters’ tables. Duterte, for decades a city mayor, is a master at manipulating that feudal mindset.
It is actually a sea change, said the missionary priest, to see the poor dragging a squeamish middle class in the current battle against tyranny. The worst thing Duterte’s powerful detractors can do is to dismiss their festering grievances.
Opposition politicians like to trot out fallacies: The numbers of those killed under the past administration pale in comparison to Duterte’s kill list; let’s forget the past and focus on one big enemy.
But there is that face in the mirror. It is the face of injustice with roots buried so deep in the national psyche that it has become our norm. Until people who claim to be better than others learn to accept part of the blame for that, the Philippines will continue to slide into the jaws of tyranny.
*Inday Espina-Varona is an editor and commentator based in Manila.