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A house of cards founded on hallucination

MANILA (SE): As the administration of the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, turns 100-days-old, it remains largely defined by his obsession—a massive onslaught on the poor in the guise of a war on drugs.

Although he has made significant progress with the Mindanao peace talks and in currying favour with China, his most conclusive achievement is inspiring over 4,000 murders of people who may or may not have been involved in drugs—certainly some were not.

He has watched his peso drop to its lowest level in seven years, as foreign investment begins to flee. His efforts to replace it with yuan from China have yet to bear fruit and there is no guarantee the new benefactor will be any more altruistic than the nation’s previous acquaintances.

But since what in biblical language could be termed the slaughter of the innocents began, the bishops of the country have tiptoed in house slippers around the president.

Although the president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, has spoken out strongly, others have whispered that they admire his political will to rid the country of drugs, a curse in society that has destroyed many families.

While they may have baulked a bit at his method, they seem to have confused political will with straight out barbarism designed to achieve martial law without having to declare it, which may yet spill more blood than the real martial law president, Ferdinand Marcos, ever dreamed of.

But Archbishop Ramon Arguelles and his counterpart from the Council of Evangelical Churches, Bishop Noel Pantoja, have gone a step beyond their brothers.

“You can see he has an objective,” Archbishop Arguelles was quoted by UCAN as saying, adding that his anti-drug campaign is producing results, before he began trying to untangle himself from the methods he uses.

But the campaign and the method are identical and cannot be separated. As Bishop Pantoja added, although he is in favour of his campaign, he can see that a new generation of criminals is being bred.

But while the bishops may mostly remain tight lipped, freelance journalist, Inday Espiña-Varona, maintains that the Church is not.

In an article published by UCAN on October 7, she says that grassroots ecumenical groups and feisty women religious have done much to fill the vacuum.

In addition, teachers and students from sectarian schools have led small, but regular protests against the extrajudicial murders.

Espiña-Varona cites what she describes as a blistering essay published at the beginning of October by Melba Padilla Maggay, the president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture, as challenging Duterte’s claim of laying the foundations of a stronger state.

“Many in this country mistake President Duterte’s unswerving use of force as political will, when what is really before us is an alarming drift toward an authoritarian barbarism, where the full apparatus of power—formal and non-formal—is used,” Maggay wrote.

Espiña-Varona quoted Father Wilfredo Dulay as saying, “It is the kind of article that the country’s spiritual leaders should have written but, sadly, are not willing or are incapable of doing.”

The coordinator of the Missionaries of Jesus says, “It is the women who’ll be the salvation of this benighted country.”

He cited the two women rights advocates who stepped out of the shadows to testify against the burial of the body of the former dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in the Heroes Cemetery, recounting their experiences of torture, including rape, during his martial law regime before the Supreme Court.

Espiña-Varona identifies the two as writers, Aida Santos and May Rodriguez, who once edited the now-defunct Philippine News and Features agency, that broke decades of silence to speak as witnesses.

Duterte’s cyber macho shadows savaged the women on social media. But having delayed the Marcos family plans of a hero’s burial for the late despotic dictator, they now know they have the upper hand.

Theologian, Father Benjamin Alforque, says the Church has prepared the grassroots for what it expects to be a modern, digital version of a war for hearts and minds—with human rights as the battleground.

Espiña-Varona says that attempts by Duterte and his allies to banish the word extrajudicial from its connection with killing or murder in the national lexicon have been ignored by human rights advocates, journalists and a rainbow of community groups.

An angry Duterte has challenged foreign rights experts to probe the 1,756 deaths that are claimed to be under investigation as a result of his war on drugs. But he also invoked the right to impose sanctions on those who peddle lies to investigators, in all probability extrajudicially.

His officials have demanded the final say on the movement of anyone conducting a probe, a condition expected to bring a new standoff between the Duterte administration and the United Nations rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Agnes Callamard.

Since May, nearly 2,000 have died in police operations. Some 800 police are being probed—a sudden influx way beyond the normal caseload capacity of an agency that already tops the ranks of abusers.

Duterte also accuses senior police officials, including some generals, of links with local drug gangs.

Unknown parties have shot dead an unknown number of others while 133 bodies have been discovered wrapped in a style linked with a Mexican drug cartel.

Duterte insists these other cases cannot be considered extrajudicial, because they are likely the handiwork of criminals out to silence prospective whistle-blowers.

However, Espiña-Varona says that even his militant allies are not buying this one, as it can be likened to a house of cards built on hallucination.

“The textbook definition of extrajudicial does not depend on resolution of a case,” Edre Olalia, from the National Union of People’s Lawyers and one of the counsels for the rebel National Democratic Front, says.

“The essence is killing outside the legal or judicial framework. It is depriving a person of due process,” Olalia explained. “It is extrajudicial when there are indications that a killing is done by the state or its agents.”

However, Olalia adds a further dimension, saying, “The state is accountable even if it is not actually a state agent who pulls the trigger. This is because of the administration’s record for inducing, encouraging, condoning and even applauding extrajudicial killings.”

Espiña-Varona concludes by saying that states have a constitutional duty to protect their citizens from punishment without due process. “It becomes accountable for failure to prevent, abate or stop the killings, or investigate and prosecute the actual perpetrator,” she quotes Olalia as saying.

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