In the 16 months that we’ve had Rodrigo Duterte as President, what has become apparent is not only that he is ill-equipped for the position, but that we, the people, are unprepared for the kind of resistance and protest that a President like this one requires.
It’s not just the war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives, whether in official or unofficial numbers – the world knows enough about that. What might be missed by many is what it’s been like living in this country with a President who spews violent rhetoric on a regular basis and shows a blatant disregard for basic rights. Yes, it’s about his slew of speeches centered on the word “kill,” there’s the cursing (in jest, frustration, anger), and the normalization of misogyny. But it is also the daily experience of a government in chaos and disorder, one that cares little for the people as it indulges no one but Duterte.
There’s the unapologetically macho House of Representatives, which has served on a silver platter everything from Martial Law in Mindanao to the death penalty, from an oppressive tax reform law to billions for the war on drugs, from a zero budget for the Commission on Human Rights to the impeachment of the Chief Justice. Duterte’s appointees are no source of comfort. His Cabinet is filled with retired military officials and oligarchs who stand on not much else but anti-people, pro-business policies. One of them has promised traffic “hell” with an infrastructure program that plunges us deeper into debt; another insists on selling out public transportation to big business regardless of higher fares and disenfranchised drivers. Yet another has said that the devalued peso is nothing to worry about, never mind that the prices of basic goods and services are on the rise, while wages remain low.
Duterte’s social media army, built and employed during his campaign for the Presidency, might be the most paralyzing of all. They have successfully discredited mainstream media, taken over social media with fake news sites and baseless opinion, and now as government’s front-of-the-line communications team, have brought discourse to an all-time low, where everyone can only be pro- or anti-Duterte, and fanaticism and idolatry are the norm.
It doesn’t help that mainstream media’s tendency has been to dismiss criticism about its biased reporting, and laugh off questions about foreign funding sources. Some journalists agree to refuse to call “fake news” fake news – that’s an oxymoron, call fake news what it is: lies. Yet every day government’s propagandists are calling mainstream media “fake news” for their biases, every day fake news is shared on social media in the thousands. Only the blind would imagine that truth and facts and credible discourse are not losing this information war. It bears repeating that a version of this deluge of misinformation and hate won Duterte the presidency.
The fourth estate’s refusal to level-up the discussion, the decision to turn up their noses at the mainstreaming of troll discourse, is part of what has gotten us in this misinformation crisis. There are opinion writers and commentators, but it can only be disheartening given the dominance of propaganda pretending to be opinion. Some newspapers have op-ed pages with mostly Duterte supporters. No one wants to earn the President’s ire: he declares you an enemy and he (and his supporters) will drag you down and disparage you.
To say that fear has reigned the past 16 months would be an understatement. We’ve watched Duterte spew unsubstantiated claims like it’s the truth, throw around accusations with no basis, speak of rumors as if these are fact. He is perpetually on the defensive: faced with criticism and protests, low satisfaction ratings and an unstable economy, he will fire off invectives and threaten the country with Martial Law (recently with revolutionary government), which will mean absolute rule and no accountability. He tells us that when and if this happens, we only have ourselves to blame: we have pushed him to do this, it is our fault for not following what he says.
But what he’s saying isn’t even clear anymore. Duterte is the king of double-speak. He will go to town about his anger at corruption, yet his own Cabinet members refuse to be transparent about their Statement of Assets and Liabilities (SALN), and he himself will not sign a waiver so his bank accounts can be scrutinized. Implicated in the smuggling of P6.4 billion worth of drugs through the Bureau of Customs, Duterte advises his son to keep quiet; the son faces the Senate and says nothing.
Duterte hates oligarchs, but puts some of them in his Cabinet; others stay on his good side. He likes to talk about how his heart is with the poor, yet his programs for tax reform, transport “modernization,” and privatization of basic services ensure that the poor will suffer the most under this government. It is also the poor who are being killed in the war on drugs, and the ones who bear the brunt of the war on terror in Marawi.
He claims he needs to strengthen the police and military, get arms from China and Russia, because this is his legacy to the Filipino people. Yet the Filipino people are suffering given these armed forces emboldened by Duterte. A town in Batangas, 130km away from Manila, was bombed for unconfirmed reports of 16 Communist rebels – part of a rebellion that this government keeps dismissing to be small and dying. Indigenous people’s and peasant communities are being militarized in favor of big business, mining interests, and feudal lords. The President himself has threatened to bomb IP schools. Ninety-one farmers have been killed the past 16 months.
Every day we feel like we are under attack. Duterte does it through his rhetoric, his men do it through their actions. And then there is just incompetence. There is a shamelessness about the unprofessionalism, the lack of control, that Duterte and his men practice. If the Communications Secretary is to be believed mistakes are reason to celebrate: it means people are paying attention to government; he forgets that the goal should be to do things professionally and intelligently, so that mistakes are few and far between.
But we’ve grown weary expecting this bare minimum from government. At this point one only wishes for some sanity.
Alas, the past month or so government has been selling us a destabilization plot, insisting there is a plan to unseat the President. They point a finger at every imaginable enemy, encourage the creation of a citizen army, while government propagandists spew hate against opposition bloggers. Two weeks ago, Duterte was at his worst, coming out on television, cursing the European Union for meddling in the country’s affairs. It would’ve been (now) classic unhinged Duterte, except that the basis of his tirade was false – none of that was said by the EU. And no, Duterte is not taking it back, and his men are not going to take responsibility for the faux pas.
This is our vicious cycle, and it’s looking more and more like a downward spiral, too. It is difficult not to be fatigued by the manufactured noise of a government that seems to live off chaos and confusion, hate and vitriol. To some extent it feels like this is deliberate, too, maybe to exhaust us to the point of paralysis.
But some light in this long dark tunnel: after 16 months, it seems our eyes have adjusted to the darkness and we’re finding our footing. We’re realizing that there’s a growing number of us on the side of justice and rights – 30,000 or so at the September 21 protest to be exact – and this can only make us a tad bit braver every day. This is not to romanticize courage as it is to acknowledge the fear that immobilized us the past year or so. At least now we’re all walking together, albeit slowly and carefully, through this dark unfamiliar space. With a President like Duterte, speaking up has become an act of bravery; it is imperative that we keep at it and contribute to the collective voice of dissent in whatever way we can.
Is there hope that Duterte will listen? Yes, but optimism is hard to come by. The past month has had him threatening non-supporters and critics with a declaration of a revolutionary government, which will allow him full and absolute power, abrogate the Constitution, abolish Congress, and basically give him the license to inflict even more violence – literal and figurative – on nation.
On the upside, exhausted and weary as we have become, this government is giving us every reason to protest. In fact, it is leaving us with no choice but to do so. ***