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Illiberal democracy needs a strong and experienced leader, Part 5

“Human rights are not a privilege conferred by governments. They are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of his humanity.” – Mother Teresa

The enigmatic former mayor of Davao City has built a reputation as a no-nonsense crime buster that rid the city of scalawags in broad daylight and was not coy about it.  Such a macho image carried him to the presidency from a voting population hungry for a “Dirty Harry” type leader. President Digong did not disappoint and made crime busting a centerpiece of his early administration zeroing in on illegal drugs and the insurgency.

Duterte used to brag that he was friends with the rebels and would be able to encourage them to come down and back to the fold. But he was wrong and after failed peace talks after another, he declared the New People Army (NPA) as a terrorist group. His brutal anti-insurgency crackdown came with the realization that illegal drugs were flooding the country because of unattended long coastlines and collaboration between the illegal drug syndicates and the insurgents.

Since the Communist Party’s erstwhile leader, Jose Maria Sison was released from prison after the fall of Marcos and moved to safe haven outside the country, where he was free to capitalize on the newfound democracy. People who went underground during the Marcos years went mainstream and organized themselves as partylist organizations. Duterte now tagged some of these groups as part of the terrorist network of the NPA. Long lost their ideological fight after the fall of communism, the rebels have resorted to banditry and other criminalities.

It is this strong arm brand that Duterte has also used to respond to the pandemic, imposing lockdown measures and arresting hundreds of thousands for violating them. These strict pandemic measures became fodder for VP Robredo to demonize Duterte. Despite obstruction from Congress with investigations in aid of legislation and constant criticisms from the opposition, the Philippine approach to the pandemic has found similarities with other countries, including the United States who is faring far worse than the Philippines, despite its overwhelming vaccine supplies.

One must wonder that despite his senior age, Duterte admirably was and still able to show his mettle responding to crisis and calamities one after the other, even when he was pictured snoozing. Volcanic eruptions, super typhoons, and the pandemic tested his ability to rally the country around his administration. He even declared Martial Law in Mindanao in response to the Marawi siege where he was also aided by the Americans with its drone technology.

But, much like the previous administrations, Duterte’s alleged human rights violations also included cronyism with attendant graft and corruption that presidential candidate and senator Manny Pacquiao labeled “bigger” than the Aquino administration but could not substantiate his claims. Despite these accusations, Duterte remains popular.

Duterte’s place in history is still evolving but one thing has clearly emerged; his fascination with the former dictator. The Marcos corpse stayed above ground since his death during Cory Aquino’s term. None of the previous presidents, including the Aquinos, could not make the Marcoses bury their dead properly. Despite strong opposition from the oligarchs and the Yellows, Duterte not only buried the remains six feet under; he buried him with honors at the Heroes Cemetery (Libingan ng mga Bayani).

The Martial Law (ML) imposition in Mindanao has defanged the evils of Martial Law because in Duterte’s case, ML was not only extended beyond the mandated 60 days; it lasted for over two years with the imprimatur of Congress and the Supreme Court. For years, the opposition used ML as a bogeyman in every opportunity to resurrect the ghost of Marcos but now demonizing ML has lost its appeal and proved that it has a place in a democracy.

The immense publicity the local and Western media had given to Duterte’s authoritarian vulgarities; lost in the midst, were important milestones that he achieved. Perhaps their significance was drowned out with the aid of his vice president who tunnel-vision human rights in a singular tract that of the helpless victims of Tokhang, of the poor being mostly affected by the pandemic, and the crackdown on Leftist organizations and personalities.

But reorienting human rights to the United Nations definition as inherent to all human beings, one would have a better appreciation of Duterte’s accomplishments. Right to life and liberty is not limited to the domain of the slain drug dealer or user. Equally important were their victims who only wanted a decent life but were waylaid by a monster high on drugs. Is it a wonder why Filipinos applauded Duterte for fighting addicts and drug traffickers ahead of their human rights concerns?

Freedom from slavery and torture are not to be a refuge for wealthy individuals to impose at will, slave wages and abusive employment practices; or be tortured with extreme poverty. Domestic helpers in the Philippines and abroad are brutalized, raped, and ostracized because of abusive employers. These really are symptomatic of government priorities or lack of, when it comes to the uneven distribution of wealth in the country courtesy of democracy, a haven for wealthy families. Signing several tax reform laws, Duterte made the Philippines one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia before the pandemic struck.

That freedom of opinion and expression is not a license to demonize a government with deceptive misinformation for some literary or peace prize award. It is not even for mainstream media to spout their biased reporting to appease their benefactors for some capitalist agenda. The muted voices of the poor and underrepresented must also be heard but not through the romanticized lenses of Cardo Dalisay. When Duterte spouts vulgarities against the Catholic Church and the oligarchs or closing ABS-CBN, was he speaking on their behalf?

And the right to work and quality education should not just be limited to workplace conditions or having a diploma that qualifies them to work but couldn’t. Such rights should also be viewed as the ability to raise a family decently and to provide for their needs including quality healthcare. When Duterte signed the landmark Universal Health Care Act in 2019, there wasn’t much fanfare but such a law granted every Filipino equitable access to quality and affordable health care goods and services.

Equality before, under, or the eyes of the law is a democratic doctrine that every Filipino, regardless of wealth, status, or political power they wield; are entitled to. But equality before the law cannot just be viewed from the lenses of another legalistic word of “due process” because in the Philippines, poor litigants are not getting their due because of a legal process that favors the rich and famous who can afford expensive lawyers and have political connections. Consequently for the majority of Filipinos, the life of a drug dealer or user who vanishes in the stillness of the night, has become an acceptable trade-off if only to restore peace and order in their neighborhoods. (To be continued.)


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