Over six thousand kilometres to the north of Australia, a dangerous pandemic is spreading and needs to be contained. President Duterte of the Philippines is consolidating his dictatorship with an Anti-Terrorism Bill which defines terrorism so broadly that free speech can be prosecuted and any dissent punished.
To control one hundred million Filipinos, terrorism could mean inciting others to make critical speeches, proclamations, writings or banners. Critics can be held for twenty-four days before any appearance before a judge, and a conviction for terrorism could result in life in prison without parole.
Nostalgic for the days of the corrupt, repressive regime of Ferdinand Marcos, 1965-1986, Duterte wants to be Nietsche’s ‘superman’. Allied with the military, or with vigilantes who consider violence as the best way to solve problems, he shows no other way of thinking or governing.
Since the beginning of his Presidency in 2016, over seven thousand citizens have been killed for alleged connections to the drug trade, hundreds of community activists, tribal leaders, farmers, environmentalists, trade union leaders and local journalists have been targeted.
Distractions of Covid and Neo-Liberalism
The Covid 19 pandemic has provided a distraction from dictatorship and an excuse for it. Duterte sees the virus as an invading force which prompts him to speak of war and to foreshadow the imposition of martial law. Over 40,000 have been arrested for breaking an 8 pm to 5 am Covid curfew and police have orders to shoot to kill curfew breakers.
The neo-liberal thesis that work should lead to individual wealth is another dictatorial distraction. If citizens are preoccupied with getting ahead, they are unlikely to be bothered about the fate of those who are falling behind, let alone with the persecution of citizens who could be regarded as hindering economic progress.
Duterte and associates believe that if they are prosecutor, judge, jury and jailer, that should prevent infection from the germs of democracy.
The Anti-Terrorism Bill provides for a secretariat to be run by a National Intelligence Coordinating Agency whose membership is made up of security force officials. The task force empowered to combat the virus pandemic is also stacked with military and police personnel, and to ensure their loyalty, security personnel are better protected from prosecution for human rights abuses than front line health workers are shielded against virus infection.
Unlike world-wide protests forcing accountability for the death of George Floyd, Duterte’s police will not be held accountable for atrocities against Philippine citizens.
Citizens’ Compliance and Neigbours’ Influence
Pathology tests of this dictatorship show that citizens’ support for authoritarianism is another means of maintaining Duterte’s rule. He offers a choice between good citizens or enemies of the state, one side or the other.
Large numbers of young people who support the regime have been infected with government warnings. Dialogue with the other is unwise. Compliance with the crowd gives safety. Democracy is more threatening than Covid 19. Vaccination against dissent is by supporting police and military who patrol the streets. Life will be easier if you give up any capacity for critical thinking.
Supporters of Duterte claim that his actions were ones they wanted to take themselves, but now they have someone to do it for them, though they do face a Catch 22 dilemma. Even if citizens want to complain about the government’s actions, there is nowhere for them to go. Representatives of government agencies have to be Duterte loyalists.
International spread of this political pandemic will have encouraged Duterte to realize that he is not alone. Thailand and Cambodia also nurture dictatorial rule. To justify bullying and repression, other alleged strong men speak the same language, deploy the same tactics- Bolsinaro, Orban, Hun Sen, Netanyahu, Prince Salman.
Stifling free speech, outlawing opposition parties, deriding democracy, riding roughshod over human rights have become central to governments’ agendas. Even countries which fail to criticize could be perceived as colluding with dictatorships.
In 2007 when a less punitive Philippine Human Rights Act was passed by President Gloria Arroyo, Foreign Minister Downer welcomed the initiative and claimed that the legislation represented ‘comprehensive counter terrorism measures.’
As a commitment to the region’s stability and security, Australia has at least thirteen memoranda of understanding with ASEAN countries, though any preoccupation with stability, security and anti-terrorism makes it more difficult to praise diversity, democracy and human rights.
Emphasis on military security brings a need for weapons to maintain order. Arms traders are ready to sell their military hardware. On April 30, the US State Department approved sales of guns, attack helicopters and munitions to the Philippines worth $2 billion. At the same time, also in the US, a huge increase in gun sales suggests that owners had found a way to shoot the corona virus, but in the Philippines, Duterte’s armed forces are to shoot critics of the regime.
International law could hobble Duterte but in his eyes, such law should be abolished. On being informed that he would be referred to the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, as in killing thousands of suspected drug addicts, Duterte responded, ‘The international court is bullshit’. ‘hypocritical’, ‘useless.’
Support for the Philippines
The Duterte pandemic threatens lives, so how can human rights respecting nations support a brave Filipino opposition?
In response to the Covid 19 virus, health authorities around the world reflected on previous responses to dangerous pandemics. The Philippines’ past respect for human rights is also worth recalling. The country had insisted that human rights was not some western project and they supported the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1998, the Philippines was a key proponent of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
The world learned from the successful People Power revolution which overthrew the repressive Marcos but the current Anti-Terrorist Bill will outlaw any revival of that movement. Bishop Jose Bagaforo says the Bill is inhuman, unjust and unlawful. He insists that activism is not terrorism. ‘If every dissent and opposition can be considered terrorism, who else will be free ?’
A group called ‘One Faith, One Nation, One Voice’, says ‘This Bill will cause a further shrinking of democratic space and weakening of public discourse that will be detrimental to our nation.’
In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Filipinos working from home have used social media to advocate for the vulnerable and some have dared to speak of freedoms gained by supporting human rights. However, the regime can identify human rights supporters and usurp their Facebook platforms. Government trolls are disseminating fake information in support of anti-terrorism measures.
Brave Filipinos citizens need to know they are supported, their mental and physical health not eroded by fear but sustained by being able to remain active, curious and critical.
A wider world needs to acknowledge that these massive abuses in the Philippines display pandemic symptoms which will threaten global health. Unless the Duterte dictatorship is opposed, with resources akin to well financed research for a Covid-19 vaccine, participatory democracy becomes seen as an incidental means of government which has little to say about the rights of a common humanity.
Stuart Rees, OAM, is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize