Marawi: The Imperial Past and the Unequal Present (Private Eye Philippines archive)

(Originally published as ‘Letter from Manila’ in Private Eye, 12th July 2017)

Given the progress made in peace talks between the Philippine government and the Islamic jihadists of the south in recent years, it’s a shock to see the city of Marawi on Mindanao island go up in flames due to its occupation by the infamous ISIS-affiliated Maute terror outfit. There are also anxieties about President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in the region, which is scarily redolent of the ironhanded Marcos era.

Maute, which is named after the maniacal warlord family that runs it, appear to be better trained and feistier than other cells in Mindanao. They have resisted two months of aerial, artillery and ground attacks by the Philippine military, taken a Catholic priest plus 200 others hostage, and slain around 50 civilians and 75 government troops. A lot is at stake in Marawi. Neighbouring countries are as worried as Filipinos are that the city could become a nerve centre for ISIS activity in the area; it might soon be known as the ‘Mosul of Southeast Asia.’ After all, Maute comprises both local and foreign fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia and the Middle East.

Duterte’s credibility could also rest on the outcome of the siege because, during his election campaign last summer, he made much of his cordial relations with Islamist factions in Mindanao, where he was a city mayor for 22 years. More disturbingly, Duterte suggested on May 24th this year that he might extend martial law to the entire country to stamp out what he calls a “foreign invasion” of terrorists. Many fear that such a move may get as gory as his nationwide campaign of extra-judicial slaughter of purported drug dealers and users, now a year old. An estimated 7-10,000 have
died in what Amnesty International has called a ‘war on the poor’.

While mounting casualties on the jihadist side and the intervention of US special forces on behalf of the military means the state will likely win this particular battle, many of us feel the larger war won’t end until the root causes of discord in the south are addressed. The Bangsomoro (Muslim community or nation) has been struggling for self-determination since the Spanish Empire first tried to colonise it in the 1500s. The Americans tried the same in the early 1900s, their troops under order to “kill anything over the age of ten”. They were greeted by forerunners of today’s suicide bombers: sociopathic or amok (where we get the English phrase ‘run amok’ from) swordsmen who would charge at a US soldier and do as much injury to him as possible before being gunned down.

While hostilities between Mindanao and the central government in Manila were dampened by the establishment of Islamic autonomous regions in 1989 and 2012, many southerners continue to feel neglected and marginalised.
Mindanao contains 11 out of the 20 poorest provinces of the Philippine archipelago and has far fewer jobs, schools and hospitals than the better-off north. “With poverty, hunger, and the lack of economic opportunity strongly felt in these areas,” argues Lila Ramos Shahani of the Philippine Star newspaper, “the youth are easily recruited to ‘live by the gun.’”

It’s a familiar irony across the developing world that great natural wealth can often be found a few thousand feet underneath intense human suffering. Mindanao is no exception here. In 2011, Wikileaks published a US diplomatic cable revealing that the island possesses untapped oil and gas reserves that could be worth up to $1 trillion if properly exploited. This ought to have been good news for all Filipinos north and south, but it will probably instead become
another reason for another conflict.

Photography by Tom Sykes

“An Unbelievable Job on the Drug Problem” (Private Eye Philippines archive)

(Originally published as ‘Letter from Manila’ in Private Eye issue 1475, 27th July 2018)

PUBLIC protests against the Philippines’ trigger-happy, drug-hating President Duterte have been
multiplying since November 2017, when Donald Trump made his official visit to the Philippines and congratulated Duterte on his “unbelievable job on the drug problem”. When the men had dinner they achieved a new nadir
of cringeworthiness; in a not-too-terrible voice, Duterte sang to Trump: “You are the light in my world, a half of this heart of mine.” The public mood was rather different, as the night before Trump’s arrival, Manila riot police had scrapped with red-clad demonstrators chanting “fascist” and “fight US imperialism and plunder!”

In January of this year, hundreds of people appalled by Duterte’s attempted ban on Rappler, a news website that has frequently criticized his administration, gathered in Manila with silver masking tape over their mouths. A month later came the ‘Youthquake’ of thousands of students walking out of their schools and universities in opposition to censorship, extra-judicial killings and other issues. On 1 May, 20,000 rallied to demand the abolition of the endo scheme that allows employers to deny basic contractual benefits to their employees.

None of which has softened Duterte’s stance on anything or anyone. Foreigners who ‘malign and
defame’ his administration will be arrested and deported, he has threatened. In April, Giacomo Filibeck of the Party of European Socialists, was kicked out of the country for daring to challenge the war on drugs, which has now claimed up to 20,000 lives. Australian nun Patricia Fox won an appeal in June against the cancellation of her visa for, as Duterte
colourfully put it, treating the “Philippines like a mat to wipe your feet on”. A lifelong human rights campaigner, Sister Fox had joined demos on behalf of maltreated indigenous people. However, her case is not closed and she could still be deported.

Meanwhile, Duterte has expanded his bloody campaign to include so-called ‘narcopoliticians’ by publishing a ‘death
list’ of 200 barangay (town and village) officials allegedly involved in drug-dealing. Many are sceptical about the list’s
accuracy, given the number of innocents – including five-year-old children – who have been killed outside of due process over the last two years. In May, former Congressman Eufranio “Franny” Eriguel, was addressing a pre-election crowd in La Union province when armed men appeared and shot him and two others dead. His surviving relatives deny any drug connections.

Similar ‘death lists’ are targeting people like ‘Judith’, a radio presenter and advocate for the persecuted Ifugao ethnic group in Sagada province. One day, an intelligence agent came to her home and warned her to “stop speaking ill of the government.” But ‘Judith’, who has two young adult children, will not be intimidated. “I will intensify my shouting,”
she said. “And I will stay and show them that I’m no terrorist. Anyway, it’s stupid me going somewhere else. Nobody is safe anywhere now.”

You might not think such large-scale oppression and violence would be conducive to economic prosperity, but the Philippines enjoyed a whopping 6.8% growth in the first quarter of 2018, almost double its long-term average. This is a prime reason why Duterte’s approval rating – if it can be entirely believed – has gone up to 88%, his constituency mostly male, working-class and provincial.

That said, he may have other vulnerabilities. There is hope – of a morbid variety – amongst people like ‘Judith’ that the Duterte can be stopped is if he resigns through ill health. Journalists including Francisco Tatad claim that, in January last year, Duterte flew to Fuda Hospital in China to receive treatment for cancer. ‘I don’t have cancer,’ Duterte responded. What he is happy to admit to, though, is his regular use of fentanyl, the high-strength opioid painkiller.
It makes him feel, he says, with no shred of irony, like he is ‘on cloud nine’.

Photography by Tom Sykes

Golden Handcuffs (Private Eye Philippines archive)

(Originally published as ‘Postcard from Manila’ in Private Eye issue 1502, 9th August 2019).

THE return of the death penalty. The lowering of the age of criminal culpability to 12. A vast expansion of executive powers. These are some of the policies that president Rodrigo Duterte is finding it easier to pursue since May’s midterm elections in which his friends won two-thirds of Senate seats.  

These include Imee Marcos, daughter of the late disgraced dictator Ferdinand (to whom Duterte gave a “hero’s burial” in 2016), and Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, Duterte’s ex-police chief, who has steered the clampdown on narcotics users and pushers (body count 27,000 so far, human rights groups estimate). Emboldened by these results, Duterte is now trying to prosecute journalist Maria Ressa, whose website Rappler has been critical of the drug war. Her trial is widely seen as a sham, especially as the draconian ‘cyberlibel’ law being used against her was introduced four months after she published her allegedly defamatory article. If she is found guilty, she could face prison.

The drug-related summary executions were under investigation by the International Criminal Court until March, when Duterte conveniently cancelled the Philippines’ membership of the organisation. Duterte has accused the ICC of hypocrisy, slamming it for overlooking the United States’ legally questionable invasion of Iraq.

“Whataboutism” is one of Duterte’s favourite tactics in response to critics, especially from abroad. He told UN human rights analysts: “Why are you Americans killing the black people there?” On other occasions he has conjured up dyspeptic allusions to the US-led war in Afghanistan, the 2011 Nato bombing of Libya and, with a generous nod to history, the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), in which the numbers of those killed by violence, disease and famine range in scholarly estimates between 200,000 and 1.4m.

It is populist opportunism at its finest and many Filipino voters lap it up. But Vicente Rafael, one of the Philippines’ most prominent historians, says US and European double standards on intervention and human rights have limited their capacity to stem the slide towards authoritarianism.

However, Duterte is not opposed to all foreign states influencing Philippine affairs. Former solicitor-general Pilo Hilbay recently blamed Duterte for allowing Beijing to encroach on Philippine-owned territories in the strategically important West Philippine Sea. China has “pushed the envelope forward, and forward,” he warned, and Duterte “has consented to everything that China has done.”

Duterte’s reluctance to challenge the Chinese may have something to do with the fact that, in 2016, he secured $24bn of investment from Beijing. Commentators fear that the Philippines could fall into the same “debt trap” as it had in the 1980s and 1990s, when its economy was crippled by massive loan repayments to the IMF and World Bank. These western-dominated financial institutions also imposed privatisation, deregulation and public spending caps.

The resulting poverty, unemployment and wealth inequality helped feed a popular disillusionment that laid the groundwork for Duterte’s autocratic, strongman politics. How curious if history were to repeat itself, and Philippine debt bondage to China eventually produces another backlash against the very political elite Duterte first appropriated and now commands.

Photography by Tom Sykes

Infection Oppression (Private Eye Philippines Archive)

(Originally published as ‘Postcard from Manila’ in Private Eye volume 1524, 19th June 2020).

The relentlessness of the coronavirus may have damaged the populist swagger of the likes of a Trump or a Bolsonaro, but the pandemic has been a good friend to President Rodrigo Duterte and his instincts to censor, to persecute and more generally to act with impunity. While just over 1,000 Filipinos had died from Covid-19 by mid-June, up to 24 times that number may have been murdered by bounty-hunting cops and hitmen in a lethal campaign against drug users and sellers since 2016 (the UN is sceptical of the official figure of 8,000).

The same merciless mindset informed the Philippines’ lockdown, which began in April. It’s among the world’s strictest, given that violators risk being shot dead. Several citizens – some with mental health problems – have been liquidated in this way. Around 30,000 more were thrown into overcrowded and infection-friendly gaols, including aid workers whose ‘crime’ against quarantine was distributing food to the vulnerable. There will be less scrutiny of such abuses now that Duterte has shut down ABS-CBN News (established 1953), our largest media organisation with a staff of 11,000. The official justification for the closure is the expiry of ABS-CBN’s licence, but the real motives are personal and vindictive. Since he was elected in 2016, Duterte has alleged that the network is biased against his political programme and is “swindling” him. More ominously, he warned in 2017, “I am not scaring them, but someday karma will come [to them].”

Those media outlets that have survived the president’s ire are focusing – understandably – on the virus, which means there is less coverage than usual of the state’s repression of its political adversaries (sadly not unique to the Duterte chapter of Philippine history). Once again, those assisting the least fortunate are being targeted. On 30 April, masked gunmen broke into the home of veteran environmental activist, “Jory” Porquia, and shot him nine times. Police later arrested his daughter for simply laying a wreath at the spot where he died.

Other ‘undesirables’ apprehended include priests, social workers, farmers who have challenged corporate land-grabs and indigenous leader Gloria Tomalon for campaigning against big-scale mining in her ancestral lands on Mindanao island. Sister Patricia Fox, an Australian human rights advocate whom Duterte exiled from the Philippines in 2018, says the lockdown amounts to “de facto martial law throughout the country”.

It may be necessary to re-think the phrase “de facto” with regards to these totalitarian policies given that Duterte is about to sign a controversial new anti-terrorism bill into law. Critics have accused the president of neglecting a much-needed package to ease the economic damage done by the Coronavirus in favour of pushing through legislation that will hugely expand government surveillance operations, allow the internment of suspects for 24 days without charge and endow a new, cloak-and-dagger “counterterrorism council” – appointed by the president himself, of course – with the power to declare any person or organisation terrorists.

Not for the first time, the man they nickname ‘Duterte Harry’ is celebrating his capacity to divide Filipinos rather than actually to help those in need.            

Photography by Tom Sykes