VICE PRESIDENT Leni Robredo’s video message to a UN Commission on Narcotics meeting last week sparked hysterical reactions of anger and outrage. It seems that this country is not just politically divided between the “Yellowtards” and “Dutertards,” the pejorative terms by which the opposing anti- and pro-Duterte camps contemptuously and crassly refer to one another. A parallel world appears to have come into existence.
In her five-minute speech, Robredo condemned extra-judicial killings, the death penalty, and lowering the age of criminal liability. She told of civilians being herded into public spaces, men separated off from women, and another category, those with tattoos, segregated and searched. She told of police beating up homeowners who demanded to see search warrants, and of police hauling away a suspect’s kin if the suspect himself could not be found, ‘palit-ulo’ they called it, she said, an exchange of heads. She said the “state of mind” of the country’s citizens was one of hopelessness, helplessness and fear. She said that killing addicts could not solve the country’s drug problem and cast doubt on whether drugs in fact should be the President’s chief priority. She demanded government transparency, called on the President to uphold the rule of law, insisted that headdress the “war that really matters – the war on poverty”.
Robredo speaks of a country in which many thousands of Filipinos from the very poorest sections of society have been killed in cold blood and where a policeman is a poor man’s terrorist and murderer. It is a country in which the very worst off live in terror and despair and have nowhere to turn for protection and justice.
For speaking this way, high-ranking government officials have called for Robredo’s impeachment. She was admonished for “washing dirty linen in public,” that is, committing the heinous crime against propriety. Newspaper columnists and social media groups, with equal measures of fury and fanaticism, poured over her great bucketfuls of bile, disgust and scorn. Her image as an aswang, the predatory she-vampire of indigenous nightmare, circulates on the internet. She is accused of lying, betraying the public trust, backstabbing the President, throwing the country in a bad light, and causing embarrassment to all Filipinos. She is being denounced as callous and power-hungry, driven by an ambition to oust the President. She is being forced to apologize for her statements and to step down. She is being called a traitor.
In the country presided over by Rodrigo Duterte, the extent of the drugs problem cannot be underestimated. Duterte has said that there are four million drug addicts at large and he talks of them as subhuman. He describes the crazed addict holding up trucks and buses at gunpoint demanding money, entering people’s homes and raping the womenfolk within. He claims policemen are killed every day by addicts wielding weapons – be it a stone or a gun. He vows to continue his anti-drug war at whatever cost. “I will not stop,” Duterte said to a Filipino community in Myanmar recently “…even if it will cost me my life, my honor and the presidency itself.”
For many, this strongman President is at last getting things done. He promises to eradicate corruption, criminality, and improve Mindanao. He dismisses the global denunciation of his methods. His stock responses to international criticism for his policies have been to curse and swear at leaders. To EU MEPs who recently issued a resolution against his administration’s efforts to reinstate the death penalty, he responded without regard for the facts. He claimed, wrongly, that many European countries have the death penalty and said: “Why don’t you mind your own business. Why do you have to f*** with us goddammit!” The insults, curses, swear words that he fires at world leaders, the United Nations and a host of other world organizations, are wrapped in the kind of defiant nationalism that endears him to a Filipino audience who want their nation accorded respect. He sexually intimidates women, and jokes about rape. He has freely confessed to murdering people and wants to see 100,000 people dead before he will stop his anti-drugs war. He likens himself to Adolf Hitler. “I became President by destiny” he declares. To all this, his Pinoy audience, whether at home or in the diaspora, nod approvingly, and laugh and clap at his assertions. They see the man they elected surrounded by political conspirators, lying media, and closed-minded oppositionists out to prevent the country from succeeding. They see their man working hard on their behalf, standing up to Western powers, and bringing in Chinese investment for the good of all.
Is this politics at the coal-face or parallel worlds?
A long view would opt for the former. In 1951, the Philippines was in the throes of a post-war period of reconstruction and growing prosperous. Yet, Senator Claro M. Recto declared, “We are a small nation…unable in an age of industrialization even to feed, clothe, and arm ourselves.”
Recto was attacking the administration of Elpidio Quirino, the incumbent President at the time, whom Recto accused of squandering the country’s hard fought independence by his contemptible subservience toward the United States. The speech, delivered at the University of the Philippines, was titled ‘Our mendicant foreign policy’ and portrayed the country under Quirino as stupid, servile, self-delusional, and mendicant. Recto is remembered today as one of the country’s most brilliant nationalists. And certainly Quirino would never be considered a mass murderer.