Who are you going to believe?



LAST week a boisterous crowd of a few hundred schoolgirls from one of Manila’s elite schools protested in the streets against extra-judicial killings. Meanwhile, around the same time, in Washington D.C., a three-man panel of professional human rights advocates were readying to do much the same thing at a US Congress hearing on President Duterte’s anti-drug war. The juxtaposition struck me as startling, dramatic, extraordinary. Were you convinced by either of these events?

The Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission was convened in response to a couple of US senators who had filed a bill seeking to restrict the export of weapons to the Philippines, and specifically to the national police force. Statements from members of the panel carried the force of knockout punches. Ellecer Carlos, representing the Philippine human rights organization I-Defend, accused President Duterte and other high officials of instigating and carrying out “a social cleansing policy” in which daily killings and a repetitive “kill rhetoric” made “human lives cheap”. US congresswoman Jackie Speier of California’s 14th congressional district, whose constituents are largely Filipino-American, reminded the world that vigilantism and extrajudicial executions were unacceptable in modern society. At least 8,000 people have been killed, she said, and chillingly described the Philippines as a “country falling prey to bloody demagoguery”.

Calling the situation nothing less than a “human rights calamity,” Phelim Kine, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch, struck out the hardest. Not only was the Philippine government killing its own citizens, he said, it was orchestrating an “intensive propaganda effort to essentially deny the reality of this brutal slaughter.”

Kine wasn’t just calling out fake news and cover-ups that dribbles out of social media and from the loose lips of Duterte’s Cabinet men. He was referring to a planned system of outright lying. The “big lie technique,” as Kine called it, operated on three levels. First, the government lies about supporting the rule of law when, in fact, the rule of law was being demolished. Second, the government is lying when it claims to be dedicating itself to protecting the rights of citizens. In reality and in practice, citizens’ right to life is being violated on a daily basis. And third, the government is dealing with a drug problem based on “flawed or outright fabricated statistics.” “What they are doing,” Kine says,“is [launching]a war against the poor.”

But here’s the nub of it. The Philippines, Kine thinks, got to this point because a man was elected with 38 percent of the popular vote on a campaign platform promising mass extrajudicial violence. Filipinos, he implies, got what they wanted.

Back in one of the more leafy neighborhoods of Manila, schoolgirls from around 12 to 16 years old, wearing distinctively Germanic uniforms—a dark blue pinafore over a white frilled blouse—waved cardboard placards bearing such incendiary slogans as “DU30 Diktador,” “EJK is not OK,” and “Triggered Kami”. They are from St. Scholastica’s, an all-girls’ Catholic school run by Benedictine nuns and boasts of alumni that includes a woman president and several senators. The parents of these children belong to the fabulous rich. They fork out annual tuition ranging from P80,000 to over P90,000, excluding extra-curriculars like music, cooking, arts, and sports, which add on several more thousands of pesos to the bill.

Implausible as it may seem, these girls were out on the streets denouncing the Duterte administration as “misogynist and abusive.” On camera, one of the girls says that they are part of a “youth resist movement” taking a stance against “Duterte’s dictatorship” and extrajudicial killings. “Why do we allow taking another life to be the new normal?” she asks. She has received online abuse from Duterte supporters but shakes it off as par for the course. This girl is 13 years old and is already sounding more sensible than most members of the Philippine judiciary.

It is likely that marching out of the school gates to demonstrate against the government is the kind of behavior that would not ordinarily be tolerated were it not for the school’s influential vice president, Sister Mary John Mananzan. “It’s part of their education,” Mananzan asserts flatly. An activist during Marcos’ Martial Law period, Mananzan is a rare nun who has gone against the highly conservative Catholic grain of her calling. She speaks out against clerical corruption and abuses, and is a powerful supporter of gender equality, female empowerment, contraception and women’s reproductive health rights.

The schoolgirls who took to the barricades that day were plainly filled with verve and energy. They danced, they chanted, they spoke with confidence and faith and had a lot of fun doing so.

Would you dismiss these girls as insincere elitists out on a frivolous lark? Or would you pity them for being the pawns of a scheming and manipulative authority figure who exploits their innocence and privileged backgrounds to grab media attention for her own causes?

In a similar vein, would you dismiss the US Congress hearing as American meddling in local affairs? Or decry it as a contemptible imposition of Western imperialism? Would you say the statements of the human rights activists coddle criminals? Destabilize a democratically elected President and destroy the international standing of the country?

If you think the words of the human rights advocates are untrue, and that the convictions of placard-waving privileged schoolgirls demonstrating in the streets are also false, who do you think is telling the truth?



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