Filipino Women Are Key in Resistance to Duterte
This piece originally appeared on Truthdig in two parts. Part One. Part Two.
His boorish, brash, in-your-face performances helped win him the presidency of his country. He told voters he would “drain the swamp,” a swamp of drugs and crime. He was born to privilege, yet the poorest revere him as a “man of the people.” He is thin-skinned, constantly appearing to be angry, and his own brother declared that he needs to learn anger management. Many believe he is bonkers. And when he utters misogynist comments, he defends them by saying, “This is how men talk.”
No, this is not a description of Donald Trump, but of the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who has been called the “ ‘Donald Trump’ of the country.” He is also called “Dodirty”—the doer of despicable deeds.
Much has been written about Duterte’s brutal behavior. He is an alleged killer, not only of drug traffickers, but also of drug users. Nevertheless, he has said he abused drugs, becoming dependent on fentanyl for pain. (Duterte later claimed he made up his story about fentanyl abuse.)
He dislikes being asked about his medical status and demeaned one journalist with the crude retort, “How is your wife’s vagina?” He says God speaks to him, but he has called Pope Francis the “son of a whore.” (He subsequently canceled his plan to apologize to the pope in person, but the Philippine press reported in January that he wrote the pontiff a letter.)
As the mayor of the city of Davao for 28 years, Duterte allegedly “cleaned it up” by authorizing a squad of killers to wipe out drug sellers and users. Most of the victims were not drug dealers but drug users who were unemployed or worked at unskilled jobs. Within six months of his May 2016 election as president, thousands of killings took place, with figures ranging as high as 7,000. Philippines Sen. Antonio Trillanes, one of the rare Senate critics of Duterte, has called him a “mass murderer” who brags about people he has killed and “how the brains were splattered all over the place, gangland style.”
Before and after his presidential election, Duterte’s own statements have given critics more evidence to use against him than those collected from other sources. When he was mayor, he said he would go “around Davao with a motorcycle … I was really looking for a confrontation so I could kill.” In a televised speech, he boasted of another lethal altercation: “Whoever will use [public funds] for corruption[,] I will get him [to] ride the helicopter with me going to Manila and will push him out while we are up in the air … I did that before and I can do that again.” Duterte also promised that in his first six months in office he would kill 100,000 criminals and dump so many bodies into the sea the “fish will grow fat.” After his inauguration, he told military officers in the city of Cebu, “All those deaths happening here? Let’s add to them. Let me take care of it.”
Most of the victims of Duterte’s alleged drug killings have been men. What is happening to women in the poorest barangays (districts) devastated by the death squads has been less reported. When I spoke with a member of In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity, a human rights network protesting his regime’s deadly policies and programs, she explained: “Young women who have been sold, and [those] with whom we work tell us that women and girls are sexually exploited because they are offered by drug-dealing parents to vigilantes or policemen so their own lives are spared.” They “fear for their own lives or that of their kin who are listed in the precincts as having links with either drug use or drug peddling,” she added.
Jean Enriquez, director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women—Asia-Pacific, an organization that assists victims of extrajudicial killings and their families, told me: “The killings threaten to increase the number of women facing exploitation, abuse and violence.” Victims lack services that provide medical and economic relief. Many daughters have been orphaned, mothers have lost sons, wives have been widowed and families have been deprived of breadwinners. Women have no access to justice and are vulnerable to sex trafficking.
Any kind of “civil space is increasingly contracting,” because there is no safe place to go in the neighborhoods, Enriquez said. “Communities are silenced by fear … Solidarity in communities also breaks down as many shrink from going to wakes and funerals of victims, lest they are tagged as drug users or pushers.”
Duterte is an unapologetic, appalling misogynist. When an Australian missionary held hostage during the 1989 Davao prison uprising was gang-raped and had her throat slit by prisoners, he joked, “I was angry because she was raped. … But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been the first. What a waste.” (Duterte was then the mayor.) When his political party issued a statement claiming he had apologized, he nullified it by saying, “I will never apologize.”
Sen. Leila de Lima, his most outspoken critic, has argued that Duterte and his followers have perfected the art of “weaponizing humor against women.” Duterte’s trivialization of rape has intensified an extant rape culture in which sexual harassment, prostitution and other forms of sexual exploitation have become normalized, and men feel freer to treat women as sexual playthings. Enriquez compared Duterte’s rape remarks to the prima nocta behavior used by pimps. “They need to be the first [to break in the women and girls]. … That’s the system and machismo rule.”
After Duterte won the presidency, he enlarged his pool of targeted demographics, adding journalists to the mix of drug pushers and users. He denounced “corrupt journalists” who “deserved to be killed” and also threatened human rights activists. Casting activists as enemies, he warned he would place on his list of imperiled individuals those who oppose his extrajudicial killings. “I will include you because you are the reason why their numbers swell,” he taunted. Sources have confirmed that intelligence agencies have listed leading female activists as “persons of interest” (read: suspects).
Prior to the election, women’s groups led by the World March of Women announced they had filed a complaint against Duterte with the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. Although Duterte was found guilty, the commission has no prosecutorial power. Given their visibility in the campaign against extrajudicial killings, female activists continue to receive death and rape threats online and by text sent by anonymous supporters of Duterte and Ferdinand Marcos, the now-dead former dictator of the Philippines.
Yet the women in Duterte’s life stand behind him. After he uttered the repulsive gang-rape joke, his daughter Sara admitted that she had been raped. He publicly expressed doubt about her statement and dismissed her as a “drama queen.” Sara, who had also been mayor of Davao, told reporters she was not offended by her father’s joke nor, seemingly, by his belittling of her.
During marriage annulment proceedings with his ex-wife, Elizabeth Zimmerman, in 1998, a psychological evaluation of Duterte found that he had a “narcissistic personality disorder” and a “pervasive tendency to demean, humiliate others and violate their rights.” Zimmerman summed up 25 years of marriage to him as “miserable.” But in 2016, during his presidential run, she campaigned for him.
Sen. de Lima has been Duterte’s most vocal and persistent opponent. No one of her political prestige has challenged him so unrelentingly. Duterte seems to have cowed most legislators in both houses of Congress. A Filipino human rights activist I interviewed said that even his former Muslim and Communist critics have been bought off with money and/or positions in the Cabinet, and Duterte has taken advantage of historical divisions within the left to foster his goals.
De Lima’s criticism of the president dates from when he was mayor of Davao, or, as some would say, “mayor of the Davao death squads.” In 2009, when President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo appointed de Lima chair of the Commission on Human Rights, de Lima launched an investigation into Duterte’s role in the landslide of extrajudicial killings, many involving street children in Davao. Multiple hearings that produced no actionable evidence against him earned de Lima Duterte’s ruthless vengeance.
Not one to back down, in 2016 de Lima opened another investigation into Duterte’s alleged drug war killings after he became president. During the election, he promised to quickly rid the country of drug traffickers and drug users. As chair of the Senate Justice Committee, de Lima led a number of Senate investigations into allegations of police involvement in “state-inspired” killings. But she upped the ante by bringing two former death-squad members—one an ex-policeman—to testify against Duterte.
The former police officer said he had acted on direct orders from Duterte, who was mayor at the time. De Lima concluded: “The implication is that we have a group of serial killers and mass murderers within the ranks of the organization which is supposed to protect and serve the people.” The officer’s testimony confirmed what Duterte had been boasting about for years.
The president fought back, using his congressional allies to remove de Lima from her position as Justice Committee chair. His cronies also exonerated Duterte and launched their own investigation of the senator, producing seven criminals to testify against her at a hearing. Using a prison scandal that occurred on de Lima’s watch as Justice secretary, Duterte’s allies accused her of favoring powerful inmates who were living lives of luxury in the prison and were supplied with guns and narcotics. The criminals testified that de Lima had received payments from drug lords and organized a drug-trafficking ring in the prison.
During the hearing, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, another Duterte ally, offered to present a video that allegedly would prove de Lima had engaged in a sexual relationship with her driver. The video had nothing to do with the case, but Duterte warned, “I will have to destroy her in public.” The video was obviously meant to humiliate and discredit, undermine her character and turn public opinion against her.
De Lima strongly denied that she was the woman in the video, and women’s groups and female legislators blocked it from being shown at the hearing. But the video, full of lurid details, went viral on social media, was sold on the streets and provoked a barrage of slut-shaming slurs. Duterte capitalized on this exposé, calling de Lima “immoral”—a hypocritical charge from the mouth of an antediluvian womanizer who has boasted of having two wives and two girlfriends, paraded his affairs in public while married and offered to give Pfizer Inc. an award for inventing Viagra.
In solidarity and resistance, millions of women took to Facebook and proclaimed, “It was me in the sex video. #EveryWoman,” identifying with “Leila” and challenging her misogynistic accusers. I asked one de Lima supporter why so many women rallied to her side. She responded: “If you’ve done this to a senator, you can do it to ‘EveryWoman.’ ” “EveryWoman” offered to testify on de Lima’s behalf.
During her 2016 Senate campaign, de Lima enjoyed the backing of many young people, especially women. Students admired her respect for human rights, commitment to promoting social justice and concern for issues such as education and jobs. Young women in particular saw her as a role model. De Lima said their support “definitely motivated me to work harder.”
And they worked harder for her. Students came out in large numbers to protest her detention and what they called her “misogynous crucifixion.” Many of her supporters were from such historically Catholic women’s schools as Miriam College, St. Scholastica’s College and La Consolación University. Noticeably missing was any organized protest from students at traditionally male colleges, such as Ateneo de Manila University, and from the University of the Philippines.
In her willingness to go after prominent people, de Lima made a lot of enemies. In a country known for high levels of political corruption, she did not hesitate to pursue the president who had appointed her to the 2009 Duterte investigation. In 2011, as Justice secretary, she arrested former President Arroyo, who was later jailed for misuse of state funds and election fraud. A source familiar with political corruption in the Philippines told me that Duterte swayed the Supreme Court to acquit Arroyo of all charges in 2016. De Lima also pursued earlier actions against the judge who consigned her to jail, and filed criminal indictments against three high-profile senators for alleged misuse of funds.
In February, de Lima, her former bodyguard and driver, and a former prison official were arrested after a judge ordered their detentions under a questionable warrant. De Lima has denied all charges, including those of drug trafficking and receiving payments from drug kingpins. “If they think that by jailing me, I will turn my back on my principles, they are mistaken. Instead, they have encouraged me more to pursue truth and justice,” she said.
De Lima is currently being held in solitary confinement, though she can see her lawyers and family. Some of her Liberal Party colleagues fear for her life, because another of Duterte’s targets—a mayor accused of drug trafficking—was assassinated in his cell by police officers. De Lima remains defiant and has called for the International Criminal Court to investigate the drug killings.
Meanwhile, ignoring years of Duterte’s human rights abuses, President Trump this week invited his counterpart from the Philippines to the White House.
After Sen. Leila de Lima, Vice President Leni Robredo has been President Rodrigo Duterte’s strongest critic in the Philippine government. She is also de Lima’s staunch political supporter and international defender.
“Efforts to smear Senator de Lima are a strong indication that the charges against her arise from a political agenda,” Robredo has claimed. “These efforts began soon after she launched an investigation into the issue of extrajudicial killings under the present administration.”
Robredo also questioned why no action has been taken on the 500 complaints against Duterte lodged with the Philippines Commission on Human Rights. After visiting de Lima in prison, the vice president pointed out that the country has an unfortunate history of trying to silence and destroy its critics through political harassment and manipulation of judicial measures.
When both the president and vice president made official appearances at an event commemorating the victims of Typhoon Yolanda, one of the most devastating natural disasters in the Philippines, Duterte joked about Robredo’s beauty and commented on her skirt and knees. “Ma’am Leni wore a dress that was shorter than usual. The protocol officers probably noticed I was always behind her. I told [Finance Secretary] Sonny Dominguez, ‘You’re too far, come closer. Check out her knees. …’ ”
When pressed by the media as to whether the remarks were insulting to women, Duterte argued that he was trying to lighten up a solemn event. In a more defensive retort, he said, “Do not exact a standard for me! I will do what I say, and I will say what I do.” Robredo tried to ignore his comments, but later, at an International Women’s Day event, she said, “We [women] are expected to stay silent when someone makes our knees and legs the subject of discussion.” She also recalled how during her political campaign, she received messages telling her to stay at home, that she is “just a widow and is incapable of the job.”
Duterte’s party members have called for Robredo’s impeachment. Not only did they seek her ouster, they also have selected her replacement—Sen. Bongbong Marcos, who lost by a small margin to Robredo in the vice presidential election almost a year ago. Bongbong—a nickname in a country where, to outsiders, the choice of diminutives may seem strange and unflattering—is the son of the late Ferdinand Marcos, former dictator of the Philippines.
In the 1980s, the Marcos regime instituted martial law and imprisoned, raped and tortured his opponents, while orchestrating the deaths of thousands of Filipinos. Transparency International named him the second most corrupt leader of all time after investigating his theft of $10 billion from state funds. I know well this shameful period in the country’s history, because a number of those who suffered in detention were and are my friends.
For many years, the Marcos family sought to bury the ex-president’s body in the Philippines’ “heroes’cemetery.” When President Fidel Ramos allowed Marcos’ body to return to the Philippines in 1993, the family kept it in a glass casket at his former home in the northern part of the country. Every subsequent president has refused the family’s request for a hero’s burial because of the dictator’s crimes. This year, Duterte, a longtime ally of the family, decreed that Marcos deserved to be interred in the heroes’ cemetery because he had been a president and veteran of World War II. The Supreme Court then approved the burial, dismissing the petitions of martial law victims who tried to stop it.
Robredo has been forthright in her opposition to sanitizing Marcos’ name and to the garlanding of a death dealer. “How can we allow a hero’s burial for a man who has plundered our country and was responsible for the death and disappearance of many Filipinos?” she asked. “He is no hero.” She strongly condemned the burial, saying, “Like a thief in the night, the Marcos family deliberately hid the information of burying former president Marcos today from the Filipino people.”
Duterte has played a schizophrenic cat-and-mouse game with Robredo. Prior to his inauguration, Duterte did not offer her a Cabinet role, which is customarily given to vice presidents, even those of the opposing party. Later, he informally offered her the position of housing secretary during an interview with a journalist who pressed him on whether Robredo would be given a Cabinet spot. Duterte taunted, “Are you a friend of Leni? Do you have the number of Leni? Call her. I will tell her what you’re asking me always.”
Five months later, Robredo received a text message ordering her “to desist from attending all cabinet meetings.” She called it the “last straw” in a series of efforts to prevent her from doing her job and resigned as housing secretary. Robredo said that as the people’s duly elected vice president, she would continue to perform her duties and, especially, her work for marginalized groups. She is well known as a champion of the urban poor.
Then came demands for Robredo’s impeachment. The event that precipitated this clamor was a video presented in March during an unofficial side event at the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. In the video, Robredo called the 7,000 killings in Duterte’s drug raids “summary executions” and deplored his impunity. Moreover, she said that victims of anti-drug police squads are allegedly beaten if they request a warrant, or they “have their relatives snatched as collateral.” The drug problem, she said, can’t be solved “with bullets alone,” and encouraged Filipinos to “defy brazen incursions on their rights.” Drugs, she said, are a “complex public health issue linked intimately with poverty and social inequality.”
The Senate president, citing Robredo’s “sustained” attacks against Duterte, accused her of being part of a triumvirate of legislators plotting to oust the president and destabilize the government. He especially criticized what he called her “false” and “misleading” claims in the video presented at the U.N.
In threatening to file an impeachment complaint against Robredo, the speaker of the House weighed in, saying that the vice president had committed treason by sullying the country’s reputation and betraying the public trust in an international forum. “Truth-telling is not an impeachable offense,” Robredo countered.
Robredo also declared that she had been warned of a plot to steal the vice presidency. “I will not allow the Vice Presidency to be stolen. I will not allow the will of the people to be thwarted.” She asked her supporters “to keep your courage because in a time of trouble and darkness, we need to be brave.”
Duterte initially joined in the call for her impeachment, claiming that Robredo couldn’t wait to become president, but quickly reversed himself, saying she has the right to free speech, and that removing her from office would damage the country. When I asked a source why Duterte was now playing nice, she answered, “He wants to be portrayed as benevolent, which he utilizes to undercut or disorient the opposition, but the attacks against Leni have been relentless. So this is a strategy! The other explanation is that he is just plain crazy and changes positions frequently.”
Under international law, there are several legal bases under which President Duterte could be held criminally liable. Because the Philippines has ratified the Rome Statute and is part of the International Criminal Court, Duterte’s clarion calls for extrajudicial killings in his drug sweeps could constitute incitement to violence. He could also be charged with instigating law enforcement—using the police and military—to commit murder. Additionally, the Doctrine of Command Responsibility holds superiors accountable for the unlawful acts of their subordinates, and Duterte’s public comments are admissions that he knew about these killings as well as about police involvement. Finally, the systematic nature of the killings and the fact that they number in the thousands could be designated as crimes against humanity.
There is no cause for optimism that justice will prevail soon. When Fatou Bensouda, the chief prosecutor of the ICC, warned Duterte that she was monitoring the situation in the Philippines and that he was potentially in violation of the court, he retorted that the Philippines might withdraw. “The International Criminal Court is useless. They [Russia] withdrew its membership. I might follow. If China and Russia will decide to create a new order, I will be the first to join.”
In February, the chief of the Philippines National Police instructed his members to stand down from their anti-drug operations. The order was invoked when a policeman who was part of a drug squad killed a South Korean businessman. Although embarrassed and angered by the incident, Duterte was more furious at the police for suspending their participation in the drug campaign. Once his chosen people, the police were now branded “corrupt to the core.”
Duterte then announced that the Armed Forces of the Philippines would join his “war on drugs.” As many governments do when they are short on reasons for justifying the use of military force, he said he would raise the threat from drugs to a national security level and that the “war” would continue. Although Duterte denied that he would declare martial law, militarization of any part of the citizenry is a common prelude to legitimizing political suppression and removing power from other branches of government. Thus far, the military has refused to lead the drug campaign unless it receives specific terms of engagement.
For many survivors of the Marcos regime, the militarization of the killings, as well as Marcos’ “hero’s” burial, brought back tormenting memories of rape, torture and brainwashing—the reliving of a historical nightmare that was all too familiar and painful.
At this writing, Sen. Leila de Lima is still incarcerated. In one of his obdurate moods, Duterte dubbed her an “odious character,” reiterating that she will “rot in jail.” During a visit to the city of Tacloban, he said, “If I were de Lima, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll hang myself.”
De Lima is continuing to fulfill her senatorial duties from jail and is fighting Duterte’s move to reintroduce the death penalty for drug offenders, along with a proposed measure to treat children as young as 9 like adult criminals. In March, she was honored by the U.S. journal Foreign Policy as one of its “Global Thinkers of 2016” for standing up to an “extremist leader.”
There is no sign that de Lima, Robredo and the other brave-hearted women of the Philippines, who are publicly challenging a vicious regime they deem responsible for the murders of thousands of Filipinos, will ever back down.
Highlighting CATW-AP's Tireless Efforts in the Filipino Woman-led Resistence Against DuterteJanice G. Raymond, CATW Board Member May 5, 2017
Filipino Women Are Key in Resistance to Duterte