Democracy is threatened from within in many countries where authoritarian, often populist and nationalist forces have gained ground. Institutions of democracy have been attacked. The Philippines is one such country.
Although it has been a democracy for most of the post-War period and for several periods before the war, there have often been troubled times where human rights and democratic processes were not fully respected. One such episode was from 1972 to 1986, when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law and, essentially, ruled as a dictator.
Current attacks on democracy followed the democratic election of Rodrigo Duterte over four other candidates. He was elected in 2016 to a single six-year term with a plurality of 39 per cent. Many of his campaign promises were “progressive”, including measures to fight poverty, build infrastructure and increase employment. He also promised to kill 10s of thousands of drug users and dealers.
Duterte has delivered on that last promise. According to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, in her address to the UN Human Rights Council on 6 March 2019, up to 27,000 people may have been killed during that anti-drug campaign. Some have been killed by the State and others by “non-State actors” (death squads).
Bachelet further pointed out that Special Rapporteurs of the Human Rights Council have been subjected to threats along with opposition leaders, human rights defenders, and journalists. She also was alarmed by the erosion of rule of law and by proposals to impose the death penalty for drug offenses and reduce the age of criminal responsibility from 15 to 12 or even 9 years of age.
Rule of law has also weakened with the judiciary becoming less independent. Martial law has been declared in Mindanao. There are fears that it could return for the whole country.
In addition to being tough to get rid of drugs, Duterte was elected to wipe out corruption. An example shows that his bloodbath has not delivered on either drugs or corruption. Extra-judicial killings of drug users and small-time drug peddlers have exploded.
However, when the two largest shipments of drugs arrived in the Philippines, one worth 6.4 and the other, 6.8 billion pesos (both the equivalent of hundreds of millions of US dollars), customs officials in charge, and who looked the other way, were simply re-assigned.
Reasons for Hope
Just as corruption turned out to be the Achille’s heel of Marcos, history may be repeating itself. As has been seen in other countries, people may be willing to give up some of their democratic rights to fight corruption, but to have rights contract while corruption expands is not what they sought. As under Marcos, this is a major reason for public dissatisfaction.
Another lesson that was learned from the Marcos era is that people never ceased to hope for a better and more democratic future. And activists, even during the darkest days, continued to build support for rights and to organise.
Most of the pluralistic trade union movement of the Philippines has come together on priorities and action in a broad alliance called NAGKAISA. They have managed to work effectively together on several legislative issues and, despite difficulties, have been able to make progress.
Maternity leave has been approved and signed by the President. ILO Convention 151, Labour Relations (Public Service) (1978), organising and bargaining rights for public employees, was ratified and signed by the President. And, discussions are taking place on the rights of contract/precarious workers, although legislation is not final.
The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the Global Union Federation for Journalists and the largest organisation of journalists in the world, in its media freedom report, ranked the Philippines as the worst country for safety for journalists in Southeast Asia. Since the election of Duterte in 2016, 12 journalists have been killed.
Social media has been used on a massive scale to circulate fake news, including through the activities of Cambridge Analytics, the same firm that pioneered the micro-targetting of FACEBOOK accounts for disinformation in the US in the 2016 Presidential campaign and the Brexit referendum in the UK in the same year.
Journalists in the Philippines have been subject to cyber-harassment including, for example, anonymous and unsubstantiated attacks on them as being linked to drug gangs or members of the Communist Party. Threats, including death threats, have become common.
If the killings are added to death threats, online harassment, police surveillance and the revocation of operating licenses, the IFJ recorded 85 cases of assault on the media from June 2016 to May 2018. It is very possible, even probable, that the President’s office is involved. The IFJ reports a “well-funded and professionally managed” assault on journalists without “basis in fact or in law”. The website of the IFJ member organisation, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP), has been shut down several times by cyberattacks.
IFJ General Secretary Anthony Bellanger decried the attacks on Filipino journalists, but stressed that, “history shows that, despite systematic efforts to generate fear and intimidation, our colleagues in the Philippines have shown courage, even in the worst moments of martial law, and have refused to give way to tyrants. They must, however, be visible and have the support of other journalists and trade unionists and all those who care about human rights and freedom. They must not be or feel alone.”
Teachers in the Philippines are suffering from similar threats and harassment. At a solidarity meeting in Manila on 21 February, the member organisation of Education International, the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), reported 34 recorded cases of police profiling, surveillance, and harassment of teacher trade unionists in 10 regions. A leaked memo from the Manila Police District revealed that the police were ordered to conduct an “inventory” of all educators who were ACT members.
Last November, former ACT General Secretary France Castro and 17 colleagues were detained on false charges while visiting Lumad schools on a humanitarian and solidarity mission. Many schools had been forcibly closed by the military, displacing more than 346,000 people.
The current ACT General Secretary, Raymond Basilio, has also been harassed, including receiving a death threat by text message on his telephone during a press conference in January.
Education International General Secretary David Edwards, who spoke at the ACT solidarity meeting, observed, “I left Manila shocked by the sophisticated and highly organised attempts to intimidate teachers as well as to distort curriculum so as to conform to the views of the current political leadership. However, I also left with tremendous admiration and respect for the leaders and members of ACT for their courage and for their efforts to protect their profession and their union and to maintain ties with their communities. They need, deserve, and will receive our strong and sustained support.”
The General Secretary of Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) Ambet Yuson, is a veteran of the struggle to restore democracy in the Philippines at the time of President Marcos. He has been following closely the situation in his country of origin.
Yuson pointed out that, “although many details are not known outside of the Philippines about what is happening, there is both good and bad news. On the one hand, the President is less than half-way through his term of office and can-do further damage to democracy and the institutions on which it depends. On the other hand, despite intimidation, police-state methods and the deliberate spread of disinformation, distrust and fear, many courageous people are challenging the regime and defending democracy.”
Yuson argued that, “even though President Duterte shows contempt for the opinion of the world, the people of the Philippines are, more than most, anchored and integrated in the international community. More than 12 million Filipinos live abroad Many of them are active union members.”
He added, “As trade unionists, we must challenge all tyrants and intervene wherever democracy is threatened. In the Philippines, given popular belief in democracy and attachment to global standards as well as the determination of brave people to stand up, global action by trade unions and others will be more than words. It will materially help change the situation on the ground and help the people of the Philippines save and re-build their democracy”.