Frank Barat (FB): Hi Budit and thanks again for doing this, I know the situation in the Philippines is bad at the moment so it is great you're taking the time to talk to us.
Budit: Thanks to you and TNI for making these interviews possible and giving us an opportunity to foreground the situation in the Philippines and what the many stakeholders around the world can do to help us.
FB: About your personal situation, I know you have had issues trying to get back to the Philippines following a trip in Europe, and that you received threats from the government. Can you tell me more about this?
Budit: Actually I did not get threats from the government but this administration has put in place a very well oiled and efficient propaganda machinery. So when Duterte took office in June last year they deployed propagandists here as well as in various parts of the world where you have a huge concentration of Filipino migrants.
Filipino migrant workers are an important support base for this president as they are sort of the decision-makers in the family. Our economy is dependant on them. So it is important that his popularity is sustained there, amongst Filipinos abroad. This administration has also made full use of government information and news agencies to sustain this president's anti-human rights rhetoric. So both online and offline this propaganda machinery actually sustains that culture of bullying and lynch mob methods. Those who provide active consensus to president Duterte's rule. They took advantage of a very disoriented and frustrated public and that is what enables him to operate on what is still a very strong support base. The attacks that I have received that also other human rights defenders receive here in the Philippines is from this propaganda machinery sanctioned by government.
FB: The overall situation in Mindanao and elsewhere is therefore terrible, right?
Budit: Yes, actually, the EJK and forced disappearances and torture, the gravest forms of HR violations, were there even before Duterte. As Philip Alston the former special rapporteur on EJK said during his visit to the Philippines – while the Philippines has undertaken admirable efforts to respect HR there is still a strong undercurrent of lawlessness, meaning that the state itself has been making use of vigilante groups and non state armed groups to stifle dissent and eliminate opposition.
The Philippines ranks number 2 as the most hazardous place for those protecting the environment. So that has been carried over, not stopped during the Duterte administration. The difference is that this government that Duterte has put in place, has allowed mass murder to take place and defined this particular section of Philippine society, drug dependents and petty drug dealers as especially worthy of elimination.
Also while this impoverished sector is being attacked, he has also, together with the propaganda machinery I mentioned, actually paved the way for public acceptance of possible attacks on HR defenders. So it is a very tense situation where all type of agents of change are threatened in the Philippines, because he has defined HR activists as the enemies of the state – those who protect criminals and those who prevent development.
So, with a huge chunk of the population being misled and misinformed, there is permission for a total crackdown on all sorts of activists. Given the breakdown of peace talks with the big left currently looming, when this happens this will put at risk all activists, all people working towards change in the Philippines. Because the state machine will not discriminate between who is with the left or not, all of us will be seen as part of the big left, so this is a very precarious situation for us at this point in time.
FB: How do you explain the support that Duterte enjoys. The Phil Start global recently reported that 80% of the population had high trust in Duterte. Is this because of the propaganda?
Budit: There was actually a survey released on Oct 8 by Pulse Asia that reveals a sharp decline in his popularity. Of course he is still popular, but this survey also shows that a huge number of Filipinos do not really trust him and have doubts of the validity of the claims of the police that everybody they were arresting ‘fought back’.
So that means that the war on drugs popularity is losing traction and president Duterte's popularity is slowly declining as well. His popularity is quite hyper-inflated and it's the efficiency of this propaganda machinery that bloats his popularity amongst the Filipinos. We believe that there is a huge silent majority, because of the climate of fear that he has put in place. But to really explain why a significant number of Filipinos actually came to rely on Duterte, you have to begin with the people’s frustrations for 30 years. We should trace the problem back to the EDSA revolution in 1986, which promised radical social reforms, a redistribution of the nation's wealth and most importantly the democratisation of central services and opportunities.
These are actual requirements for all Filipinos if they are to be lifted out of poverty, but these promises were never fulfilled and so the five regimes before Duterte never made any inroads into delivering the essentials of a life of dignity for everyone. It is the accumulated frustration of the people that have made them put their hopes in a populist and violent president.
A second reason would be that his cornerstone program, drugs and crime, affect most the most impoverished sections of Philippines society, the poorest of the poor. They are not able to advance themselves, let alone pay for private security. Essentially, that is why so many Filipinos, disgruntled and frustrated with an inoperable criminal justice system have come to subscribe to this alternative justice dispensation system that this president is offering.
Just as with any other government policy that is good on paper but in practice is inoperable, Filipinos are willing to take on and accept the alternative, turn their faces away and let is happen. It is important to let Filipinos know about the importance of due process and the transparency and checks and balances that our still dysfunctional criminal justice system has to offer. Only really repairing this system is the answer, together with investing in a life of dignity for everyone.
FB: Can you say more about the war on drugs? Are the big drug lords affected?
Budit: Actually, based on the patterns that we have seen since his election, the drug war operations of the police and vigilantes seem to be confined to the most impoverished urban communities. Essentially there is a double standard in implementation when it comes to private sector subdivisions. They undertake leafleting, information campaigns, against illegal drugs. But when it comes to the most impoverished urban communities, they undertake violent and hardline operations, kicking down doors and shooting people directly without arresting them. This has been the pattern since June of last year. It is sad that instead of providing the most basic services and opportunities to those most neglected and forgotten during recent administrations, this president has chosen to assault the most brutalised people in Philippine society.
FB: How does the alliance among social movements develop strategies to address this?
Budit: I want to start with one correction. Duterte is making use of governmental news and information agencies. But in the Philippines we still enjoy a strong independent media. The courageous ones, the ‘night shifts’ as we refer to them, still document the killings and provide independent figures as compared to the disputed figures that the police put forward. These government news agencies together with the other section of this propaganda arm have mastered the art of shaping public opinion and manipulating the truth. Spreading lies and half truth. It is actually an information war that is going on, a war of narratives, with various independent news agencies trying to counter the narrative and the framing put forward by Duterte's propaganda's arm.
Now, referring to social movements here in the Philippines, it is only now that the process of unification has begun. In recent months, there has been a disappointing period of disunity among social movements. The left, for example, was disorganised. Some progressives here unfortunately continue to give legitimacy to this violent president. I would categorise progressives here as 1) those who are still engaging with the Duterte administration and 2) another section that is already working towards defending, opposing and resisting this regime and its violent policies. Even before Duterte, the left was disunited. In the early 90’s, the Philippine left began to break up, so you have various splinters and now it is urgent for difficult talks of the broader left to take place that can unite these forces and provide a critical opposition to the rise of tyranny facing us. Because what we are facing is a relapse into dictatorship.
FB: What is the role of international solidarity?
Budit: Given shrinking space in the Philippines it is becoming more difficult for us to operate and express dissent. More and more it has become crucial to actually revive what once was a strong solidarity movement for the Philippines.
More and more have come to see that this Duterte juncture is not actually a separate episode. In Philippines history, with the Marcos dictatorship, this is actually a relapse, a resurgence of what we failed to quell in 1986.
What appeared to have been a people's revolution was in fact a revolution of the bourgeois. It was a revolution that was hijacked by the élites, thus another elite actually took the place of Marcos and his cronies.
We were never able to overturn this impressive exploitative set-up. We started of course to regain some democratic space, but we were never able to hold the perpetrators of the Marcos dictatorship to account: the president after Marcos, the late Aquino, her slogan was peace and reconciliation. So we were never able to go through what is referred as transitional justice and create a truth commission to institutionalise what really happened during the dictatorship.
This enabled the Marcoses to actually stage a well orchestrated political resurgence. The Marcoses are one of the main funders of Duterte. The possible vice-president, Bong Bong Marcos is the son of the late dictator. We should see this Duterte juncture as a continuation of the Marcos dictatorship, a revival of the Marcos dictatorship. And what Duterte is doing now is quite similar to what Marcos did. Activists of the past, those who were members of the solidarity movement during the time of the Marcos dictatorship should continue what they began.
International solidarity work is important, not just in bringing out the truth on what is happening but also to help strengthen Filipino organisations as well as addressing the Human Rights crisis which is being used as a tool to advance authoritarian rule.
FB: Thanks a lot Budit.
Budit: Thank you so much for having me.