That was 2018

When historians recall in their books a hundred years from now what the year 2018 was like, they won’t be focused on the six-month shutdown of Boracay or the number of “credible” aspirants for various local posts in the 2019 elections compared to “nuisance” candidates.

Neither will they devote entire chapters to the attempts by Marcos era apologists, who’re better left unnamed, to prettify that kleptocracy through deception and outright lies, or to the Philippine National Police’s presuming that it knows better than university professors when it volunteered to teach college students about nationalism.

It is equally unlikely for the historians to focus on the wrangling between the House of Representatives and the Duterte regime’s economic managers over who was responsible for those billion-peso pork barrel “insertions” in the 2019 General Appropriations Bill, or even on President Rodrigo Duterte’s incessant rants against bishops, religion and the Christian God.

All these will be footnotes at most in the historians’ accounts of how the year 2018 began and ended with unmistakably clear signs of the dangers to elite democracy and humanity from the Duterte regime.

The year 2018 began with lingering fears, generated in late 2017, that like his idol and mentor Ferdinand Marcos, Mr. Duterte was intent on silencing the independent press. He had earlier singled out journalists in the Cordilleras, claiming that they were New People’s Army propagandists, an accusation that put them in grave danger in the context of the continuing killing of journalists in the Philippines.

Hardly had January ended when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) cancelled the registration papers of for its supposed violation of the constitutional provision prohibiting foreign ownership of media organizations. Its Malacañang reporter was also banned from the premises, and a libel suit filed against another. Before the end of the year, its editor and CEO Maria Ressa was also charged with tax evasion, for which she had to post bail to avoid being arrested.

The attack on the independent press was a constant theme throughout the year, with Mr. Duterte himself threatening to block the renewal of the franchise of ABS-CBN network, his henchmen’s banning journalists from covering public events in which he was present, and the hacking of websites of several online news organizations as well as that of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP). The year also ended with cyber attacks on the websites of alternative media groups Kodao ProductionsBulatlat, and Pinoy Weekly.

The executive director of Mr. Duterte’s own Presidential Task Force on Media Safety (PTFOMS) also demanded the take down from a community newspaper website of an article he didn’t like, even as the task force persisted in pushing for the creation of a licensing system for journalists that would enable the government to decide who may or may not practice journalism.

All these were occurring while journalists were being killed, the number of which had reached 12 before the year ended; the filing of libel suits against journalists by local government officials; physical assaults and attempted murders; and such other forms of intimidation as threats, surveillance, and journalists’ houses being shot at. In one case among others about which international press freedom watch groups expressed concern, several journalists were hurt and their equipment confiscated by the police, and then arrested for covering a strike demanding the regularization of contractual workers.

As the year dragged on, the regime also targeted Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno for defending judicial independence and for her opposition to the extrajudicial killing of thousands in the course of the so-called “drug war.” It managed to replace her, initially with one more tractable, and later with another as similarly less appreciative of the country’s laws, human rights, and the Constitution as Mr. Duterte. Also attacked were members of the political opposition in both the House and Senate, among them Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, who survived attempts to imprison him but who is currently facing a criminal libel charge.

As disturbing as all these were, the year just past also demonstrated how selective and brazenly anti-democratic the Philippine brand of justice has become.

Convicted of the non-bailable crime of plunder, Imelda Marcos managed to stay out of prison, with the police openly saying they didn’t want to offend her by arresting her, and the Sandiganbayan anti-corruption court’s allowing her bail.

Two other cases — one, the acquittal of former senator Ramon “Bong” Revilla in his pork barrel plunder case of 2013, and the other, the acquittal of former president (and now House Speaker) Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the charge of election sabotage filed against her in 2007 — further reinforced the prevailing belief that there is one standard for the poor, legions of whom are languishing in the country’s hellish prisons, and another for the rich, powerful and well-connected..

Mr. Duterte himself ended the year with a series of threats against the Filipino people whom he said he doesn’t want to kill. In November he announced plans to create death squads to hunt down not only active New People’s Army (NPA) guerrillas but even those who, in the view of his regime, are likely to join the NPA. He then declared a policy of total war not only against armed guerrillas but also against their alleged sympathizers, in which, he crowed, blood will surely flow.

What came next, however, was far worse. He revealed his preference for the “Indonesian solution” as a means to finally defeat the NPA, even as his generals were claiming that 8,000 NPA guerrillas — 4,000 more than what they said was the total NPA strength — had already surrendered.

Mr. Duterte was referring to the 1965 Indonesian generals’ coup d’etat against the Sukarno government. Within eight months of civil unrest after it began, the Indonesian military and its paramilitaries had killed at least a million members and sympathizers of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), the Indonesian Nationalist Party (PNI) and other leftist groups, ethnic Chinese, and supposed atheists and nonbelievers in Islam, all of them unarmed civilians (neither the PKI nor any other political organization had an armed unit), and imprisoned thousands of others. That “solution” was a crime against humanity, and a virtual reprise of Nazi Germany’s World War II holocaust that claimed the lives of six million Jews, socialists, Romani people, homosexuals, regime critics, ethnic minorities, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other people who were “different” and “inferior.”

To say that the Duterte declaration was disturbing would be an understatement. The PKI was an open legal organization allied with Sukarno, and the US supported the generals’ coup out of fear of China’s influence over the Sukarno government. The NPA is an armed clandestine force under the command of the Communist Party of the Philippines whose units are widely deployed in the major islands of the archipelago. If Mr. Duterte’s preferred “solution” were somehow implemented despite the vast differences between the Indonesian situation then and the Philippine situation today, it would nevertheless usher in an Armageddon of violence from which the country can recover, if at all, only after decades of bloodletting, instability, and economic decline.

Whenever Mr. Duterte makes statements as outrageous and as dangerous as that one, his spokespersons usually rush to “clarify” them or even to deny that he made them. They have so far done neither. Mr. Duterte thus ended the year with a threat not only against democratization but also against the entire nation and humanity itself rather than with the promise of hope that every new year is supposed to bring.

That was 2018. From all indications the Year of the Pig could be even worse, thanks to the man who has been saying that he loves this country and doesn’t want to kill Filipinos.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
Jan. 3, 2019

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