The continuing detention of Senator Leila M. de Lima by the vindictive President Duterte and the rash of extrajudicial killings in the country have instigated great concern among the members of local and international groups who see these conditions as proof of a country’s faltering democracy.
Wolfgang Heinze, Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) Philippines Director, lamented how the Philippines, who used to be Southeast Asia’s flag-bearer for democracy, is suffering from the hand of an authoritarian President anew.
“Philippines has always been the beacon and lighthouse for democracy for many, many years but things have changed since last year. There are a lot of worrying trends when we look at the number of killings, and also, when we look at media reports, it shows [the police dumping] bodies of [drug war victims] in Manila Bay,” Heinze noted.
In the period of the so-called democratic high in the Philippines in 1986, Filipino people joined forces in the People Power Revolution to end the 21-year authoritarian rule of then President Marcos. Duterte’s rise to power however is reminiscent of the fascist dictatorship.
Last Aug. 31, Asian women leaders and human rights defenders gathered at the Commission on Human Rights office in Quezon City to share their experiences and best practices to promote and protect basic rights and freedom.
Aside from Heinze, among those present during the dialogue were Women’s Caucus of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD) Lead Convenor Jayanthi Balaguru, along with former Chair of the Hong Kong Democratic Party Emily Lau and vice president of Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Maysing Yang; iDefend secretariat Rose Trajano; and Coalition Against Trafficking in Women – Asia Pacific executive director Jean Enriquez.
Pointing out the deteriorating democracy in the country, Heinz cited President Duterte’s relentless attacks on De Lima and several media outfits — most especially on Inquirer, ABS-CBN, and Rappler, which were accused by the President of being foreign-owned and bullied by threatening the family of owners to be sued for “economic sabotage” for their continued use of the Mile Long property in Makati, respectively.
“There seems to be difficulties in free expression of opinions in this country. There seems to be a pressure on journalists,” Heinze said.
iDefend’s Trajano, for her part, said Filipinos are slowly losing their freedom of expression for fear of uttering words that might earn the President’s ire.
“This administration and the President are very good in messaging in terms of intentional distorting human rights concepts. Based on experience, no matter how much we convince families of drug war victims to fight, they are fearful in pursuing justice,” she noted.
Trajano noted the challenge for human rights advocates like her is to go beyond criticizing the Duterte administration and rather educate the uninformed Filipino citizens about the injustices happening in the country.
“We cannot just criticize what’s happening. We need to have good alternatives, telling the people this is how it should be done, that governance should be rights-based. The great challenge for us is education at the grassroots level. It’s the community that must be engaged to expose the lies and exploits of this administration. We should go to the rural areas where we have support,” she said.
Lau, who denounced the government’s disregard for the rule of law and condemned the unjust detention of De Lima, said she hopes people will stop living in fear and start standing up for truth and liberty.
“I hope there are many politicians in the Philippines who can have the courage to speak up against the wrongdoings of this administration. We cannot be afraid of so many things because if we are constantly afraid, we’ll achieve nothing,” she said.
“That’s why our organization is here because we want to prove that there are people who care, and people who will not turn a blind eye to these injustices happening to Senator De Lima and other victims of abuses,” she added.
Last Aug. 31, convenors of the CALD Women’s Caucus also visited De Lima in her detention to check on her condition as a “prisoner of conscience” and discussed with her the deteriorating human rights situation in the country.
Before CALD, De Lima received members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union last May, and a 12-member delegation of the European Parliament and Liberal International members together with the representatives of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation (FNF) Philippines on July.