THE PHILIPPINES IN 2016: On Forgotten Histories and Identities in Peril


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Annual Conference on Cultural Diplomacy 2016

“Promoting Global Human Rights Through Cultural Diplomacy”

December 18, 2016

Berlin, Germany

          Good afternoon to everyone.  It is a great honor and pleasure to be among the invited speakers for this Annual Conference on Cultural Diplomacy 2016.

In the seven years I have been in public service, I have had various opportunities to speak before groups of multinational audience in international events – first, as Chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights and, thereafter, as Secretary of the Department of Justice.  This occasion, though, bears a great and unique significance to me – both professionally and personally – not only because this is the very first time I will be delivering a formal speech, on global a platform, as an elected official, but also because of the current state of the country and of the people I am here to represent. 

If, before, I came to offer answers; now, for better or for worse, I come with questions and points for self-reflection about what the future holds for our country.

To be completely honest, I am representing a country and a people whose true complexity and indefinability I am only beginning to truly understand. 

Whereas I used to stand before international stakeholders, assuring them that all is well – or, at least, everything is being done to make sure that all will be well – on the human rights front in the Philippines, I myself am one of those who are, today, looking for similar reassurances.

Whereas I used to think that we, Filipinos, have long learned our lessons about the folly of falling for authoritarian rule under a charismatic and dangerous cult-like leader, I myself am not so sure why we are in this situation once again.

2016 will be remembered as the year of – shall we say – interesting turns of events. 

This time last year, I had a clear vision of the Republic and of the Filipino people that I was seeking to serve: a people that valued justice and humanity; independence, democracy and the rule of law; truth, justice, freedom, love, equality and peace. 

Our country seemed well on its way to realizing these aspirations and ideals as embodied in the Preamble to our Constitution.  Never could I have foreseen the extent to which the very face and values of my country and my people could have changed in just 12 months, nor the disturbing direction we seem to be hurtling towards from here on.

In May of this year, 16 million Filipinos elected a self-confessed serial killer[1] as President; the same candidate who, while on the campaign trail, told a rape joke about an Australian missionary who was raped and killed in the city where he was then serving as Mayor; cursed the Pope for having caused traffic jams during his papal visit; evaded questions about the source of his alleged undeclared wealth amounting to billions of pesos; and basically promised to employ summary killings as a policy to curtail criminality.

In the last five months, he has proven true his blood-soaked promise, at least to the extent that, by the Philippine National Police’s own statistics, we have now recorded a total of more than 6,095 deaths in connection with the Duterte Administration’s so-called “War on Drugs”[2] – which is turning out to be more of a “war on the poor”, while big-time drug lords have thus far been mostly allowed to evade justice.

He has also allowed the former dictator, Ferdinand E. Marcos, to be buried as a hero.  The same dictator whose 20-year regime – which was as corrupt as it was bloody from similar acts of summary execution, torture, enforced disappearances and various other forms of human rights abuses and political oppression – is the very raison d’etre for the drafting of the 1987 Constitution, which sought to ensure that similar abuses and heinousness will never again find space within the annals of Philippine history.  In one fell swoop, the current President obscured the rejection of such dictatorial regime by allowing a plunderer and a killer to be given a hero’s burial. 

He has also driven the women’s empowerment and gender sensitivity movement several decades back, by himself creating a culture of misogyny wherein female members of the press are catcalled during press conferences, female police officers are touched inappropriately, the vice president’s legs are openly ogled during cabinet meetings, and slut-shaming is employed as a form of political reprisal against women who dare criticize him.

He and his men – preying on the people’s fears from so-called anticipated reprisals by those involved in the drug trade, or from terrorist attacks, or some other undefined threats that prey upon their feelings of insecurity – are keeping the threat of a declaration of a state of national emergency, martial law and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus perpetually hanging above the Filipino’s heads, thus priming them for malleability for other extreme actions.

And even after all of that, what is most disturbing is the way he is shaping the very psyche and identity of the Filipino people. 

We have gotten to the point where we are trying to convince ourselves that we do not hear what we are hearing; that we do not see what we are seeing; that it’s ok for the President to do and say what he does and says because he is just being true to himself, and that’s a good thing; that to speak against the President is to stand against the 16 million people who voted for him.

In fact, in spite of everything and against all reasonable expectations, he still enjoys a “Very Good” Performance Rating from the people according to a latest survey released just days ago.  Of course surveys aren’t always accurate, but the absence of a roaring rejection of the occurrence of daily deaths in our streets is in itself quite disturbing. 

If 6,095 deaths, including deaths of innocent children, in less than 6 months, isn’t enough to spark outrage, how many more will it take?

Apparently, much, much more, if we go by the proposal to revive the Death Penalty, which, I predict, can easily pass in the lower house of the Philippine Congress.  Apparently, our choice is be killed in the streets, or be killed by public execution. It doesn’t matter that we all know that death penalty has never been as successful a deterrent to crime as it is a weapon of political suppression.  It doesn’t’ matter that our justice system is far from being perfect to ensure that no innocent lives are taken. All that matters is that macabre mathematics that equates death tolls to accomplishments.

That is the true horror of it all: we are fast becoming a nation where killing is seen as the solution to our problems.  Not a solution; not the first or the last resort; but the solution.  It doesn’t even matter that it has been clearly demonstrated that some cops are complicit in the very crimes they are supposed to suppress– clearly, the only real solution is to give them a carte blanche authority to kill the suspects outright.  That is our brand of justice these days.  And the true horror is that some of our people will stand up and applaud this reality.

What does this say about our people?

Are we evil that we condone evil to be done in our name?  Are we cowards?  Or are we simply realists? 

Maybe it isn’t a question of how many are dying, but who are dying?  Perhaps the outrage will be greater if it were prominent people who are dying, instead of the poor whose lives, by society’s measure perhaps, is already forfeit anyway?  Perhaps it is simply the old Melian Dialogue applied in our times: the strong do as they can, while the weak suffer as they must…. 

Is there room for idealism in our society, or should the rest of us, who are still hanging on to the values we were raised to aspire to, simply bow to the demands of those who want us to simply blindly support the President?  Unity for the sake of unity? 

Earlier in the year, I would have called these turn of events “unexpected”, “shocking” or maybe even “unforeseeable”.  “Of course that will never happen again! We know better, don’t we?” 

Apparently, we don’t.  Not really.

Armed with the benefit of hindsight, I see now that, in our preoccupation to realize the idealized version of our nation, we failed to see the vulnerabilities in our notion of nationhood that make those ideals still far out of reach – one of which is the absence of a truly and deeply shared Filipino identity.  There is still a huge gap between who we have been thought to think we are, and who we truly are.

The gaps in income, social status, education, culture, language, beliefs, values, histories and even geography are too real, too deep and too long-unexplored to allow us to form a true Filipino identity. 

We forget that, before the Spaniards came along, there was no single Filipino nation to speak of.  Even after we declared independence from colonial rule, we formed a unitary government that merely adopted the colonial boundaries we inherited.

Even our very flag, for instance, only has eight rays to its sun to symbolize the eight northern provinces that started the Revolution against Spain.  Whether we intend it or not, it sends the message that the long-standing resistance to colonial rule in other areas, especially in the South, do not mean as much. 

Several weeks ago, for instance, when the Marcos burial became an issue, it turned out to be more divisive than anticipated.   While there were people who came out to oppose it, there were also those who were very vocal in their support for it.  That was baffling to us.  How can we reconcile our political history with this act of honoring the one man who single-handedly brought on the darkest period of our post-colonial history? 

We thought that, perhaps, it was a failure on our part to teach history properly and effectively. 

But, now, I realize that it may not just be about forgotten histories, but altogether neglected ones.  By failing to account for the flipside of history – the experiences of those who remained loyal to the dictator, who never personally suffered during Martial Law but saw it as a time of prosperity, thus enabling them to look back to it with nostalgia rather than trauma – we allowed misconceptions and feelings of marginalization to germinate. 

It isn’t so much a problem of the fading of scars, but of a wound that never completely healed in the first place.

Peoples and interests were bound to be overlooked if we never took the time to consciously seek, develop and integrate them into the Filipino identity.  That is why we still have indigenous peoples fighting for recognition of their rights, areas like the Bangsamoro where the fight for freedom has never waned, and feelings of oppression by the so-called “Imperial Manila”. 

That is why, even as people are dying, people are much too accepting of the injustice, rather than fighting to correct it.  

There, I believe, lies the answer as to why authoritarian leaders who excel at manipulation can find the gaps that allow them to sink their claws into our nation, and rip us apart from the inside: they have been able to prey on our fears and self-interests in order to divide and conquer us.

The harder we try to gloss over these differences, or insist that they do not exist, the more weapon we give to the next person who promises to deliver them their validation at whatever cost.  They prey on our feelings of marginalization and victimization, and offer themselves up as the agents of change and champions of our cause. 

For as long as we see one another as “others” we will never trust that we truly have each other’s interests in mind, and we will always look for the person who will fight for us, even if that person employs means that we would otherwise have found unacceptable. 

That, therefore, is the challenge that we Filipinos face in 2017. 

We must find who we are as one people.  We must define the identity of the Filipino.  To know who we are is to trust who we are.  To know our identity is to recognize it in others.  To recognize it in others is to feel revulsion when their lives are taken.   

This is critical to our future, not the least because there are proposals to convert our unitary government to a federal one, among other proposed constitutional amendments.  While there may be good reasons to convert to a federal system of government, I firmly believe and truly do fear that doing it now, under these circumstances when we are more fragmented than truly united, there is a real danger that it would create greater friction among our people, without the hope of a common identity or common interests to hold us together. 

I believe that it all starts with cultivating a culture of listening – one that is oriented towards conversations that lead to true understanding, not just towards unproductive reactions and divisive debates.  True diplomacy, if you will, employed, not between two states, but person-to-person.   

When I go back to my country in a few days, I know that there are those who, until now, will seek to cast me as the enemy because I dare question the abuses of power that I see, and I dare object to the rampant killings taking place in our streets.  But I shall take with me the knowledge that my one and only “sin”, so to speak, is having stepped out of the cave and seen the world outside – especially through the eyes and wisdom of all of you who have graced this year’s conference.  Having done so, I go back home, conscious of my duty to help the prisoners still trapped in the cave: to make them see the chains that bind them for what they are, to help them free themselves of those chains, and to finally step outside the cave and see the beauty, freedom and opportunities that the real world has to offer. 

For a person who lives a hard, but fulfilling life outside the cave is still more fortunate than the prisoner who wastes his life chained inside, believing in the tricks of light and shadows, while waiting in line for their turn under the butcher’s knife.  

As I come to the close of my humble contribution to this conference, I would make clear that I am not an academic.  I am not an expert.  I am but a public servant and a human rights advocate, who herself has felt the claws of political persecution in retaliation for standing up against the most powerful official in the land.  

At a time and under circumstances when our very identity and moral values as a people is in question, and when I myself do not know what the future holds for me and other human rights defenders, I lament that I cannot offer categorical answers or endorsements for completely fool- and dictator-proof practices to promote and uphold human rights… except perhaps to, first and foremost, recognize that it is a never-ending process that requires constant vigilance.  While we open our hearts and minds to different views, experiences, fears and aspirations, we must hold on to our fearless and uncompromising tenacity never to surrender our humanity.  For our humanity is the one thing that can ever truly bind us.  The basis for trust.  The basis for unity.  The very survival of our species.

Thank you for your attention.

[1] see also and


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