Updated: October 07, 2016 10:51 AM GMT
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to wipe out a drug menace that has made addicts of nearly four million people. Part of his strategy has been regular assaults on what he thinks are national power centers. (Photo courtesy of the Presidential Communications Office)
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is learning the hard way that threats, slurs, and shaming have limited return of investment.
Duterte has hurled insults and curses at journalists, opposition politicians, Philippine human rights advocates, United Nations officials, and rights experts, and an array of Western leaders.
The pace of his diatribes has stepped up amid claims that a displaced local elite and the United States are conspiring to bring him down.
There is little likelihood of any ouster plot prospering despite a series of political controversies, mostly rooted in Duterte's draconian war against drugs.
The Philippines has a history of political upheavals since the ouster of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Duterte, however, won the election by a big margin. His approval rating is in the 90s. A major thaw in relations between the government and Asia's longest-running communist insurgency has taken off a major political load.
Duterte also enjoys warm relations with the two mainstream restive Muslim groups. He now claims to have the luxury of training fire on drug cartels and the small but vicious terrorist Abu Sayyaf group.
Duterte has vowed to wipe out a drug menace that has made addicts of nearly four million people. Part of his strategy has been regular assaults on what he thinks are national power centers.
The offer of patronage funds tamed many politicians. After a few examples of local leaders receiving blood-soaked justice, more fell in line.
Women activists step up
Catholic Church leaders now tiptoe around Duterte after a series of attacks on corruption among senior clergy, according to Father Wildredo Dulay, coordinator-general of the Missionary Disciples of Jesus congregation.
But grassroots ecumenical groups and feisty women religious leaders have filled the vacuum. Teachers and students from sectarian schools have led small but regular protests against extrajudicial killings.
Melba Padilla Maggay, president of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture, published last week a blistering essay that challenged Duterte's claim of laying down the foundations for a stronger state.
"Many in this country mistake President Duterte's unswerving use of force as political will, when what is really before us is an alarming drift toward an authoritarian barbarism, where the full apparatus of power — formal or nonformal — are used," Maggay wrote.
Father Dulay praised Maggay's essay.
"It's the kind of article that the country's spiritual leaders should have written but, sadly, are not willing or are incapable of doing," said Father Dulay.
"It's the women who'd be the salvation of this benighted country," the priest said.
He cited women activists who stepped out of the shadows to testify before the Supreme Court on their experiences with torture, including rape, during the martial law regime of Marcos.
Writers Aida Santos and May Rodriguez, who once edited the now-defunct Philippine News and Features news agency, broke decades of silence to speak as witnesses.
Macho Duterte wannabes in social media savaged the women activists. But activists now have the upper hand, having delayed the Marcos family's plans for a hero's burial for the late dictator.
Grassroots ready to wage war
Sacred Heart Father Benjamin Alforque, a theologian, said the church has prepared the grassroots for what it expects to be the modern, digital version of a war for hearts and minds — with human rights as the battleground.
Attempts by Duterte and his allies to banish "extrajudicial killings" from the national lexicon have been ignored by human rights advocates, journalists and a rainbow of activist groups.
An angry Duterte has challenged foreign rights experts to probe the 1,756 "deaths under investigation" related to his war on drugs. But he invoked the right to impose sanctions of those who would "peddle lies" to investigators.
His officials have demanded the final say on the movement of probers, a condition expected to bring a new standoff between the Duterte administration and the UN rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnes Callamard.
Since May, more than a thousand have died in police operations. Some 800 cops are being probed — a sudden influx way beyond normal caseload capacity in an agency that already tops the ranks of abusers.
Unknown parties have shot dead 600 others while 133 bodies were discovered wrapped up in a style linked to a Mexican drug cartel.
Duterte insists these other cases cannot be considered extrajudicial killings because they are likely the handiwork of criminals out to silence prospective whistle-blowers.
But he also accuses senior police officials, including some generals, of links to local drug gangs.
Even Duterte's militant allies are not buying his explanation.
"The textbook definition of extrajudicial does not depend on resolution of a case," said Edre Olalia of the National Union of People's Lawyers and one of the counsels for the rebel National Democratic Front.
"The essence is killing outside the legal/judicial framework, depriving a person of due process," Olalia told ucanews.com. "It is extrajudicial when there are indications that a killing is done by the state of its agents."
Duterte's theatrics are not working on rights activists.
The state, Olalia said, is accountable even if it is not actually a state agent who pulls the trigger. This is because of the administration's record for inducing, encouraging, condoning and even applauding extrajudicial killings.
States have a constitutional duty to protect its citizens from punishment without due process. It becomes accountable for failure to prevent, abate or stop the killings, or investigate and prosecute the actual perpetrator.
Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.
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