The stage, one cloudy afternoon at the military headquarters at Camp Aguinaldo in Quezon City, gave a picture of Philippine politics as it stands. There was President Rodrigo Duterte who for the second time that day was churning out his oft-repeated and by-now familiar rambling monologue on his anti-drug campaign.
And there behind him sat Fidel Ramos, a former president who had supported him, slumped into his palm, either asleep or bored (one couldn’t tell because of his greenish tinted glasses) by the same token speech time and again.
Barely six months ago, in the euphoria of Duterte’s victory, the president had profusely thanked Ramos at his inauguration, saying that it was Ramos who had pushed him for the presidential bid. That Ramos was viewed a statesman provided Duterte the extra clout to his populist image.
Today they had to be cordial, for Ramos himself has since been scornful of Duterte over the country’s marching direction, in which extrajudicial killings are taking a ghastly toll on the drug war that Duterte has stubbornly waged as the single, tunnel-vision objective of his presidency.
Duterte could fire himself up in public, sputtering invectives that the world knows by now come with his demagoguery. Not having had enough in his speech at the camp for the swearing in of a new chief of staff, he went on to the next event armed with a pile of documents that he claimed were evidence of government officials abetting widespread drug sales.
’‘Don’t fool me,” he lashed out at invisible enemies, who he said are “assaulting” future generations of Filipinos. In his extemporaneous rants, he could incite a mob cheering and roaring at the crescendo of his every word, or an audience who might have understood that things are not going right and could meet him with guarded silence.
For on the face of his drug war, he has effectively given the police carte blanche to go on a spree – but justifying in their reports that they had killed the victims in self-defense, offenders they claimed were armed and attempting to fight back (just as the president said they should). Duterte himself has shown his utter disdain for human rights, saying in any case that the effect of drugs on the users made them subhuman.
The killings of more than 5,000 as of the latest count have slowly picked up public outrage that could force an end to the drug war. Fewer than half of the casualties were killed in police gun battles, reports said, and the rest died in a spate of vigilante killings taking place in the slums of the capital and mostly affecting the poorest of the poor.
The president has pushed this as far as it would go, protecting the police of any wrongdoing, the most recent of which was an alleged rubout in a jail cell of a provincial town mayor who was said to be a drug lord.
Telling the military in his speech that the police were “fractured,” he asked the armed forces to help out – and this is where it could go either way. The military has been, over the past two decades, delegated to take on the insurgencies, internal wars against Muslim and communist rebels be that was to be the job of the police when it was put together with the previously existing national Constabulary.
To dip the military into another round of police duty might cause resistance or it might swing them back to the old days of martial law abuses in the 1970s. The Philippines has come far from a dictatorship to a democracy and it could again face another test under President Duterte.
Former President Ramos ought to know, and so should the two other past presidents who sat a few seats apart from him, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Joseph Estrada, during the ceremony at the military headquarters.
Estrada was deposed in a popular coup, succeeded by Macapagal Arroyo who herself faced coup attempts in her term. She had jailed Estrada over plunder charges and later freed him, and now they shared a conviviality characterizing Filipino politics that rarely draw the line on principle. There on the stage, smiling for selfies, they reflected being the favored ones in Duterte’s company.
Macapagal Arroyo had also been jailed on corruption charges and was freed shortly after Duterte took power, seeing her old lieutenants chosen among the current president’s political circle. He has clearly consolidated his allies in Congress and possibly gained support from justices in the Supreme Court, of which he will have the opportunity to replace 10 of the 15 during his six-year term. This may explain why impeaching him might be difficult.
He has been having a fast run of events since taking power, spinning political life into a national telenovela by upending policies and diminishing institutions and shaming his foes. On the stage at the camp, the atmosphere of a rite going through the motions also drew attention to the absence of Vice President Leni Robredo who had just resigned as chair of a housing council after she received by text message ordering her to stop attending cabinet meetings.
Robredo’s post was immediately filled by Duterte’s cabinet secretary, a former communist rebel who is said to be planning a nationwide movement for the president’s own party. His cabinet has a mix of traditional politicians and leftists, shady characters and respected ones, but it was Robredo who stood out and was ostracized when she criticized the surprise burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos last month under the approval of Duterte and the decision of the Supreme Court.
Robredo’s resignation – others said she was fired – brought out suspicions and theories, fanned by Duterte himself, that he might be working to ease her out as vice president to give way to the dictator’s son and namesake, Ferdinand Jr., who lost the candidacy by more than 200,000 votes. (He said the Marcoses had helped fund his campaign). This could lead to unknown events where the country, which has gone through coups and crises, will have run out of political scripts to follow.
The burial sparked spontaneous demonstrations by the millennial crowd at the monument just over the wall of the Camp Aguinaldo headquarters, which symbolizes the downfall of a dictatorship 30 years ago in a people’s revolt backed by the military (which Ramos, then chief of the constabulary, and the defense minister led).
The protests, intermittent over the weeks, have been festive but defiant, showing the wit of the younger generation’s slogans and waving shovels for the hash tag #Hukayin, which is to mean unbury the dictator.
A small group sat in a far corner watching a documentary on the dictatorship and the flow of events that led to its end. This is what Duterte has buried, they said: a history of forces that merged at the right time, the triumph of democracy. It is history too that has dealt with compromises among figures in power. Duterte has been trying to revise it by shortening a nation’s memory tailored to his vision, fueled by an army of social media trolls and propagandists.
The street demonstrations may not be a threat to him, perhaps not yet or unless they reach the magnitude seen in Seoul or Jakarta. His six months in power so far have yielded time on his side and the specter of more killings. We have no way of knowing when and how they will stop.
Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning author and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel