Philippines Senator Antonio Trillanes may have expected lighter treatment when he appeared on a recent episode of BBC’s HARDtalk with presenter Stephen Sackur. After all, he has been one of the few elected officials in the Philippines to openly criticise President Rodrigo Duterte, going so far as to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court over the president’s war on drugs, which has killed thousands since Duterte came to power a year ago this month. But instead of playing the heroic outsider, Trillanes got the grilling of a lifetime.
Holding up public support for Duterte, Sackur asked Trillanes if his “constantly negative” comments were “out of tune with ordinary Filipino opinion”. Sackur observed that “in political terms it seems to me you are bashing your head against a wall”. Chuckling, he mocked Trillanes’s involvement in two failed coups against a former president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, saying the first one in 2003 “wasn’t very successful”, while “even more sort of pathetically, you made another attempt to get her out in 2007 and you ended up in prison for the best part of seven years”.
For regular viewers of Sackur’s show, this wasn’t surprising. HARDtalk is fuelled by provocative questions in an attempt to make subjects squirm. But in many cases his guests are in positions of power. Trillanes is far from it, and the interview exposed a sad reality of the Philippines today: the opposition to Duterte is so beleaguered, it comes off as irrelevant.
Everywhere you look, critics have been silenced or shut down. Senator Leila de Lima, another vocal critic of the president, has been jailed for months on charges she says are politically motivated.
Arrest warrants have been issued for two men who claimed to be working for Duterte as members of a death squad when he was mayor of Davao City. One of them, Edgar Matobato, used to give interviews but has increasingly stayed out of the public eye. The other, Arthur Lascanas, has apparently fled the country.
Apart from the public, Duterte has Congress in the bag. In a pattern that is not new to politics in the Philippines, many lawmakers in the House switched to Duterte’s party after the election last year, while others joined a coalition supporting him, making it easier to gain votes for controversial legislation such as the reimposition of the death penalty. A watered-down version of the bill passed the House in March, moving to the Senate. In another bid to get tough on crime, Duterte’s party wants to lower the age of criminal liability. The House Minority leader has not exactly been an active opponent of Duterte, according to news site Rappler, and there are so few members of an actual opposition that they have been dubbed “The Magnificent 7”.
In the absence of a real foe, many have looked to the country’s Roman Catholic Church, which has traditionally been politically active in the Philippines and has been portrayed in the media as a foil to Duterte. But the reality is more complicated, and there are tensions within the establishment over what to do. One priest said privately that the church is divided.
If there has been a theme to Duterte’s first year in office, it’s that he says and does what he wants with little to no consequences. In May, he declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao in response to an attack on the city of Marawi by militants loyal to Islamic State. The declaration itself was based on shoddy reasoning, but Congress did little to review it, leaving arguments to be made in the Supreme Court.
Like US President Donald Trump, his words and actions stir so much outrage it is difficult to know what to focus on. Duterte has joked about soldiers raping women in the conflict zone, which would be less shocking if he hadn’t joked during his campaign for the presidency about wishing to be first in line at a gang rape. And just like the US, the same fatigue and exhaustion is evident in anyone trying to hold him accountable. Interviews with activists and critics are permeated with a sense of frustration, while government officials exude confidence.
“The Philippines is becoming a safer place to live. Filipinos feel safer,” Secretary Martin Andanar, with the Presidential Communications Operations Office, said on the sidelines of a televised forum in Manila.
While polls suggest a complicated picture regarding public sentiment on the war on drugs and extrajudicial killings, support remains robust. In May, the Philippines-based Social Weather Survey put net satisfaction for Duterte’s administration at “very good”.
Andanar, who described Duterte’s first year in office as a success, said that internal backing was what was really important. “Because the president is the president of the Philippines, not the president of the world.” But Duterte enjoys support abroad, too. Trump praised Duterte’s war on drugs, while China has offered help in the form of mega rehab centres and police equipment. Closer to home, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which typically avoids criticising other member states, has done nothing of substance.
More than 3,000 people have been killed in official police operations as part of the year-old war on drugs, according to official statistics. Thousands more have died in vigilante attacks that many believe are tied to the operations. Instead of hiding these statistics or at least playing them down, the government seems proud of them. At a press conference held at the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency this month, police and health officials extolled the war on the “drug menace”, passing out a list of statistics regarding drug personalities killed in police encounters and other macabre data. All were listed as “accomplishments”. The officials answered the questions in full, took time afterwards to do one-on-one interviews, and passed out free meals from Jollibee’s, the country’s popular fast food chain.
Roberto Cadiz, a member of the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR), said he thinks the anti-drug drive may actually be helping Duterte sustain his popularity, which is why it has continued. “As long as they keep on churning out these dead bodies, Duterte will be up there,” Cadiz said. “He will be unpopular with the Human Rights Commission, with the UN Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings, with human rights defenders and advocates, but how many [of them] are there? What kind of political force are they?”
The killings make it difficult to formulate a proportionate response. It’s simply overwhelming. CHR, whose commissioners were appointed under a previous administration, giving them a measure of independence, has fewer than 20 investigators in the country and a strained budget. It has been able to file only 10 cases with the government.
“We have very few resources, we are investigating 500-plus cases,” Cadiz said, echoing the same sense of frustration, especially when he mentioned educated friends of his not outraged by what is happening.
Even with favourable polls, the government doesn’t miss an opportunity to point out who is in charge. Duterte’s spokesman referred to the HARDtalk episode in a press conference and several pro-government sites picked it up. “Trillanes exposed as fake democracy advocate by BBC journalist Stephen Sackur”, read one headline. Another said he got “roasted”, while a centrist outlet correctly labelled it a “24-minute disaster”.
Dubious news sources also had a field day. After the interview, fake news stories appeared saying Trillanes was going to sue the BBC. His team posted on Facebook that the stories were false.
The post said Trillanes was “very satisfied” with the interview and “at no point was Senator Trillanes humiliated in any way by the host”. In his defence, some viewers said they were impressed with how he kept his composure under fire, and how he stuck to his moral message, saying he would not give up trying to bring Filipinos around to his side.
But there was another person who was probably satisfied with the interview. Duterte. ■
Joseph Freeman reported from the Philippines as part of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project (IRP)