May 1, 2022 (10:52 PM)

15 min read


Art by Sean Anthony Penn Lacorte

Change—one of the most inevitable facets of life. Sometimes it comes anticipated; sometimes, it’s the other way around. Either way, what sets things apart is how one takes into account the differences brought about by change.

Just as there is ambiguity in destiny, change, albeit unavoidable, also brings a sense of uncertainty as to what lies ahead. Take, for example, our incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte. From where he stood in the local politics of Davao, he responded to the call of change, accepted the challenge, and bid for the highest office in the country. With this, he marched onwards with his battlecry: change is coming.

However, change comes at a cost. While the former is imminent, the latter could either be theoretic or literal; it depends upon the kind of change that was intended. Now, as his term comes to an end, we reminisce about how we were promised change.  Looking back at the years spent chasing after the change we desired and were affirmed with, we ask ourselves: after prices were paid, what kind of change has come?

Tatay’s new brand of leadership

Commonly known as “Tatay Digong,” he was a leader who both wanted and promised for change. With his candidacy and presidency, many believed that indeed, change will come.

Hailing from the south, Duterte was the first Mindanaoan president. In a cultural sense, it was already a kind of change in the country’s political system. He didn’t heavily receive criticism for being an “outsider politician” who was not from the Metro nor was he negatively stereotyped as a Bisaya, a Davaoeño. He gained praise just for being bold enough to challenge what was a political system dominated by people from the north.

One of the first few changes was the downward trend in criminality in his first few months in office. It reflected his promise to rid the country of criminality within his first three to six months as President. Also, there was progress in the peace talks between the government and the National Democratic Front (NDF) and the release of some political prisoners, which the previous administration failed to do.

Moreover, his administration maintained healthy international relations. Obliging under treaties and executive agreements like the Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, keeping the country’s vital relationship with Japan and Vietnam, and maintaining the membership in the ASEAN were some of these.

However, there were changes the public did not take lightly. One was him being the only President who constantly cursed in his dialogues. But, in one of his first few speeches in 2016, he said: “Do not keep complaining about my mouth, because my mouth is not the problem.

In October 2016, he said in an arrival speech that God told him to stop cursing. However, it doesn’t deny the fact that he was frequently obscene towards the church, even before being elected into office. It can also be recalled that in 2015, he cursed Pope Francis for causing heavy traffic during his Papal visit early that year.

More notably, the campaign against illegal drugs had been one of the bloodiest crusades that started early in his term. Yet, in a 2016 article published in The Guardian, civilians from across the country described the campaign as a good way to address the problem, an accomplishment, and something that promotes reconnection with families. This shows that regardless of the thousands of recorded deaths and surrenders to authorities, people still laud his initiatives to rid the country of illegal drugs, being his most critical campaign.

Albeit positive, these statements from civilians do not go well with the statistics. Government data shows a total of 6,215 people died in the anti-illegal drug campaign. However, this count failed to include vigilante-style killings. According to human rights groups, the total estimate of deaths should be between 27,000 to 30,000 which more than triples up on the government’s data.

Consequently, the life of victims and suspects was the devastating cost for the so-called change we were given. To many, his new brand of leadership posed something that was out of the usual. But they did not choose to see it the bad way. Instead, Duterte continued to gain praise for being the kind of leader that he is.

Voices behind silence and struggle

The war on drugs was just the start. It was just at the top of the list.

One of the most appalling cases during his term was the horrid count of human rights violations. It was bloody, it was certain, and it was relentless.

Anyone in the society was vulnerable to prejudice that is often a threat to their lives. Victims, suspects, the indigenous peoples, professionals and non-professionals, the media—many civilians from all ages of any sector in the society were in fear of being next in the list of alleged criminals.

However, the President did not care about human rights, as he said so himself.

According to  Rauf Sissay, Bayan Muna-Davao coordinator, an activist, and a human rights defender, the administration had a good start, especially with the progressive peace talks and agrarian reforms. But despite those beginnings, he said that like many people, progressive groups remained critical of the administration’s policies, especially on the anti-illegal drug war which drastically impacted a lot of people, especially the urban poor and other marginalized sectors of the society.

“On our side, we agree that illegal drugs should be ended in the country. But, we disagree and strongly criticize the way that the administration implemented its policies against illegal drugs,” Sissay stressed.

It was a campaign that ran on a “shoot-to-kill” order by the President. It was a bloody crusade that promulgated violence and fear. One infamous case of the anti-illegal drug war was the death of 17 year-old Kian Delos Santos who was allegedly involved with illegal drugs and killed by police officers who were indicted the following year.

Sissay believes that the war on drugs is something on which the Duterte administration evades accountability. He believes that the people should condemn the administration for not taking responsibility over the huge number of deaths which were caused by the drug war alone.

“Ang response naman ng administration ay of course, naturally, they’d be defensive. Idedeny nila na ganito kalala ‘yung record ng mga pinatay at namatay sa ilalim ng kanilang administrasyon.”

Also, they strongly condemn the imposition of the Martial Law in Mindanao from 2017 to 2019, which was a result of the heinous Marawi siege. Originally, the martial law was constitutionally mandated to last for only sixty days, but was then outstretched to two and a half years.

To them, the long extension was an infringement on the basic democratic and human rights of Mindanaoans, especially the Lumad communities and their right to movement and education.

“During this time, Lumad community schools were starting to close because of Duterte’s and the AFP/PNP’s push to close these schools. They red-tag these schools as training grounds for the CPP-NPA. But, those allegations against the Lumad community schools are unfounded.”

In 2017, Inquirer published a news story about the situation of Lumads due to the worsened red-tagging under martial law. Their team was able to interview 13 year-old Dimlester Dumanglay who was part of the Manobo community in Surigao del Sur, studying at a Lumad alternative school operated by non-governmental organizations.

“They should be upholding our rights, supporting free education for us. Instead, they want us to leave our communities. So many have already been killed. We don’t have rights anymore. Only the military have rights under martial law.” Dumanglay told the Inquirer in Tagalog.

Dumanglay, like many other victims, continues to struggle in the hands of power.

More than just a statement, his words reflected how martial law worsened their struggles in accessing their basic rights, and how he was aware of the threat that the military brought. It was a sentiment that expressed a child’s desperation to still be able to experience his dreams without having to fear for his future, for being deprived of living a full life.

Tipping the balance of truth and power

Speaking truth to power comes at a cost. For some, it’s sacrificing a significant amount of time and effort to deliver progressive agenda. But to others, it’s a greater risk than just sparing time and effort. Either way, it’s no simple undertaking.

In pursuit of amplifying the calls for justice of those who cannot speak for themselves or had their voices silenced by the high-and-mighty, the press and media continue with their cause to help these people be seen and heard. However, while pushing forward for genuinely wanting to help those who suffer, the unfavorable results that meet them is a strike at the heart of their actions.

This tips the balance of power, as affected by the actions of those who are hungry for it.

Veteran journalist and development worker Margarita “Ging” Valle believes that since Duterte took the helm of power in 2016, he had been trying to project a strongman character to be feared and awed by his subjects. She added that Duterte seemingly chose to impress the public only to be feared for being ‘in control’ of everything, so citizens must obey everything he says.

But, media agencies have been valiant in their efforts to keep the public informed. They did not feign the courage in speaking truth to power, and were unfazed by the constant intimidation and threats.

“He may sound tough and rough especially when he utters abusive language and below-the-belt attacks against his perceived enemies and critics, but the same might also be showing how fearful he could be in the face of truth surrounding him, (as I see it.)” she said, quoting how Duterte is someone afraid to face the truths from the press.

Every time someone speaks of the injustices that have taken place, something follows. While it could entail both good and bad results, it’s mostly the bad which overpowers the good.

This tips the scales of truth not in favor of those who genuinely deserve it, but those who want to control it.

According to Valle, with a flick of the President’s fingers, he can crush media institutions if he wants to, which he did. “These attacks against ABS-CBN and Rappler were meant to silence and intimidate the press in general, and in the process, curtail press freedom as enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution,” said Valle.

On July 3, 2020, Duterte signed RA 11479 (Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020). It is a counter-terrorism law which aims to suppress, prohibit, and penalize acts of terrorism in the country. However, before it was signed into law, it garnered much attention from people of different backgrounds, filing petitions in hopes to prevent the law from happening.

One of the dire concerns of petitioners is that it is a breach to the people’s safety, regardless of being innocent or uninvolved in any certain violation against the law. Additionally, its creation of the Anti-Terrorism Council (ATC) added insult to injury after its members were granted authority to authorize warrantless arrests of alleged suspects and keeping them in custody for at least 14 days.

Like salt to an open wound, the Anti-Terrorism Act was seen as an additional burden to the already struggling state of freedom of expression in the country. It was an augmentation of the threats to the press and media that have been present since time immemorial. As Valle would describe it, it was the last nail driven into the coffin of freedom of expression and legitimate dissent.

In 2019, Valle was wrongfully detained for several hours by members of a military-police operation at the Laguindingan airport while she was waiting for her flight back home to Davao.

“After hours of holding me incommunicado as I was being brought to a place without properly informing me where they intended to bring me, they finally released me with a lame pretext that it was merely ‘mistaken identity,’” she told Atenews.

She did not choose to be quiet about it. Instead, she maximized her platforms to inform the public about such harms and traumas caused by “so-called authorities” only because they see people as alleged members of terrorist groups. It was another call for accountability, because she was one of the many victims of “mistaken identity” and other excuses made by officials to cover up for their mistakes, avoiding the blame.

Valle’s experience was a horrible encounter, since she had no control over her situation. She was held captive and helpless, and was denied of her right to counsel and communication.

While it could appear to be a case of red-tagging, it cannot be merely deduced to such. However, it doesn’t deny the fact that red-tagging still alarmingly exists.

In January 2021, AdDU, along with 37 other schools, was red-tagged as a ‘hotbed’ for communist recruitment. This indicates that no one is exempted from being “allegedly” part of, supporters, or sympathizers of rebel groups, even when the suspects do not have the slightest idea as to how and why they are tied with rebels.

Because of red-tagging, those who speak truth to power are being delineated as “enemies of the state” and dangerous to the public. Activists, journalists, advocates, and even students are part of the long list of people who primarily aim to rally change through the parliament of the streets and media outlets. And yet, the harder these people push for progressive advocacies, the more they are silenced and forced to bite their tongue.

In the words of Sissay, “Kaming mga aktibista, we advocate change within this system. Pero yung NPA, they want to overthrow the government. Because of red-tagging, gustong mawala ng gobyerno ‘yung ganoong distinction. Through red-tagging, magiging vulnerable ka sa attacks because of the culture that it entails and brings to our society.”

But even when they seem to be in dire states, these progressive individuals and groups continue to push forward. “Kaya ang tawag sa chant namin ay ‘Makibaka, huwag matakot. Makig-bisug, dili mahadlok.’ It is ‘makibaka, huwag matakot’ for a reason.” Sissay told Atenews, after expressing that people like him should face and disprove the accusations head on, because they’re doing their activism for a reason.

It may be a shot in the dark for others, but for them, it could be the way to tip the scales back to the balance between truth and power—where power could no longer control the actual truth, and the truth will once more hold its actual power.

Change that comes at a cost

Truly, change comes at a cost. Sometimes, the cost is just a perception of what we anticipate; but on many occasions, it is real. We pay with actual things, with real possessions of value—our time, efforts, and sometimes, our life.

But these are not the only concepts that matter. What also matters is how we give justice to the prices we paid for the change we are keeping.

Temporary costs like money and material things can be regained. However, it would be unfair if we only see it that way without considering those who experience a scarcity of what we see as ‘temporary’ costs and how they paid these prices. Also, it would be a shame if we were to forget how those who paid permanently have suffered at the expense of the change that does not do justice.

Permanent costs—time, efforts, and life, are valuable things we possess but cannot retrieve once taken from us. Willingly or not, when we lose some of these, all we can do is hope for the results to be worth the toll we took.

However, even that concept sounds wrong. It does not suit well in the stories of those who have sacrificed their time only to have their efforts tarnished by negligence and oppression. It does not sound right when we say “hope for the better” after innocent people have lost their lives in the hands of those who corrupt and abuse their power.

It remains true that we cannot undo any of these damages. But, we can pick up where these people who sacrificed a lot have left off. We can persist and carry on with their advocacies and sincere desires as we march onto our tomorrows. They have dedicated themselves to fighting for our equal chances and equal rights, even when the tides were against them.

As we look back and discern whether we give our gratitude or dissent to those who have brought us change, we also look at the process—how we got here and how we are going to move forward.

As we progress, we must choose the kind of system that offers steadfast, competent leadership on which we can rely without having to fear for ourselves. In turn, we will get to hear voices from anyone who can rightfully speak because no one is unjustly silenced, and we get to stand on a balanced scale of truth and power, which we will utilize not to achieve corrupt ambitions, but rational and collective goals.

We decide not only for ourselves, but for everyone else—for our motherland, our dreams, our future.

We have been paying the price for a change that we still aim to achieve. Yes, there have been countless changes; some did us good and benefited us, but some caused us pain and struggle. We still have a lot to experience, to fight for, to hope for, and to live for.

At the end of the day, change remains constant. But, it will not come unless we strive for it, and only then can we learn to embrace the change that comes at any cost, because we know that it’s the kind that we worked for—the kind that we deserve to keep.

The article was previously published in the Election Issue 2022 of Atenews. Read it here:

End the silence of the gagged!

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