A self-confessed hitman told the Philippine Senate that President Duterte killed an opponent during his time as mayor of Davao City. Meanwhile, the new leader is slowly dismantling the opposition framework in the country’s government. So who can speak up against the most powerful man in Manila?
By Dung Phan
On Monday, 16 Philippine senators ousted Senator Leila de Lima as chairperson of the committee on justice and human rights. It happened five days after de Lima presented the Senate with the self-confessed hitman Edgar Matobato. He gave an unprecedented testimony that implicated President Duterte in the extrajudicial killings of about 1,000 criminal suspects and political opponents during his more than two decades as mayor of Davao City.
De Lima, one of the chief domestic critics of Duterte has been leading a Senate hearing into the rising number of drug-related killings in recent months. However, following his fall from power the panel is now headed by Senator Richard Gordon, one of the Duterte’s close allies, along with Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano and Sen. Manny Pacquiao – the boxing icon who brought a motion to unseat de Lima.
The bombshell accusation came after Cayetano gave a speech accusing de Lima of using the panel to go after Duterte. “Senator De Lima, in her desire to destroy the President, is destroying the integrity and reputation of the Senate,” he said. “Worse, damaging the image of our country and people worldwide.”
De Lima walked out of the session hall during his speech, telling reporters “what is destroying the reputation of this country are the killings. It’s not me.” She added that the high-level officials were making things worse by encouraging disregard for human rights in the drug war.
A war on drugs or a war on critics?
De Lima now will not have a chance to finish her investigation into Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign. And her removal has called into question the ability of dissenting voices to be heard in the new Philippine order.
Last Thursday, former killer Matobato testified he was a member of “Davao Death Squads”, which murdered hundreds over the years. He personally took part in 50 of these hits, he claims. One victim was fed to a crocodile while many bodies were mutilated and dumped on the roadside.
“Our job was to kill criminals, rapists, [drug] pushers and snatchers. That’s what we did. We killed people almost on a daily basis“, he said, adding that he watched Duterte himself shoot and kill an agent of the National Bureau of Investigation. He says Duterte was also involved in the murder of Juan Pala who had accused the then Davao mayor of corruption. Communications Secretary Martin Andanar rejected the accusation but Duterte did admit previous “ties” with the vigilante group.
There have been growing concerns that the crackdown on drug criminals is part of a long-term tactic where the president consolidates power by eliminating local opponents and dissents. “All the state institutions have been either threatened or compromised. Even the media has been threatened…He doesn’t have to declare martial law. He has a blank cheque to do what he wants,” said a rights campaigner.
However, Joseph Franco, a research fellow at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), whose recent publications focus on the Southern Philippines peace process said allegations over Duterte’s involvement in killings “will be a test case” as a high-level hearing had never heard such claims before. “We shall see if Matobato’s testimony creates the condition to remove the chilling effect” that Duterte’s “clan” had long exerted on potential witnesses.
The latest move to oust one of Duterte’s critics raises questions about the future of democracy in the country. President Obama had criticised the new president’s call for vigilante-style killings of drug dealers and criminals, as has the United Nations and many international human rights groups.
However, in the context of the country’s current waves of violence and war, the notion of human rights does not seem to have much meaning. Given that support for the president is overwhelming, in both the public and influential spheres, democracy in the Philippines desperately needs an opposition. Walden Bello, a Filipino academic who is a former member of a member of the House of Representatives wrote, “the existence of a strong opposition is the best defence of democracy, for nothing more surely leads to the dismantling of democracy than the concentration of power”. And “the best way we can help President Duterte keep his promise is to provide him with a vigorous opposition”.
Whether Duterte wants to “destroy” the opposition remains to be seen. However, when he claimed he needed six more months for his anti-drug campaign, he also stressed that the fight this time “would be government versus government”. Right now that seems like a pretty one-sided battle.