As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the world, the Philippines is marching in lockstep with the United States and Brazil, fellow struggling democracies that are heading toward the edge of disaster. After dragging his feet during the initial phases of covid-19 — going as far as stating “there is nothing really to be extra scared of that coronavirus thing” in a Feb. 3 briefing — President Rodrigo Duterte has now fast-tracked a controversial anti-terrorism bill through the Philippine House of Representatives. The bill, which received overwhelming support within the lower chamber, will be approved pending Duterte’s signature.
The timing of the bill has left human rights groups nothing short of skeptical. As the nation continues to struggle through the government’s awful response to the covid-19 pandemic, what does such a law hope to accomplish?
If enacted, the bill will ease the legal restrictions on law enforcement in defining who is a terrorist and what rights these “terrorists” have under the law. In particular, it allows the warrantless arrest and detainment of those the government-appointed Anti-Terror Council deems “suspicious.” Suspicious activities could range from attempting to damage government property to simply criticizing the administration online. It also allows for the secret surveillance and wiretapping of “suspected” criminals. According to the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, the bill’s loose definition of terrorism allows the government to essentially tag any and all dissenters as terrorists without any judicial oversight.
The bill is yet another example of how the government has attempted to respond to a national crisis in a highly militarized, macho-populist fashion. Last year, Philippines’ Congress — filled with Duterte’s allies — cut 4 billion pesos (more than $80 million) from the nation’s calamity fund; since 2016, when Duterte came to power, it has cut 22.9 billion pesos (nearly $460 million) from the fund. When the Taal volcano erupted in January, rather than accept responsibility for the government’s lackadaisical approach to providing relief, Duterte instead cursed the volcano and threatened to “pee on Taal” to extinguish it. Just a few weeks later, as the nation braced itself for the covid-19 pandemic, Duterte unconvincingly proclaimed that he was looking for the “idiot” coronavirus because he wanted to slap it.
It is clear that Duterte’s traditional playbook of intimidating his opponents in public and overwhelming public dissent with his online troll army on social media is not effective under the stay-at-home reality that covid-19 has forcibly thrust onto the world. No amount of fraudulent accounts spewing misinformation can reconcile the government’s covid-19 response with the fact that many of the nation’s most destitute are being left behind.
As he often does, Duterte has once again played the blame game, asserting that the Philippines’ failure to contain the pandemic rests on irresponsible lockdown violations by an undisciplined and hardheaded populace. But this narrative of “us vs. them,” wherein the president places the responsibility of his administration’s failures on everyone and everything except himself, is collapsing under the current existential health crisis.
This might explain why Duterte has suddenly called for the swift approval of the “urgent” anti-terrorism bill. Unable to control the narrative as the nation’s poorest starve, Duterte is instead diverting attention by attempting to put a muzzle on the opposition. In May, Philippine media network ABS-CBN was forced off the air, a move that media watchdogs saw as one of Duterte’s many attempts to silence independent press. The proposed anti-terrorism bill is yet another nail in the coffin of the Philippines’ waning democracy.
Duterte’s push for the bill goes beyond just being a mismanaged set of priorities from the administration. His administration is knowingly exploiting the suffering of the Filipino populace in the midst of a global pandemic. It is not attempting to protect the Philippines from a potential terrorist threat, but rather supplying itself with the unchecked power to arrest and detain dissenters. Philippine democracy itself is on the verge of collapse.
Alec Regino is a postgraduate student at McGill University.