President Duterte sent a few more chilling messages to his critics the past couple of weeks as he intensified the climate of fear in the country.
Stopped by the court from arresting and detaining his harshest critic Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV after illegally voiding the senator’s amnesty, Duterte revealed that the government is investigating supply deals made by the latter’s ailing 84-year-old mother with the Philippine Navy, prejudging them as “a clear case of conflict of interest.”
In another assault on the family of another critic, the President went ballistic again with slanderous remarks against Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, claiming that the popular “Bishop Ambo” was stealing from the church’s collections to give to his family.
The attacks came apparently in retaliation for the bishop’s remarks when he called on Catholics to pray for Duterte because he is “a very sick man” after the President called saints “fools” and “drunkards.” Not contented with calling the bishop a thief, Duterte said he suspected that David might be into drugs and threatened to “chop off” his head if he is caught buying drugs.
Bishop David has been a vocal critic of Duterte’s brutal drug war that has killed thousands of mostly poor alleged drug users. By attacking and threatening the bishop, the President was basically also addressing the prelate’s brother, Prof. Randy David, who is also critical of the President in his columns in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
A week after his tirade against Bishop David, Duterte turned again on the Catholic Church, whose teachings, he said are “archaic.” Duterte, who once called God “stupid” called on Filipinos to stop going to church and just build a chapel in their homes where they can pray privately, oblivious of the fact that most Filipinos can’t even afford to buy a home.
“You build your own chapel in your own house and pray there. You don’t have to go to church to pay for these idiots,” he said in a speech in Davao City.
It’s not just the Church and Trillanes who have earned the ire of Duterte in the past few weeks. Turning to media critics, he again threatened to block the renewal of the franchise of ABC-CBN that is scheduled to end in 2020 as he repeated his claim that the giant media network did not run his already paid campaign ad in 2016. ABC-CBN offered to give him back the money, but Duterte refused, opting to use the issue to go after the network, whom he accused of biased reporting, especially on his alleged ill-gotten wealth and on his brutal campaign against drug.
Last week, the Department of Justice filed tax evasion charges against Rappler and its head, Maria Ressa. The social media platform, which has been critical of Duterte and his administration, had been accused by Duterte of being owned by Americans and funded by the Central Intelligence Agency, a wild accusation that has not been backed with evidence.
Also last week, Davao policemen arrested former Bayan Muna party-list Rep. Satur Ocampo and ACT Teachers party-list Rep. France Castro, along with 12 teachers, 4 pastors, 29 students and a community learning center administrator for transporting 12 lumad students from their school to Compostela Valley.
Ocampo’s group told the policemen that they were rescuing the lumad children from a military offensive in the area and bringing them to a safe haven. That they were accompanied by teachers and pastors did not matter to the policemen, who arrested and jailed them for kidnapping and trafficking charges. The accused were able to post bail to the obvious consternation of the police.
Just like the drug charges against De Lima, those filed against Ocampo and the others were obviously trumped-up charges meant to silence Ocampo, who writes a critical column for the Philippine Star, and Castro, who is also a Duterte critic in the House of Representatives, and to send a chilling message to progressives and other critics.
Backing the Davao police for the arrests, Duterte said: “Bayan [Muna] is a front of the Communist Party of the Philippines. Bakit pa tayo mag-drama? Alam natin that KMU [Kilusang Mayo Uno], ‘yan Gabriela, they’re all communist fronts or being used by the communists. Alam ninyo lahat ‘yan,” Duterte said. Again, the President made accusations without presenting evidence or filing subversion charges, but the threat of arrest now hangs on the heads of members of these groups with the President himself making the accusations.
But the biggest threat against critics, especially the progressive groups, is Duterte’s plan to organize his own armed civilian group to be called “Duterte Death Squad” allegedly to counter the New Peoples Army’s Sparrow Units, which PNP chief Director General Oscar Albayalde acknowledged has been non-existent for at least three years now.
“They will do nothing but look for idlers who are prospective New People’s Army members and take them out,” he said. Remember that this is the President, the leader of the country and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the national police, talking about giving authority to civilians to be judge and executioner at the same time.
The idea was so wild and so thoughtless that even Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who is one of the very few Cabinet members who dare speak against the President, warned that the plan could lead to abuse.
“We will study it very closely. Who will compose it, who will supervise it, who will be the targets, who will be accountable? Because there is great danger of abuse or mistakes in these undercover operations,” Lorenzana said.
What will stop these armed groups from killing innocent people on the pretext that they are prospective members of the New People’s Army? This latest threat is aimed directly at progressive groups, who have been accused by the President as fronts of the Communist Party of the Philippines and who have been at the forefront of protest actions against Duterte.
Senator Francis Pangilinan said it best when he warned that Duterte’s death squad would turn the country into “a howling, lawless wilderness.”
The Commission on Human Rights and other human rights groups protested the plan, saying the principles of international humanitarian law strictly prohibit death squads “under all circumstances.” But do all these protestations matter to a leader who idolizes dictators and tyrants?
Tyrants have only one response to criticisms. Instill fear.