“History is repeating itself”: A Duterte resistor speaks

Tom Sykes speaks to Gene Alcantara about Duterte's dictatorship, and what it means for Filipino citizens in the diaspora.

February 4, 2019 · 10 min read
Photo by Alexander Sebley.

Gene Alcantara is a Filipino poet, journalist and political activist with the Global Alliance for a Humane Democratic Society (GAHDS). A UK resident since 1981, he opposed the autocratic Marcos regime and is now a staunch critic of President Duterte’s extra-judicial mass killings of suspected drug offenders. He talks to Dr Tom Sykes, author of The Realm of the Punisher, a new travelogue of the Philippines which grapples with the Duterte phenomenon. 

Did many Filipinos in the UK campaign against Marcos in the 1980s?

Just a handful! There was no internet, so it was difficult to communicate. During the 1986 People Power Revolution, the first foreign embassy to declare against Marcos was London’s. This upped the international pressure on the dictatorship.

In those days, the son of Fabian Ver, the head of Marcos’ armed forces, would call us up and warn, “Stop making trouble.” I worked for the British Council then and my boss asked me, “Why are you getting involved in this?” I said, “It’s something I have to do as a Filipino.”

History is repeating itself now: Marcos’ son Bongbong has supported Duterte, and Duterte has called the former dictator a “hero“. And like Marcos, Duterte’s violence has achieved nothing. After more than two years of his ‘war on drugs’, billions’ worth of shabu (methamphetamine) are still being smuggled in. Apparently, the price hasn’t risen, which means the supply remains steady or even increasing. Furthermore, Duterte has slain over 20,000 small-time pedlars and abusers, but he has yet to arrest or kill a major drug lord. Local ‘narco-politicians’ have been murdered, but often it seems only because they pose competition to other drug lords.

All this is hypocritical, as Duterte’s son, Paolo, was questioned by a senate hearing for his alleged involvement in a Chinese shipment of shabu, much of which magically disappeared during the investigation. Senator Antonio Trillañes challenged Paolo to reveal a tattoo that would prove he was a member of the Triads. Paolo refused to do that. And there’s hypocrisy in Duterte’s jailing of his main critic, Senator Leila De Lima, on the basis of unreliable testimonies from crime figures already in prison themselves.

Where do most UK-based Filipinos stand on Duterte?

In April 2016, we ran a mock election involving 50 people. It was a landslide for Duterte and that, I think, was reflective of most Filipinos here. The Duterte faction bred fear online and painted a damning portrait of the government. They attracted overseas Filipinos by blaming ruling politicians for the laglag-bala scandal, where bullets were being planted in passengers’ luggage at airports.

Before Duterte, Filipinos here weren’t very political. But Facebook helped them to feel part of a movement. Duterte’s negative style empowered them to make abusive comments. There is an “uber troll” based in the Netherlands, Sass Roganda Sasot, whom I’ve debated in the past. Her politics are alt-right, I’d say, but she’s also a trans woman who calls critics “transphobic” when what we’re actually doing is condemning Duterte’s policies. She has numerous followers, so when she attacks me, they attack me too.

What they write is very personal. They call me ugly. They issue threats like, “Let’s see what happens when you get home.” Some lambast my business, warn people not to use it. Worst of all, my name was added to the “#LeniLeaks” conspiracy of those supposedly organising a coup d’état against Duterte, which is ludicrous.

Does that mean it’d be too dangerous for you to return to the Philippines?

Absolutely. There’s also Malcolm Conlan, a leading British member of DDS [Diehard Duterte Supporters, the acronym being a grisly pun on the Davao Death Squad which murders drug suspects in the southern Philippines], led the pack when a troll said she wished my family would be raped. When I confronted Conlan about the extra judicial killings, he said there’s no such thing! He thinks international and local news sources are fake and gets his information from other trolls.

I’d suspect some of these trolls are on the payroll because Duterte has a 2.5 billion peso (about £37.4 million) confidential “intelligence fund”, and I’ve seen social media posts where people talk about “not receiving our payment yet.” We know now that Cambridge Analytica played a role in Duterte’s election victory too.

Duterte’s rise owes something to public disillusionment with Philippine politics. Dynasties dating back to the Spanish colonial era still own much of the land and there’s a popular feeling that state institutions don’t deliver for the poor and needy. Do Filipino diasporans believe that too?

Of course. But Duterte is cynical about this. His promise to end dynasticism is meaningless – he comes from a dynasty himself, has three children in politics. He promised to end drugs and corruption within months, but has made the situation worse.

Because elements of the left have always seen the US as a foe, Duterte hijacked this narrative. It was convenient for Duterte who has been leaning towards China anyway. When he started electioneering, many leftists liked him because he made these crazy promises to them, and put some of them in power initially. He even invited Jose-Maria Sison [exiled leader of the Communist Party of the Philippines] to return home. There’s a leftist group in London who were involved in the peace talks between Duterte and the communist insurgents. Now the group is opposed to Duterte.

When he insulted the Pope, favourably compared himself to Hitler and made jokes about raping women what did foreign supporters have to say?

This is what I cannot understand. They said it’s just his nature to tell jokes. They are blind to his misogyny and fascistic attitudes, the killings, even his attacks on their religion. And the UK government’s response to all this has been weak, perhaps because they are too preoccupied with Brexit. Penny Mordaunt offered some platitudes, but nothing concrete. Unfortunately, on his Philippine trip in 2017, Liam Fox said to Duterte, “We have shared values”. That was unhelpful.

At least there is an increasing number of resistance members outside the Philippines who struggle on social media and at political rallies, exposing the truth about Duterte’s behaviour and policies. I have written two petitions to the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is now investigating him. Duterte said he would feed its operatives to the crocodiles, so they are obviously scared of going to the Philippines.

Some argue that the ICC has double standards: it prosecutes the leaders of poor countries while turning a blind eye to the leaders of rich countries.

It’s true that the ICC has mostly focused on Africa, so there is hypocrisy. But nobody has successfully made a complaint against Tony Blair over Iraq, for example, due to technicalities. Whereas we have complained about Duterte properly and we want, we expect something to happen.

If Duterte were to step down, is your hope that the Philippines will return to how it was before he came to power, politically and socially? Weren’t there huge problems then with land redistribution, poverty, inequality and so on?

These are huge problems, and Duterte has created additional new ones. We are hoping the current Vice President, Leni Robredo, will take over. She’d appoint a much more compassionate cabinet who’d address these issues. She recently came to speak at the London School of Economics. Her supporters – including me – were outnumbered by DDS protesters. We had to fool them into thinking she was still inside the building while we smuggled her out.

I used to be worried that the world was mocking Filipinos and I’ve always tried to combat that. But now the world is mocking them again, I fear. And, for now, there really is nothing we can do about it while Duterte is in power.

Tom Sykes is the author of ‘The Realm of the Punisher: Travels in Duterte’s Philippines‘, published by Signal Books.

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