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Human rights activist Cristina Palabay fears that her country is becoming an autocracy, but won’t give up


A protester holds up a placard against presidential candidate Ferdinand Bongbong Marcos during a demonstration in Manila, Philippines on 10 May 2022. Photo: IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

On a humid morning in August 2020, Cristina Palabay grabs her face mask and a full plastic visor, a red rose and a photo of her dead colleague. It’s National Heroes’ Day in the Philippines, when those who died for their country’s freedom are commemorated. As Palabay leaves her office, she writes an SMS to her co-worker to arrange where to meet the brave few she can still trust.

Palabay runs the organization Karapatan, a left-wing initiative of 200 staff and volunteers that campaigns for human rights in the Philippines. The woman in the photo is one of more than a dozen members of Palabay’s organization that have been murdered since President Rodrigo Duterte took office. Her name is Zara Alvarez, a human rights lawyer, pre-school teacher and mother. The 39-year-old was murdered by a hit squad in her home city of Bacolod two nights prior.

Carsten Stormer is a freelance journalist reporting from Asia and a member of the journalists’ network Zeitenspiegel Reportagen.

Translated by Michael Dorrity for Gegensatz Translation Collective.

Palabay was very close to Zara Alvarez and her death has been a shock. “It hurts so much it makes me furious. We’ve been put through so much pain in this country”, she says with tears running down her cheeks. She takes a breath and clears her throat, then she says “I won’t be intimidated, this is why I became an activist.”

Palabay was 41 at that time. She is a small, timid woman, her hair tied back in a ponytail. A career as a human rights defender was not something she had planned on. Her father had served in the military under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and her parents were occasional guests on the dictator’s yacht. Palabay, who was still a young girl, would accompany them. “I would touch the cabin door handles and ask my father if they were really made of gold.” But she also saw the poverty, the social injustice, and the elites whose deeds went unpunished — none of which went particularly well with the dictator’s golden door handles.

Palabay leads a dangerous life now. Her colleague is the second victim in only a few days. It was only a week ago that the human rights Defender Randall Echanis was stabbed to death in his home in Quezon city.

The activists were killed only a few weeks after president Rodrigo Duterte had signed a controversial anti-terror bill into law during the COVID lockdown. With the new law, citizens can be detained without a warrant for up to 24 days for suspected terrorism. The police and the military can put civilians under surveillance. Suspicion alone of belonging to the Communist underground, or an accusation of either sympathizing with, or being a member of, the Communist Party is enough to be branded a terrorist. Among other things, a list with the names of 649 alleged suspects classified as terrorists by the Ministry of Justice was publicly circulated. Palabay’s name was on the list. The government still relies on the time-honoured methods of intimidation and fear. Since Duterte took office, 424 activists, lawyers, and members of the opposition have been murdered.

“The reasons why I continue my work far outweigh the risks. I cannot just un-see what I’ve seen. I can’t just turn a blind eye to the human rights violations of this regime. That is why I have decided to fight”, says Palabay. She has taken on very powerful enemies.

Rodrigo Duterte won the 2016 Presidential elections by claiming, among other things, that he wanted to kill tens of thousands of drug addicts. Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch estimate that up to 30,000 people have died since he took office. They were all killed by police or hit squads. In the meantime, critics and members of the opposition have also felt the force of Duterte the autocrat. His political opponent the liberal senator Leila de Lima has been in a high security prison for the last three years. A constitutional judge has been removed, the age of criminal responsibility is to be lowered to twelve, and the death penalty is also to be reintroduced.

As Cristina Palabay reaches the city centre, she looks around searchingly. Around 200 protestors with face masks and full plastic visors are disobeying the public assembly ban, undeterred by temperatures of over 86 degrees Fahrenheit. When quarantine restrictions were eased, resistance to the government flared up again. Protestors hold up banners and signs comparing President Duterte to Ferdinand Marcos. They are demanding justice for the victims of the war on drugs and an end to lawlessness. Some stand silently, holding up photos of Palabay’s murdered colleague. “I’m happy so many young people could come”, says Palabay.

Like so many in the country, Palabay believes the structures of power are askew. She fears the Philippines is again descending into dictatorship. Behind her, the granite glistens on the monument commemorating the victims of the Marcos dictatorship. The names of two of her uncles are engraved there. “They were students who fought in the mountains for the rights of minorities. When martial law was declared, they went underground, where they were eventually murdered”, Palabay says, adding that she wants to continue with their legacy in the work she does. “But I don’t want to die, or end up with my name on that wall”

Palabay is under surveillance and receives death threats. In July 2020, a police officer disguised as a delivery person tried to arrest her at the entrance to her office. “Intimidation is the tool of oppression used by the government”, she says. It started with the war on drugs, she says, then came the war on the opposition, “and now they’re waging war on activists”. Duterte is using the pandemic to form an autocratic state, Palabay says.

After lockdown began, critical media and journalists were swept aside, beginning with ABS-CBN, the biggest TV station in the country. Already in April 2017, Duterte asked Congress not to renew the media authority’s license. Most Congress members complied with the head of state’s request. In July 2020, they decided to withhold the broadcasting company’s license indefinitely. Meanwhile, the journalist Maria Ressa was sentenced to time in prison on purported libel charges. In 2017, Duterte ordered the arrest of Senator Leyla de Lima, former minister of justice and a political adversary of the president. On paper, the Philippines are still a democracy, says Palabay, “but in reality one man is charge, backed by the military and the police”.

This is why she and a few fellow campaigners are standing in front of the supreme court in Manila together with in Fall 2020, to protest the arbitrary murder of activists. It is a hot, humid morning and there are beads of sweat on Palabay’s forehead. She is wearing a face mask and full plastic visor, as required by the strict COVID rules. A couple of journalists have come and a security guard asks the women to make space as cars honks their horns in the rush-hour traffic. “This government likes keeping lists, and they always turn out to be death lists”, says Palabay. “This means posters, phone threats, statements, presidential announcements. That’s why we’re submitting this petition demanding legal protection.” She is calling on the government to protect political dissidents. Her name is also on these lists and she knows exactly the danger she is in but sees no other way.

And yet the majority of the Philippine’s 110 million population support the president. Duterte portrays himself as a man of the people who stands up for the disadvantaged in society. And it works. In the May 2019 mid-term elections, he brushed his political adversaries aside. He has approval ratings of 90 percent in the polls.

For a long time, Duterte’s victims and critics seemed frozen in a state of shock. Political resistance began very timidly: but small groups of students, human rights advocates, and members of the Catholic Church are growing louder and, above all, are more out in the open. Cristina Palabay is one of them. She tirelessly avails of every opportunity to bring public attention to events in her country, whether at protests or on the talk show of Mary-John Mananzan, an 84-year-old nun, human rights defender, and government critic. She has been an icon for the resistance movement for decades. But even this devout Catholic nun has been branded a potential terrorist by the government.

Palabay and Mananzan have been friends for years and greet each other warmly before going into the studio. Then it’s three, two, one, action, and the cameras and spotlights go on. “Now, Cristina, tell our viewers about the state of democracy in the Philippines”, the nun says at the start of the programme. Palabay speaks under the spotlight for an hour. In the last six years, 15 co-workers from her organization — friends, colleagues — have been murdered, she says. “When you have a president who says the solution to everything is kill, kill, kill — it becomes the underlying principle for everything that’s done here. It means you can do anything and get away with it. You can extinguish human life simply by denigrating someone as the dregs of society or the scourge of democracy. Just because you want to”, says Palabay to the camera. But she will not be intimidated. “This killing spree will not silence people like me. It is for exactly this reason that we keep doing what we do. I am definitely not changing my attitude.”

The conditions remind many of the reign of terror of Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos declared martial law in 1972 and wasn’t toppled until the popular uprising of 1986, after a 14-year dictatorship. At that time his family had to leave the country. Marcos died in 1989 and his wife Imelda returned from exile in the US. Her goal: to get the family back into power. In 2016, she managed to take a first significant step in this direction. President Duterte had the embalmed body of the former dictator buried with military honours in the Heroes’ Cemetery in Manila. Marcos had been vindicated. Since then, the Marcos family has been doing everything in its power to ensure that Ferdinand Marcos Jr., known as Bongbong, continues in his father’s legacy and becomes president.

The presidential elections were still far off at that point. Yet already two years before the end of Duterte’s term in office, Palabay could see who would follow him. “I would not be surprised to see a Marcos and a Duterte campaigning in the 2022 elections. Duterte’s daughter Sara will probably stand.”

Two years later and it’s clear: Palabay’s concerns were justified .In January 2022, Bongbong Marcos officially announced his candidacy. Sara Duterte, daughter of the current present, hoped to become vice-president. Given the close alliance of the two autocratic families, human rights activists like Cristina Palabay, opposition activists, journalists and victims of the Marcos regime fear the country will slide back into dictatorship.

The foundations for Bongbong Marcos’s rise to political prominence were laid many years ago on social media. For many Filipinos, Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube are the only sources of information. Facebook alone is used by around 74 million of the 110 million residents. What’s more, more than half of the 63 million voters are under 40 years old. They were either not born or too young to remember the Marcos dictatorship. The election has been characterized by disinformation campaigns and misinformation — primarily occurring on social media. Online, the Marcos family plays the victim that is being treated unfairly and misrepresented by the mainstream media. The ex-dictator haunts social media in the guise of a saviour who ostensibly governed a modern country with contented subjects that suffered neither poverty nor hunger. His son, Bongbong, is supposedly destined to finish his father’s work; as a sort of saviour 2.0. It is perfectly organized historical revisionism.

Tina Palabay is frustrated by the gullibility of her fellow Filipinos, but she is not surprised. In place of critical thinking, people take a position of natural subornation. And the fact that the years of martial law, the dictatorship, the disappearances, the torture and murder of political opponents during the two decades of Marcos’s rule can barely be seen in the curriculum of Philippine schools also contributes to historical amnesia. “History repeats itself” she says. To prevent this, Palabay avails of every opportunity to educate her fellow Filipinos, she organizes protests, speaks on television and in podcasts, as well as sending out press releases. In the Philippines she receives death threats, while abroad she is praised for her courage: she was awarded the Franco-German Prize for Human Rights.

But her struggle is just entering a new phase. The 25 February 2022 is the anniversary of the EDSM people power revolution, which brought an end to the Marcos dictatorship. The early morning sun is already unforgiving and clothes stick to your skin like wet towels in the tropical humidity. It’s a public holiday and yet only a couple of hundred people have gathered at the people power monument next to a busy belt highway. The small protest march edges its way along the roadside, led by Cristina Palabay. People carry signs proclaiming that Ferdinand Marcos was a dictator. “No more dictators!”, they chant. Students, activists, victims of the Marcos dictatorship speak about the torture and the murders. They have all gathered this morning to protest the candidacies of Bongbong Marcos and Sara Duterte.

A few police officers with shields, helmets and batons stand around bored in front of the protestors, sweating in the sun. Christina Palabay stands in the shade of an acacia and answers the question many people and observers are asking themselves: how can the son of a dictator and kleptocrat, who has put no distance between himself and his father, who does not engage in political debate, and who has no discernible election program, stand for election?

The reason is the traditional political system of the Philippines, she says, which has always consisted of political dynasties — powerful families that try to take political and economic power for themselves. In the poverty-stricken country, family clans have held onto power for generations with the use of political and economics favours, vote-buying, and violence. In spite of everything, the Marcos family belongs to the old political nobility of the island nation. Then there are new dynasties like the Dutertes, who have managed to establish themselves in politics and now suppress their electoral competitors, hamper economic development, and exacerbate social inequality. Political families now hold 67 percent of seats in the house of representatives, up from 48 percent in 2004, and 53 percent of mayoral seats, up from 40 percent.

“The fact that a Marcos and a Duterte are now competing for the highest public office shows that political dynasties have persisted and are growing stronger”, says Palabay. “The Marcos family has been trying to get back into power for a long time.”

They’ve never been so close to this goal as they are today. A few weeks before the presidential election and 64-year-old Bongbong Marcos is only a few steps away from achieving the ultimate dynastic victory: winning the presidency. According to polls from the beginning of May, he is 40 points ahead of his contender Leni Robredo, the current vice president, and is thus seemingly uncatchable. But the family will not be happy with the presidential office alone: Marcos’ youngest son Sandro is running for a seat in congress. His sister Imee is a senator, his nephew a provincial governor and his cousin a congressman.

President Duterte has also gotten family members into politics: his daughter Sara is a candidate for the vice-presidency, one son is running for Congress, while another is standing in the mayoral elections of a big city in the south of the country. In the Philippines, the family always comes first. “Our democracy has gone to hell”, says Palabay. “If Marcos Jr. wins the elections, not only will we be subjected to more of the Marcos governing style but Duterte’s methods, too.” And that means: intimidation and fear.

Nonetheless, Palabay will still not give up.