Americans who read Patron Saints of Nothing often tell me that my story made them cry. It means a lot to me that something I’ve written moves people so deeply, but our tears are not enough.
At midnight in the Philippines on July 18, the country’s Anti-Terror Law (ATL) went into effect. Its vague language allows virtually any individual or organization critical of the government to be labeled as “terrorist.” They can then be arrested without a warrant, jailed for up to twenty-four days without charges, and imprisoned for life without parole. Given the Duterte administration’s track record of violating human rights, they will likely wield the law to suppress free speech and dissent, as already being predicted by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the United Nations. In fact, there’s already been a fresh crackdown on activism since Duterte signed it on July 3.
While this may seem to many like one more example of an unfortunate political tragedy in a faraway nation, it’s time for Americans to acknowledge and take responsibility for the role our country has played and continues to play in the rapid erosion of Philippine democracy under Duterte’s creeping fascism.
For example, look at the Drug War, his signature effort to rid the country of illegal drugs by encouraging police and vigilantes to arrest and kill suspected dealers and users. According to a recent report from the UN, since 2016 there have been anywhere between 8,000 to 30,000 extrajudicial killings as a result of these operations, and prisons are operating at a 534% congestion rate. This tough-on-crime hyper-criminalization of drug use was inspired by America’s own unsuccessful and racist campaign. More directly, we even help fund the killings in the Philippines, contributing over $50 million of US tax dollars to aid their police in conducting the drug war.
Then there are the ongoing threats to press freedom. In the midst of a pandemic when access to information is vital, the government has followed through on Duterte’s threat to shut down ABS-CBN, the nation’s largest broadcast network (last done during the Marcos dictatorship). They have also convicted Maria Ressa, the founder/CEO of Rappler, of cyber-libel to intimidate other journalists from shining a critical light on the administration as she has. America is in part responsible because US tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have allowed Duterte to weaponize their platforms, undermining the country’s free press. Their complacency and refusal to take responsibility has given the government’s hired trolls free rein to harass journalists and political opponents while spreading disinformation to gain public support for such attacks.
And there are many other abuses that have not found traction in American headlines. Over the last few years, military bombings and operations have led to the displacement of up to 450,000 civilians. Human rights defenders, environmentalists, indigenous leaders, journalists, legal professionals, trade unionists, LGBTQ+ activists, and political opponents have been harassed, jailed on false or trumped up charges, or unjustly killed. And the government’s militaristic response to COVID-19 has crushed the economy, failed to provide for people’s basic needs, led to an array of human rights violations, and fostered the fastest rising infection rate in the Western Pacific. The Philippine military and police can carry out all of these abuses in part thanks to the $550 million we’ve contributed to their defense forces since 2016 and thanks to the US-manufactured weapons provided by our government. As I write this, our country is preparing to sell an additional $1.5 billion in arms to the Philippines, which will surely perpetuate further abuses in the name of the ATL.
So I’ll say it again: Our tears are not enough.
Blood is on our hands. We must move beyond pity and empathy. We must take action to stop the US from continuing to enable Duterte’s escalating human rights violations and attacks on Philippine democracy. And given the increased dangers Filipino activists face under this new law, it’s more important than ever that Americans support their fight for freedom.
Here’s what we can do: We can hold our tech companies accountable for developing more effective strategies to prevent their platforms from being used for fascistic ends. We can urge our elected officials to cancel the pending arms sale, join appeals to the Philippine ambassador to the US to rescind the ATL, and support the Philippines Human Rights Act, which would suspend US funding to the Philippine military and police. We can mobilize and use our platforms, our art, our voices to publicly denounce all other anti-democratic policies advanced by Duterte’s administration.
And, moving forward, we can stop pretending like none of this has anything to do with us.