I will be responding to “Despotism and Democracy in the Age of the Virus” by Roger Cohen in The New York Times.
COVID-19 has brought unprecedented change to the world around us not only in our personal lives, but in our political lives as well. Primaries are being held despite the circumstances, or some states are opting to postpone them or be mail-in only. It is currently unknown if we will even have a presidential election on November 3. The unique circumstances have led to a rise in uncertainty and fear, isolation is making citizens disaffected, and people want the pandemic to end as soon as possible. Right now, we are in the perfect circumstances for an authoritarian leadership. For a picture of what could possibly happen, look no further than the Philippines.
The Philippines is no stranger to authoritarianism. One of the most famous periods in Filipino history is from September 21, 1972 to January 17, 1981, where President Ferdinand Marcos declared a state of martial law. During this time, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) was forming, and Marcos saw them as a threat. Many of Marcos’s critics saw this as an exaggeration, and that, under the guise of fighting communism, his declaration of martial law was only to increase his power. During the first wave of arrests, journalists, students, teachers and other people part of the political opposition were detained. A curfew was implemented, the media was put on lockdown (except for those associated with Roberto Benedicto, one of Marcos’s cronies), and civil rights were suspended. Some human rights violations committed while under martial law include 3257 extrajudicial killings, 35,500 tortures, 77 forced disappearances, and 70,000 incarcerations. Of those extrajudicially murdered, more than half were tortured and mutilated and dumped in public places as a warning to the public. Marcos claimed he knew nothing of these atrocities. In 1974, in a televised presidential address, he said “No one but no one has been tortured.” It was not until he confessed in 1977 that “there have been, to our lasting regret, a number of violations of the rights of detainees.”
Marcos’s abuses were defended with the claim of fighting communism, and now the same thing is happening with President Rodrigo Duterte. He first declared martial law from May 23, 2017 to December 31, 2019 for the entire province of Mindanao. Instead of claiming he was fighting communism, he instead claimed he was fighting terrorism. Mindanao has a high Muslim population, known as the Moro people, that has historically been discriminated against. Accounts from those who live in Mindanao say that there was no rebellion to fight against, and that Duterte fabricated this in order to fight indigenous environmental activists in the area. Journalists and activists were killed with little fanfare, and promises to rebuild Marawi, which was carpet bombed when marital law was declared, were not kept. Though martial law has been lifted, a new military garrison is being built, still keeping Mindanao under their heels. “As a president who is inclined to shoot first and ask questions later remains in power, we are likely to see many more rebellions on the island, both real and imaginary,” says journalist Antonio J Montalvan II.
On April 24, President Duterte told the country in a taped address, ““I am warning everybody and putting notice sa [Filipino for “to the”] armed forces and the police, I might declare martial law.” Previously, he told the police and military, regarding those who were violating curfew, “It is getting worse. So once again I’m telling you the seriousness of the problem and that you must listen… if there is trouble and there’s an occasion that they fight back and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead.” This tactic of fighting COVID-19 sound all too similar to the orders he gave the police and military for his infamous drug war. His office claims he is simply using hyperbole, but the truth is that he is allowing extrajudicial killing. These orders of extrajudicial killing especially effect poorer citizens, who do not have a place to stay and for whom it would be impossible to self-isolate. Though both Duterte and the police claim no one will be shot, it is highly likely the results will be similar to his drug war, where over 12,000 Filipinos were killed, with at least 2555 of these killings being from the Philippine National Police. By the way, the police seem to stand by these actions, saying “their actions in the anti-drug campaign have been lawful.”
President Donald Trump is not calling for extrajudicial
killings and is in fact doing the opposite of what Duterte is, negotiating for
America to “reopen.” Still, the result will be the same: thousands of citizens
dead due the negligence of their leadership. As Cohen says, “…the great 21st
century democracy-dictatorship battle is far from over. Emergencies serve
autocrats,” but, hopefully, “can also demonstrate the failings of their systems
and provoke radical rethinking.”
 This tactic was so common it became known as “salvaging” among urban Filipinos. More information about the etymology of “salvage” in Filipino can be found here: https://www.postguam.com/forum/featured_columnists/salvage-victims/article_1ca514a4-1812-11e6-900a-8304df53116c.html
 For first-person accounts of torture during martial law, some stories can be found here: https://youtu.be/xtNHB-F7nVA and here: https://youtu.be/H6vw6rFaabA
 The full address can be read here: https://www.officialgazette.gov.ph/1977/08/21/address-of-president-marcos-president-before-the-eighth-conference-on-the-law-of-the-world/
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