By Rommel Lopez 

A group of current and former lawmakers from member-states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) released a report today accusing President Rodrigo Duterte of “an unprecedented crackdown on political opponents in Congress, using trumped-up criminal charges, threats and intimidation as well as a range of other tactics to subvert democracy.” 

Jakarta-based ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) released “In the crosshairs of the Presidency”: Attacks on opposition lawmakers in the Philippines”, a report documenting the political harassment suffered by at least eight Senators and Representatives since Duterte took office in 2016.

These lawmakers face politically motivated criminal charges and harsh and aggressive rhetoric and misinformation for opposing key administration policies – notably against administration’s “war on drugs”.

Charles Santiago, Chair of APHR and a Malaysian lawmaker, said in a statement how the “efforts by the Philippine government to harass, sideline and even imprison lawmakers are extremely troubling.” 

“These attempts to silence political opponents mark just one example of how democratic institutions are being eroded under President Duterte,” he said.

Santiago calls the harassment “a serious human rights crisis and needs a strong and functioning opposition more than ever,” but lamented that this ideal democratic setup is “simply not possible in the current climate.” 

 He encouraged the Duterte Administration “to change course and ensure that all lawmakers can perform their duties without fear of reprisals.”

Lawmakers identified in the report include Senator Leila de Lima, who has been detained since February 2017 on what the report calls a “fabricated conspiracy to drug trafficking” charges. 

Former Party-list Representatives Ariel Casilao (ACT Teachers) and Antonio Tinio (Anakpawis) were charged with “child abuse” in October 2018 for conducting a peaceful anti Martial Law demonstration held at Davao City’s Freedom Park on October 23.  

The charges stem from the attendance of indigenous youth to the rally. 

Senator Risa Hontiveros, also a vocal critic of the Duterte’s “war on drugs”, was slapped with “kidnapping charges” by former congressman and lawyer Jacinto Paras before the Office of the Ombudsman. 

The kidnapping complaint arose after the senator’s office sheltered minors who were witnesses in the killing of 17-year-old student Kian delos Santos. 

Paras said Hontiveros failed to return a minor, and induced a minor to abandon his home when the senator sheltered the minors. 

“The use of politically motivated criminal cases against lawmakers in the Philippines must end. We urge the authorities to immediately drop all charges against those who have done nothing but engage in peaceful political activities – this must also include immediately and unconditionally releasing Senator Leila de Lima from detention”, said Eva Sundari, a Member of Parliament in Indonesia. 

Apart from the criminal charges, the APHR notes how the government uses harsh and aggressive rhetoric towards the opposition lawmakers. 

Much of the rhetoric is either misogynistic or violent in nature and intended to harass the opposition. 

The APHR said the government has done nothing to combat a barrage of misinformation (or “fake news”) and abuse directed towards Duterte critics, namely against Vice President Leni Robredo and Senators de Lima and Hontiveros who are the most targeted online. 

Sometimes, the report notes government officials have even “fuelled the online attacks by sharing fake content themselves.”  

Most noteworthy of this was former Assistant Secretary Mocha Uson who was accused of spreading fake news multiple times.

Filipino lawmakers interviewed by the APHR say the harassment and threats have been draining them of time and resources and “had a chilling effect on debate in Congress.”

The report notes how the administration subverts the democratic processes by undermining the opposition in Congress. 

It noted how some lawmakers who opposed the death penalty bill in 2017 saw budgets for their home districts slashed to zero, while others lost their committee chairmanship or membership.

The APHR noted how the House of Representatives manipulated its own rules to ensure that the official Minority (or opposition) bloc are composed mainly of pro-government lawmakers.

Outgoing House Minority Leader Danilo Suarez’s leadership was questioned. The first time was in 2016, when after he got the House Minority Leadership even though he did not get the second highest vote for Speakership which in past Congresses automatically makes the runner up for the Speakership the Minority Leader.  

However, the Pantaleon Alvarez-led House changed the rules allowing the minority to vote their leader in a separate election.

When former president and outgoing Pampanga representative Gloria Arroyo snatched the speakership from Alvarez in dramatic coup hours before Duterte delivered his 2018 State of the Nation Address, Suarez was among those who voted for Arroyo. Even though he voted with the majority, Suarez retained his post as Minority Leader. 

In all instances, cases were filed in the SC against Suarez occupying the position.  However, the high tribunal has not ruled on the cases allowing Suarez to finish his term in the 17th Congress. 

 Suarez has been elected Governor of Quezon Province in the last elections.

The APHR notes that the attacks on opposition lawmakers in the Philippines “mirror a worrying regional trend in Southeast Asia, where authoritarian governments increasingly rely on draconian legislation and cowed state institution to sideline and harass political opponents.”  

In 2017, Cambodian Premiere Hun Sen ordered the National Assembly to abolish the positions of Minority Leader and Majority Leader effectively killing the opposition party’s influence. 

 In Thailand,  also government authorities using trumped-up criminal cases against the opposition.

Mu Sochua, Cambodian politician, rights activist and a Board Member of APHR said democracy in Southeast Asia is in “troubling times”. 

“Governments in the region must stop lashing out at opponents, and instead build inclusive political cultures where everyone’s views are respected. We need open and strong democracies to fulfil the promise of an ASEAN where human rights are upheld and protected for all people,” she said. 

To download the full report, click here