Duterte’s Last Hurrah: On the Road to Martial Law
James Fenton reports in NY Review of Books:
Landing last December at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila brought back memories of Ninoy Aquino himself arriving from the US in 1983 on the tarmac that was to be christened with his blood. He was the leading figure in the opposition to the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 until 1986. Aquino had been imprisoned by Marcos for seven years and seven months. His health had suffered; he had been on a hunger strike until his family pleaded with him to stop, had gone to the United States for treatment for a heart condition, and now, hearing that Marcos was seriously ill, and sensing that this was the moment he must act, he was coming back out of self-imposed exile, bearing a false passport under the name Marcial Bonifacio.
This return is made most vivid by a TV report, which can be found on YouTube. Ninoy knew that his best chance would be to be placed under house arrest. Next best: back to solitary confinement. The worst option: to be shot then and there. A number of press people accompanied him, and the hope was that their presence might guarantee his immediate safety.
The plane lands. A group of soldiers comes on board and asks Ninoy to accompany them. He gets up out of his seat in a manner that for all the world might seem to indicate resignation to some tedious task ahead. The soldiers escort him off the plane. The press moves forward, trying to follow. Nine seconds later there is gunfire, and four seconds after that there is another longer burst. The first shots are the ones that kill Ninoy. The second are aimed at Rolando Galman, a supposed assassin who would take the posthumous blame for Ninoy’s death.
In the first nine seconds, the soldiers take Ninoy onto the jet bridge and then down a service stair. On one recording you can hear a soldier saying: “I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” The bullet enters the top of the back of Ninoy’s head and exits through his nose. Its downward trajectory indicates that the killer shot Ninoy from above, that is, while the group was still on the service stair. And as soon as Ninoy was dead, someone else turned and shot the patsy Galman.
It seemed a crude piece of theater at the time. You had to be a die-hard Marcos loyalist to be remotely convinced by it. And the killing indeed marked the beginning of the end of the dictatorship, even though that last act took another three years to play out.
Looked at now, however, in the era of a thousand killings a month, the murder of Ninoy seems to belong to a society in some respects more refined than that ushered in by the election of Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016. Martial law under Marcos lasted from 1972 to 1981. Over three thousand people were killed, many of them cases of “salvagings”—bodies found tortured and mutilated, dumped at the roadside, much like the victims of today’s EJKs—extrajudicial killings—only far fewer of them, of course. Indeed, twice as many have been killed during Duterte’s first six months, starting last June, as in the decade of martial law.
Still, in the case of Ninoy, a certain lip service was paid to due process. An alibi was carefully prepared. Ninoy was warned against returning to the Philippines—warned by one of Marcos’s top men that he faced the risk of assassination. And an assassin was found and sacrificed, as it were, at the scene of the crime. When the postmortem contradicted the official story, an alternative postmortem was sought and found. There was some sense lingering in Marcos’s circle of what a respectable outcome would look like, even if respectability was not achieved.
Today by contrast the pretense of due process is impossible, because the man at the top simply blows it away. One of Duterte’s chief selling points as a leader is that he doesn’t give a shit. So, when he gets in front of any crowd, he will say whatever he thinks will make an impact at that very moment, and it is striking that most of the most shocking things we have learned about Duterte have come from his own mouth. For instance, it was Duterte who compared himself to Hitler:
Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts [in the Philippines] there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims. I would like them to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.
It was Duterte who revealed that he had been abusing fentanyl, the synthetic opioid—the drug involved in the deaths of both Michael Jackson and Prince, which is supposed to be a hundred times more powerful than morphine. He needs painkillers to combat both his daily migraines and the pain from a motorcycle accident, which damaged his spine. However, when he saw the reaction to this revelation, he thought again. “Fools,” he said, “I just made up that story and you believed it.”
Addicted or not, he has, on his own admission, four concurrent illnesses: acute bronchitis, regular migraines, Barrett’s esophagus, and Buerger’s disease. But as he is careful to point out, not cancer. His mortality, however, does seem to weigh upon him and he often alludes to it. Speaking to members of the Filipino community in Cambodia in December, he said: “This is my last hurrah. After this, 77. I am not sure if I will still be around by the end of my term.”
So far, Duterte’s war has been largely against the softest of targets—drug users and small-time pushers, pedicab drivers and the like, whose families are too poor to hit back in any way. None of them can afford to sue the police, or to mount any kind of campaign on behalf of the victims. It is out of the question.
Of course a campaign that is largely a war on the poor is going to be short on credibility, so Duterte has recently been raising his sights a little, and increasing his attacks on the mayors who are said to be involved in the “shabu,” or crystal meth, trade. In January this year he was quoted as saying: “As long as I’m president, these big ‘shabu’ dealers will die and the next batch would really be these mayors. I will call them and lock them up.” . . .