Inside Story

“Here we are, living it again, as though we didn’t learn our lesson”

Profile | Filipino senator Risa Hontiveros faces jail for protecting witnesses to a brutal state-sponsored killing. Has the country’s politics come full circle?

Margaret Simons 4 July 2018 3272 words

Barely a choice: Filipino senator Risa Hontiveros. Dave Tacon

Risa Hontiveros describes herself as a martial-law baby. She is part of the generation of Filipinos who came to political awareness in the years before the people power revolution deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.

Her earliest memories include the nights when, visiting her uncle, the family couldn’t return home because of the curfew imposed under martial law. She was glad: it meant sleepovers with her cousins. The children would hang over the balustrade, watching the grown-ups talk politics as they ate dinner. The food on the lazy Susan turned clockwise, paused, then turned anti-clockwise, back and forth, mirroring the adults’ talk.

Over time, support for Marcos turned to opposition, and finally to resistance, and Hontiveros settled on her own political commitment — not to armed resistance, like the Filipino Communist Party, but to democratic socialism, to working within the system for the betterment of the poor.

Now, at fifty-two, Ana Theresia Navarro Hontiveros is a senator for the Akbayan Citizens’ Action Party in the Philippines Congress. She is also an irritant to president Rodrigo Duterte, and therefore at risk of being jailed, or worse.

Hontiveros was elected to the Senate in the same poll that brought Duterte to power in 2016. Just two years later, she is one of several prominent female Duterte critics facing criminal charges. The times, she believes, are at least as bad — maybe worse — than they were under Marcos. Certainly, more people have been killed. At least 20,000 have lost their lives in the so-called war on drugs and Duterte is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.

“We martial-law babies grew up and became activists in the dying years of martial law,” she says. “We remember what the comrades before us struggled against and what they suffered, what they sacrificed. And now here we are, living it again, as though we didn’t learn our lesson. It seems worse now. The number of killings. The blatant sexism and misogyny, and the destruction of democratic institutions.”

Hontiveros could become the second senator to be jailed at Duterte’s instigation, joining Leila de Lima, the former head of the Human Rights Commission, who was convicted on drug charges described by Amnesty International as “pure fiction.” Is Hontiveros frightened? Sometimes, she admits. But today, having agreed to our interview because she believes it is important for Australians “to know, to be watching,” she is poised, immaculately turned out, and measured.

She is a mother of four, and a widow — her police officer husband died of a heart attack three years ago. Her fair skin is often commented on in a way that would be offensive in other countries. Paleness, in this country of persistent traumatising poverty, is taken as a sign of high status. Manila streets are dominated by billboards advertising skin-whitening products and it is difficult to find a moisturiser on sale that doesn’t claim to whiten as well.

She has built a career on activism on behalf of farmers, fisherfolk, unionists, dispossessed Indigenous people and the poor. But politics in this country has always been an elite game, and as Hontiveros admits, with a laugh, “I am a petit-bourgeois girl.”

It was forty years ago, in 1978, when Hontiveros joined her family in the first big “noise barrage” protest on the eve of that year’s general election. Her father was a lawyer, and some of her siblings would go on to become well-known journalists. The country’s opposition leader, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was contesting the election against Marcos from jail, where he had been sent on trumped-up murder and firearms charges.

Hontiveros stood with her family in their backyard, banging on pots, pans and washing basins with ladles and sticks. “It was very noisy,” she recalls, and it went on until dawn. She was twelve.

At fifteen — having just starred, in one of those striking cultural collisions, as one of the von Trapp family children in a high school production of Sound of Music — she decided to abandon any theatrical ambitions and throw her energies into the campaign against the building of the Bataan nuclear power station. Soon she was involved in the movement for nuclear disarmament.

Influenced heavily by the liberation theology inspiring Latin America at the time, she chose to go to the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University because of its tradition of civic activism. In her first year, 1983, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated after returning from three years’ exile in the United States.

“After that, a thousand flowers bloomed,” she says. “The student movement, the mass movement.” She became an activist, an organiser with non-government organisations. Some of the people she was working with disappeared or were shot. Eventually the breakthrough came: her graduation coincided with the people power revolution, and the end of the Marcos regime.

The Communist Party split in the early 1990s between those who wanted to continue armed rebellion and those with faith in the new constitution. Eventually, a group of left-wing forces coalesced to become Akbayan. Hontiveros represented Akbayan in the House of Representatives from 2004 to 2010 and then, after two unsuccessful attempts, entered the Senate.

From an Australian perspective, politics in the Philippines can seem almost inexplicable, and certainly frightening. Yet this is the oldest democracy in Asia, and one based largely on the American system. It serves as an example of how bad things can get, how dangerous, when institutions are weakened, there is a powerful populist president, and the system veers off course.

The jail threat hanging over Hontiveros is a potent example. It began last August with the killing of a seventeen-year-old student, Kian Loyd delos Santos, in one of the bloodiest nights of the drug war. This particular killing — one among many — seized the popular imagination.

Delos Santos was shot dead by police in a back lane in Caloocan, part of the crowded honeycomb of metropolitan Manila. The police narrative was the standard line — that delos Santos was a drug user, that he was armed and shot at police, that he was killed in self-defence. Contrary to normal practice, though, the CCTV cameras in the area had not been switched off. Footage showed the police dragging a young man, apparently delos Santos, into the lane where his corpse was later found. The footage reverberated across the country’s social media.

As well, three eyewitnesses — two of them children — said they had seen the police punch and slap delos Santos before shooting him as he begged for his life. Interviewed in the media, the witnesses feared for their lives and sought refuge with local bishop Pablo Virgilio David. He called Hontiveros, who gave the children her personal protection and then, after a special Senate hearing was arranged, put them into the custody of the Senate.

The hashtag #justiceforkian went viral. Rallies united the population. In an echo of times past, another noise barrage was organised. It felt, for the first time, as though the people might have had enough.

“People were confronted with that visual proof of what was done to a child,” Hontiveros says. “I think even a population that by then was so almost numbed and terrorised and frightened, possibly more cowardly than brave, was just, ‘Oh my God, they did this to a kid?’”

As for the child witnesses, she will not release their names. “They are both teenagers and they witnessed the killing of their friend Kian,” she says. “They know Kian from the community, and they were so brave together… They were in fear of their lives but still they said to me, ‘We want to tell the truth about what happened to Kian because we know him. We know what he did and what he didn’t do. We know what was done to him.’”

During the Senate hearing a journalist snapped a picture of the mobile phone screen of Duterte’s justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre, while he was texting a member of the organisation Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, urging them to press charges against Hontiveros for “kidnapping” the children. The VACC, while independent in theory, is in fact close to the president, who has appointed its principals to important government positions. It was the VACC that initiated the charges against de Lima and against the recently sacked chief justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno, another Duterte critic.

Hontiveros showed the Senate a picture of Aguirre’s text message and called on him to resign, but the kidnapping charges against her went ahead anyway, along with new wiretapping allegations over her distributing of the photo of Aguirre’s mobile phone.

The woman responsible for investigating charges against government officials, ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, is an appointee of the previous administration, and seen as independent. But she reaches the age of compulsory retirement next month, and Hontiveros expects a new ombudsman to be appointed “close to the president’s heart. And then the charges against me, which have been stuck for months, will move very fast.”

Both cases against her are weak, she tells me. She says she had the permission of the parents to safeguard the children, and that the wiretap allegations are trivial and may not even proceed to court. But then the charges against Senator de Lima were also weak.

She also believes that the delos Santos case is part of a slowly changing attitude to Duterte’s war on drugs among the population. Recent opinion polls have highlighted a contradiction. “People will say, ‘Yes, I support the president, yes, I support the war on drugs,’ but they are also saying, ‘I’m afraid that my family or relatives will be the next victim. I support the war on drugs but I prefer that the suspect be arrested not killed.’”

The contradiction, she speculates, might come from the fact that opinion polling, in this country of high illiteracy and limited access to technology, is done in person during visits to local government areas, or barangays. Local elected barangay captains may well know who the survey respondents are, and have a political stake in the results. And so, she speculates, people will talk in general about their concerns, but caution intervenes when they’re asked explicitly if they support the president.

Having attended Australian Labor Party national conferences as a guest, Hontiveros is in a good position to make comparisons between the two systems. Strong party identity — the way conflicts were worked through without fracturing the party itself — is something she envies. “We want to be able to emulate in our own way more mature democracies,” she says. “Part of our challenge with Akbayan is trying to be a real political party in a vacuum, in the absence of a real political party system.”

It is hard, she says, to build a party at the same time as pursuing reform, all the while under duress from the government. “We are building our house and living in it at the same time.”

In Australia, we tend to curse the party system, or at least its factionalism. Spend a few weeks examining Filipino politics and you will begin to see political parties as a blessing. They provide a means of pursuing power and policy that transcends and constrains the personal.

In the Philippines, everything is personal. You can see it in the family and friendship networks that are the main means of survival and mutual support, both for the poor and for the elite. You can see it in the patronage, cronyism, dynasties and corruption.

Political parties are more flags of convenience than machines for pursuing policy programs and contesting power. New ones are born and die with great rapidity. Politicians routinely switch allegiance. Other candidates run as guests in one party without leaving their party of origin, some running under a number of party banners simultaneously.

No party can credibly claim to have its roots in a defined part of the population, such as workers or business. Most lack a defining policy or ideological vision. Voters tend to support individual candidates — often celebrities — and political dynasties — such as those of the Marcoses and the Aquinos — more than parties. It’s not hard to find people who cast one vote for Duterte as president in 2016, and another for opposition candidates. I met a man who had voted for both Duterte and Hontiveros, and saw no contradiction because he believed both to have courage and integrity.

When Duterte came to power he did so as part of a micro-party. Now, thanks to turncoats from the other parties, he holds a supermajority in the lower house of Congress and also has the numbers in the Senate. He has repeatedly insisted he is a “leftist” and a socialist — the first president of the Philippines to make such a claim.

On the one hand he has praised the legacy of Ferdinand Marcos; on the other he has boasted about his ties with leftist rebel groups and is close to key members of the Communist Party. Senior figures in the extreme left — which is in armed rebellion against the government across much of the countryside — also sit in Duterte’s cabinet and are part of the government. All this complicates the fraught business of organising opposition to the government.

What insights can Hontiveros offer about the apparent bundle of contradictions that is Rodrigo Duterte? In the early days, she says, there was “debate among comrades about his game plan. We were saying, ‘Is there a game plan or is he just making it up as he goes along?’ But I think he does have a game plan and in fact it is very simple. It’s not a platform of governance, but simply to centre all power on himself, and to do what he wants and to get away with anything.”

Corruption continues unchecked, she says, but even more than money “it’s really power, and I think power for its own sake,” that drives Duterte. “He’s really trying to push the limits and see how far he can go… That’s why he’s very sensitive to public pushback and his survey results. He has a lot of things on many different burners all at the same time and whichever seems to make headway, whichever group of his supporters is working on that, then he will give a signal to that to advance it. He is quite Machiavellian, and he’s not stupid. He’s very smart.”

Under the constitution, presidents are limited to a single six-year term. But Duterte has already announced that he wants to change the constitution to introduce what he describes as a federal system of government. Exactly what he means is not yet clear, but Hontiveros suspects that the aim is to allow him to serve more than one term, or at least to select his successor.

Duterte’s hold on public popularity faces its first true test at the midterm elections next May, and they will also be a test of Akbayan. In an engaging display of frankness, the opposition party’s website proclaims that its “coalition character” is both strength and weakness. “On the one hand, it provides wider space and latitude for a pluralist exercise and consensus building. On the other hand, it remains relatively loose and slow in responding to challenges, opportunities and threats.”

Akbayan has pushed measures to prevent and even outlaw political dynasties, and yet it is largely dependent for its impact on one of those dynasties. Suppressed during the administration of Gloria Arroyo between 2001 and 2010, the party made serious political headway only from 2009, when it aligned with the Liberal Party, which is dominated by the Aquino dynasty.

Being in coalition with the Liberal Party when it was in government under president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino — son of Ninoy Aquino and his wife, former president Cory Aquino — was a matter of “making up the rules as we went along, in the absence of a coalition government set of rules or a system.”

That democratic institutions are so under threat in the Philippines is not, as Hontiveros acknowledges, entirely Duterte’s fault. The disease goes deeper, and the blame is shared with her own side of politics.

Through the three decades since the fall of Marcos, including those of the Aquino administration, poverty has continued to define the lives of most Filipinos. It has hardly shifted, even when the economy improved.

For the Filipino poor, life is stressful beyond toleration. According to government statistics, more than a quarter of Filipino families lack the income needed to meet basic food needs. Another quarter live precariously, saved from desperation only by an insecure job or a remittance from a family member working overseas. The middle class live alongside the poor, constantly aware of the ease with which they could slip down.

As a member of the lower house during Noynoy’s presidency, Hontiveros was able to initiate key pieces of legislation, including bills to subsidise the cost of medicines, reform agriculture and most crucially, liberalise reproductive health laws, which theoretically guarantees universal access to contraception and sex education. The change was vigorously opposed by the Catholic Church, which launched an appeal in the Supreme Court that weakened it and delayed its implementation.

Even now, says Hontiveros, implementation is a battle. “From the Senate we continue the oversight, trying to make sure there is a budget allocation for every year, and also with our civil society partners fighting for its full implementation by local government.”

Other liberal reforms came during the Aquino presidency. The economy improved, though largely thanks to many Filipinos effectively voting against their country with their feet. More than one-in-ten now work overseas, largely in menial jobs, and the remittances they send home to their families are the largest single contributor to GDP. More recently, call centres and other organisations conducting back-office functions for overseas companies have begun to overtake remittances. Call-centre operatives are paid more than teachers, social workers or nurses.

“Our beautiful people power revolution… we made mistakes,” says Hontiveros. “Apparently, we weren’t able to broaden it enough physically and deepen it economically and socially over the past three decades to the majority who are still poor.”

Meanwhile, the Liberals have had their own corruption and pork-barrelling scandals. The hopes of the people power revolution are now so discredited that the term “yellow” — the Liberal Party colour associated with the revolution — is used as a term of political abuse.

This, Hontiveros says, is the challenge for the future. She has attracted a strong personal following and almost celebrity status, fuelled, she hopes, by her legislative record, most recently on mental health. She is committed to continued reform — if she gets the chance.

She has visited de Lima in jail. Conditions are grim. The fifty-eight-year-old has been refused an air conditioner despite bouts of pneumonia and difficulty breathing in the punishing heat. She has no television, mobile phone or computer, but a collection of her handwritten letters from jail has just been published and distributed with messages of support from politicians — including Noynoy Aquino — and journalists. In one letter, de Lima reflected that she was probably safer in jail “in this walled and guarded place” than she would be outside.

Hontiveros says she would hate jail. It would divide her from her children and her friends. She is not sure how she would cope. She tries not to think about it too much.

But after all those years of political work, there is barely a choice. The administration will pursue her whether she pursues issues or doesn’t. “So I might as well just keep on, and try to be part of building this house, and do what I can.” ●