ON Feb. 24, the monthslong public persecution of opposition senator Leila de Lima culminated in her arrest. The former Commission on Human Rights chairperson and former Justice secretary ran in the 2016 elections on a platform centered on human rights and anti-corruption. It is no wonder that she so staunchly opposed a president whose ideals contrast starkly with her own.
The detained senator earned the ire of the president and his legions of supporters through her sharp jabs at both the Duterte administration and its bloody campaign against illegal drugs. In almost no time, de Lima became the center of a teleserye-like investigation into her alleged involvement with drug lords where no small or intimate detail of her life was spared, not even her rumored relationship with her former driver.
Even at the height of the issue, which took place before the president marked his first year in office, the laughable theatrics of the administration’s political persecution of de Lima already seemed like an obvious, despicable attempt to shame and silence the opposition. It was a ploy that reeked of power play, which everyone but Duterte supporters saw clearly. Though it succeeded in shaming and jailing the opposition senator, it certainly did not succeed in silencing her nor other critics of the administration; on the contrary, it only further emboldened them to continue holding power to account.
Just as quickly as he had “disposed” of de Lima, Duterte immediately found a new target in Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. Although he does not hail from the same party as de Lima, Trillanes took over the reins of the opposition after her arrest.
Trillanes gained considerable notoriety from participating in three failed coup attempts against the Arroyo administration staged in 2003 (Oakwood mutiny), 2006 (Marine standoff) and 2007 (Manila Peninsula siege). Trillanes’ questionable reputation, along with his fierce remarks that questioned and challenged the president, all the more made it easier for the administration to antagonize the senator to their 16-million strong following.
The teleserye that Filipinos thought ended with the arrest of de Lima continued with a new season in which top officials made fools of themselves by breathing new life into the long dead coup issue and making contrasting statements on whether the Department of National Defense can certify Trillanes’ application for amnesty, forcing the senator to camp out at his office in fear of getting unjustly arrested.
The message that Duterte sent through his persecution of leading critics is chilling: come for me and I will come for you. The president has made clear that he is willing to bend the rules and find the smallest loopholes in the law in order to justify his attacks on the opposition. It was a show of power eerily reminiscent of the tactics of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
In all fairness to the administration, the Trillanes saga was well-timed. They milked the senator for every second of airtime that he was worth in order to divert the people’s attention from the truly alarming issues like the surge in the inflation rate and the rice shortage.
The president may attempt ceaselessly throughout the course of his term to silence the opposition, but it is a battle that he will never win. For every voice that is silenced by a government whose hands are soaked in blood, thousands more will rise in its place, shouting loudly and fearlessly: never again, never again. F