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Rodrigo Duterte: From ‘The Punisher’ to rights advocate

Based on his recent criticisms of the Marcos Jr. administration, former president Rodrigo Duterte now plays the part of an advocate of free speech and assembly and a defender of the Constitution.

That’s a radical shift from his image as a tough-talking leader who had earned the moniker “The Punisher” because of his brutal approach to crime.

Approaching the age of 80, Duterte himself says he “can die anytime” but adds: “I am forced to come out. Why? Because I love my country.”

Is Duterte going through a redemption period? But has he said sorry for the thousands of suspected drug pushers and users who were killed without due process under his bloody war on drugs?

Following the cancellation of a rally in Tacloban City on May 25, the former president denounced the current administration’s “policy of stifling peaceful dissent” and accused it of “doing everything to prevent” the gathering from happening.

His dramatic statements in an “open letter” to the people of Tacloban City, however, do not match with the explanation of the organizers that the rally was canceled due to mobilization problems caused by Typhoon Aghon.

When a similar assembly in Bulacan on April 28 was called off, Duterte also invoked the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, specifically Section 4, which provides, “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances.”

Can his allegation that the administration has been preventing the Hakbang ng Maisug (Movement of the Brave) prayer rallies from taking place even be considered an advocacy? It’s something that’s not easy to believe, coming as it does from the former president who was responsible for shutting down ABS-CBN, then the country’s biggest broadcast network, after his allies refused to renew its franchise application.

Also, under his presidency, at least 23 journalists and media workers were killed as of April 2022. Several others were threatened and harassed. He had banned critical reporters of news agencies from covering his activities but encouraged vloggers who were all praises for him and his administration, even peddling disinformation in his favor.

During his time in Malacañang, then-sitting senator Leila De Lima was sent to jail and released only last November, nearly seven years after, following her acquittal in two out of three politically motivated drug cases.

De Lima’s detention had a chilling effect on critics, who were fearful of being publicly ridiculed and accused even without proof by Duterte.

There’s too much hypocrisy in those Maisug rallies. For one, they say these are prayer rallies, but do they even pray during the gathering, where the speakers, particularly Duterte, utter cuss words and accusations, painting themselves as the political opposition?

The organizing group calls itself TAPS, which stands for Transparency, Accountability, Peace and Security. In his speeches at the rallies, Duterte has been calling for transparency and accountability in the government’s spending, specifically the House of Representatives led by Speaker Martin Romualdez.

The Dutertes have been hitting Romualdez, a first cousin of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., because his allies supported a clamor to strip Vice President Sara Duterte of P650 million in confidential funds for the Office of the Vice President and the Department of Education.

Romualdez was also suspected of having ordered the reduction of the funding allocation for Paolo Duterte’s district from the proposed P2 billion to P500 million for 2024. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Zaldy Co had said Paolo Duterte’s district got P51 billion in infrastructure funds during the last three years of his father’s presidency.

To date, the vice president has yet to come out with a detailed accounting of the P125 million in confidential funds that her office received from the Office of the President’s contingency fund, which she spent in the last 11 days of 2022. What about Paolo’s P51 billion? What gives them the ascendancy to demand transparency and accountability from others?

The Dutertes and their allies have been using these Maisug rallies as a stage to launch the Senate campaign of former Duterte officials such as Harry Roque, Salvador Panelo, Vic Rodriguez and Glenn Chong, as well as celebrities like Willie Revillame and Philip Salvador. Reelectionist Sens. Bong Go and Ronald Dela Rosa have also been showing up in some of the gatherings.

Clearly, these are political rallies, not prayer rallies, as they want to make it appear.

They have been using the Romualdez-led attempt to use the people’s initiative to amend the Constitution as a rallying issue, but didn’t Duterte also attempt not only to amend but completely trash the 1987 Constitution and draft one that provided for a federal government?

Now, he says the 1987 Constitution is perfect. “A constitution is supposed to be permanent. Hindi ginagalaw ‘yan,” he said at a rally in Dumaguete City on May 7.

When he was campaigning for the presidency in 2016 and during his term, Duterte actively pushed for a shift to a federal system as a means to achieve peace in Mindanao. This proposed transition from the presidential form of government needed a revision, not just an amendment, of the 1987 Constitution.

He created a consultative committee that finalized a draft constitution in 2018 but failed to get support from Congress and the public.

Given his several somersaults on Charter change and many other issues, are you convinced that Duterte has transformed into an advocate of free speech and a defender of the Constitution?

The views in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of VERA Files.
This column also appeared in The Manila Times.