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Dissent unwelcome in the Philippines

Ana P. Santos
October 7, 2019

Vice President Leni Robredo discusses her opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs and how their allegiance to different political parties is designed to make leaders accountable for their actions.

Leni Robredo, Vizepräsidentin von den Philippinen
Image: picture-alliance/ANN/Philippine Daily Inquirer

DW: There have been continued reports of violence and the state of lawlessness in the Philippines. Environmental activists and human rights defenders are being targeted, and of course, there are drug-related killings. To what extent has President Duterte's violent rhetoric contributed to this culture of violence?

Leni Robredo: The message is that number one, dissent is not welcome, and number two, there is no accountability — the accountability of officials is not important. So when this is the message that you give, especially to implementers of the law, it is very dangerous. I think this has contributed so much to the manner in which activists are now being killed.

In many of the president's speeches, there have been threats of violence to many sections of society that have shown their dissent. For one, if I remember correctly, the president encouraged attacks on the Catholic Church and also encouraged the burning of LUMAD [indigenous] schools. In fact, one time he told his soldiers and the police to shoot female activists in their genitals.

The men around him, the spokesperson, for example, are always quick to defend these statements, saying these threats are mere words and the president didn't mean to pursue them. But you know he's the president. His power and authority make a great impact and this is the kind of environment that we are encouraging.

Lawsuit against Duterte's drug war

Read more: Amnesty urges UN to investigate Philippines drug killings

Do you think it would also take words from the president to stop it?

It would have been better if he had not said those words at all, because they give mixed signals, even if he takes back his word. They give mixed signals about the intent of, and about why he said them, about what he really wants.

In fact, if you remember, there have been many times when the president assured members of the Philippine National Police or soldiers that they will be protected, that nothing bad will befall upon them if they follow his orders.

A lot of the violence over the last three years can be traced back to the administration's war on drugs. You have criticized this policy along with other human rights organizations. What is the situation now and how would you explain President Duterte's continued support for the "war on drugs?"

The president has time and again made it very clear that he is okay with how the war on drugs is being executed. He has also made statements reprimanding members of the Philippine National Police, saying he will not tolerate those who have been abusing their power. This type of propaganda makes it very confusing for people.

The Philippines is quite unique in that we know that the president and his deputy are elected from different parties, or that they don't necessarily have to be from the same party. How does that affect the working relationship between you and the president?

There is some advantage in the president and the vice-president not coming from the same party because it provides for checks and balances. If they are able to work together despite their differences, then it would benefit the people.

Duterte heads back to China

Read more: Philippines releases documents detailing drug war tactics

From day one your vice presidency has been contested. Would it have been different if you were more supportive of the president?

I guess so. There was a time when I thought that we would be able to work really well. I attended the cabinet meetings very regularly, but when the extrajudicial killings became an issue, I felt that I was obliged to voice my opinion and so, I was very vocal about my opposition.

Your vice presidency is being contested on another front. "Bongbong" Marcos [son of former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos and Imelda Marcos] ran against you for the vice presidency and lost, but has now filed an electoral protest. How are you preparing for the possibility that he might win this electoral protest?

For one, I cannot see a situation where he would win. We are very confident of our victory. He filed a case based on three grounds before the Supreme Court. While I cannot talk about the details of the case because of a gag order — just to contextualize — of the three courses of action, one has already been dismissed. 

President Duterte's term ends in 2022. Are you planning to run for president?

I don't have plans of running [for the elections]. I never had plans of running.  I have promised my children that this would be the last — 2016 would be the last elections for me, but then, I do realize that I have an obligation, so I'm just doing the best I can as vice-president. Given the limited mandate, given the kind of environment we have and given the difficult peace, I just plan on doing the best that I can, and anything can happen.

This interview was conducted by DW correspondent Ana Santos in Manila.