Q&A: President Duterte, Maria Ressa, and Philippines-NZ relations

Aries Arugay, associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, recently visited New Zealand as part of the ASEAN@50 Fellowship Programme. He caught up with the Asia Media Centre to discuss President Duterte, Maria Ressa, and the political future of the Philippines. 

Aries Arugay

Aries Arugay says there is 'more than meets the eye' over the arrest of Maria Ressa.

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Tell us about the hottest topic in the Philippines right now.

We’ll have midterm elections in May. All of the positions in local government will be contested, as well as the entire House of Representatives and half of the Senate. Our senators are elected nationally, and that can give us a sense of how the public perceives the current administration of President Duterte.

Related to that has been the referendum for the Bangsamoro Organic Law. This is an issue very close to this government, because Duterte comes from that part of the country. For the longest time, Mindanao has been a conflict-ridden region. The Duterte administration has prioritised pursuing peace across disparate Muslim groups. With the referendum, if most of the areas accede and agree to be part of Bangsamoro, you’ll have a new, more autonomous region that will allow greater powers for that level of government to be able to decide on its own affairs. This will not immediately bring peace to Mindanao, but it’s a critical first step.

What is the feeling over the arrest of Rappler CEO and executive editor Maria Ressa?

I do feel Maria Ressa’s arrest was truly unnecessary. If I was a strategist of this government, I would never have recommended that given the bad optics that it produces. 

But this is just the latest development in this very tenuous relationship between the media and President Duterte. Maria Ressa’s news outlet has become the target of this administration. The story you hear in western media is "this is Duterte, he’s clamping down on democracy, he’s jailing opposition leaders, he’s repressing the most critical of the press". But there is more than meets the eye. The law that is being used against her, the cyber libel law, was actually passed by the previous government — it was not a Duterte administration law. Finally, the libellous article was published in 2012. The person who is filing the case is not directly associated with the Duterte administration. Though for the government to do this right now is at the very least ill-timed.

If you ask Filipinos at home, you would have two stories — "she’s a dual citizen" [Filipino and American] who owns a media outfit that allegedly receives foreign funding, but at the same time, "this is the death of democracy". The reality is somewhere in the middle.

What can the Philippines learn from New Zealand?

New Zealand’s strong governance is its big asset. For me, New Zealand can show the Philippines that leaders can come from all walks of life. We have become so used to electing people because of their pedigree and not their principles. The other thing New Zealand can show the Philippines is that, for governance to work, people must matter. Your attention towards your indigenous peoples is something we can really take seriously.

What can New Zealand learn from the Philippines? 

Because we have a large overseas Filipino sector, one thing we are fighting for is the rights of migrant workers world-wide. Even President Duterte, who in western media is portrayed as a grave violator of human rights, is a champion of the plight of migrant workers. You have 100,000 Filipinos here in New Zealand. It’s one of the most vibrant, dynamic and growing communities. If you can show you have treated overseas Filipinos well, then the Philippines could use that to tell other countries, "see how it’s done?"

Can you share your thoughts on the political future of the Philippines?

Duterte’s term ends in 2022. He’s 72 years old, and seems to be not in the best of health. But that doesn’t prevent him from endorsing who he thinks could continue what he started. If there is something I find troubling, it’s the fact that Duterte allowed "darker forces" to return to power. Those people should be in jail. But now they are basking in the glory of political power, and Duterte is at the very least complicit towards them.

I’m still hopeful given everything because we have a lot of young people. And young people want new leaders; fresh voices from ordinary people — not people of privilege. I’m sure there are young people with intelligence, lots of ideas, and creative insights that can contribute to society. They should be given the opportunity to lead and serve, because the previous generation already had its chance.

Interview and editing by Siobhan Downes.

- Asia Media Centre