Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004

About

@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Published by Bayan Metro Manila

The government’s failure to provide adequate assistance and its delayed decision to conduct massive COVID-19 testing could worsen domestic violence in the country.

Violence against women and children (VAWC) is a silent killer that is seldom reported or noticed.

In many communities, women bear the brunt of household work and taking care of the daily needs of the family. They are mothers, wives, and daughters who lost jobs and livelihoods in the past month. Many of them have been forced to depend on government relief to survive and ease the mental anguish caused by the spread of COVID-19.

The slow arrival of aid is a heavy toll they have to carry while taking steps to protect the health of their families. It could trigger more violence if they are part of abusive relationships.

The inadequate food assistance could negatively affect the health of malnourished children.

The indecision over the petition to conduct mass testing has contributed to the emotional and psychological torture of battered women and children. Testing in communities could have easily informed many households about their vulnerabilities in acquiring the infectious disease.

Any decision to extend the lockdown should consider how this will impact on women and children who are victims of VAWC.

But the government should be held accountable first for its criminal negligence in addressing the drastic impact of the total lockdown in our communities, especially on women and children.

The militarized approach in dealing with the public health crisis has enabled some state troops to harass or intimidate women workers and residents in various checkpoints.

Bayan and Gabriela chapters in Metro Manila have stepped up information awareness campaigns to combat domestic violence. We have also mobilized members to gather donation and deliver these goods in select communities.

But the national government should assume the primary responsibility in addressing the basic needs of our people. Its so-called social amelioration program is wholly inadequate, highly selective, and bogged down by bureaucratic inefficiencies.

Authorities should also be oriented about how public health emergencies could intensify VAWC cases, and efforts must be implemented to protect women and children.

We reiterate our urgent demands: free mass testing now, food and cash aid now, protection for frontliners now, and the lifting of unnecessary lockdown restrictions.

Written for Global Asia. Published in June 2014

WHEN the Royal Thai Army launched a coup in Thailand on May 22, the generals announced it through social media accounts. This makes sense, considering that about a third of Thailand’s population of 67 million has access to the Internet.

And after the army seized control of major media outlets, information about the coup and the political situation was widely shared through social media. This explains why the army, since it declared martial law in the early hours of May 20, has repeatedly asked Thai netizens to co-operate with the junta or else face prosecution. It even convened dozens of local Internet providers and told them to filter “inappropriate” websites and other web content it deemed harmful.

As mainstream media were put under tight regulation, only social media provided reliable updates about the coup, its impact on Thai politics and the opposition it sparked. “Flash mobs” organized via Twitter in the days following the Thai coup worried the military and have reportedly led to the arrest of some organizers who were tracked down by intelligence operatives tracing their mobile Internet use.

Despite threatening to impose a total Internet blackout, the army has so far failed to do this. Thankfully, many Thais did not flinch in giving regular reports about the new post-coup regime. Even the seemingly strange proliferation of “coup selfies” — citizens and tourists photographing themselves alongside soldiers — informed the world that soldiers were indeed deployed on the streets of Bangkok near malls, public transit stations and government buildings.

Thailand’s social media community, assuming the military does not derail it over time, perfectly illustrates the phenomenal rise of social media, not just there, but in the Southeast Asian region as a whole. It also confirms the status of Southeast Asia as one of the world’s most important IT markets. About 34 percent of the 600 million Southeast Asians have Internet access. Filipinos and Thais are among the most active social media users worldwide, according to global surveys. Indonesia, through its sheer size, is considered a strategic IT hub.

Southeast Asia’s social media activities are actually driving the growth of e-commerce, mobile gaming, startups and various software apps.

But as the Thai coup underscored, the unrestrained advance of social media has made many leaders in the region suspicious of its political influence. And this cynical attitude is one reason why measures to regulate the Internet have also grown in recent years.

THE SOCIAL MEDIA VOTE

The most evident political value of social media is its increased role during elections. Social media campaigning is now necessary to win the support of young voters as politicians must speak the language of the Internet to effectively deliver their campaign platforms. They have to spend time interacting with voters and even non-voters in the virtual world to get the support of the networked generation.

Proof of this “new normal” is the way Indonesian elections have been strongly influenced by the expectations and reactions of the large social media community there. It is no longer enough that a candidate has party backing; he or she must have a dynamic online profile. In the current presidential race, which will be settled on July 9, both retired General Prabowo Subianto and Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo have sophisticated social media teams that trade accusations and allegations steadily on various platforms. Indeed, the campaign on social media is widely seen as perhaps the most important aspect of the race for urban voters.

Of course, political parties can ignore social media and still win elections. This happened in Cambodia in 2013, where the winning party — the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen — never integrated Internet campaigning into its overall election strategy. In contrast, the opposition actively campaigned through the Internet and recruited many volunteers; it still lost in the final count (although the opposition accused the government of electoral fraud), but it gained many seats in parliament at the expense of the ruling party, which has been in power for three decades.

Hun Sen, who is Southeast Asia’s longest serving head of state, publicly expressed his frustration with many Facebook users during his first major post-election speech in parliament. “The government has no policy to close Facebook, but I would like to appeal to people not to let Facebook become a tool to damage social stability and insult people.”

LIGHT TOUCH REGULATION

As social media becomes more ubiquitous, governments respond by acknowledging its immense impact on information-sharing and global communication, but many of them also say it undermines traditional Asian values. Governments are aware of the Internet’s enormous popularity, especially among young people, which explains the reluctance to impose absolute online censorship. They avoid excessive web filtering in order not to provoke mass outrage, but they still try to tame the Internet through sophisticated measures that enhance the regulatory powers of the state while diminishing opportunities for online free expression.

Singapore’s Internet policy is appropriately named “light touch,” which means only “minimum standards are set for the responsible use of the Internet.” This approach to regulating online activity essentially captures the policy framework adopted by many Southeast Asian governments: Minimum regulation that leads to effective control of the Internet.

In Singapore, this has meant requiring news websites to apply for a license that includes a condition demanding compliance within 24 hours if the government orders the removal of “content that is found to be in breach of content standards.” Further, political websites must reveal their sources of funding and submit the personal details of their editors and staff.

So far, mainstream news websites like Yahoo Singapore have been covered by this ruling, but a popular socio-political website Breakfast Network was forced to shut down last December after it failed to apply for a license. In this case, “light touch” became an indirect form of censorship.

CYBERCRIME AS AN EXCUSE

The most common and perhaps the least controversial Internet legislation deals with protecting the public from various cybercrimes such as data interference, computer fraud, illegal access, child pornography, hate speech and bullying. Governments find it easier to build a broad consensus for penalizing those who assault minors or insult and violate traditional norms.

Politicians usually remind the public of their conservative heritage every time they introduce policies that restrict Internet activities to fight indecent behavior. Most often, the target is sexual content, something that is still taboo in many countries in the region. Laws are easily passed if they are seen as intended to curb the proliferation of online porn, sex scandals or immoral sexual behavior.

Indonesia is most active in monitoring the web for immoral content. Police conduct random inspections in schools, where mobile phones of students are checked for porn downloads, and regulators sometimes block even legitimate and popular websites such as Reddit and Vimeo for purportedly allowing the uploading of porn videos on their portals.

But the war against indecent behavior can also intentionally or unintentionally target enemies and critics of the state. What if a ruling party accuses the opposition of engaging in immoral and indecent activities? What if online criticism of government policies is suddenly interpreted as a cybercrime?

When the nationwide implementation of Sharia Law in Brunei was announced earlier this year, it was met with fierce online reactions. The Sultan of Brunei quickly threatened netizens with prosecution if they “continue with their mockery” of the law.

Even before martial law was declared in Thailand, the police were warning social media users that it was a crime to “like” or share subversive Facebook posts or web content that undermined national security or insulted the monarchy.

Cambodia has a draft cybercrime law penalizing any online publication that “generates insecurity, instability, and political cohesiveness.” What exactly is “political cohesiveness?”

The Philippine Supreme Court, meanwhile, has affirmed the legality of a cybercrime law that contains a provision imposing a higher penalty for online libel than traditional libel.

As social media usage intensifies, the list of computer-related crimes is also growing. There is a recent worrying trend of public officials taking or threatening to take legal action against online critics. In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsieng Loong is suing blogger Roy Ngerng for libel over claims of corruption made on his blog. An apology from the blogger has not stopped the suit.

In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has filed a case against Malaysiakini, the country’s largest independent news portal, for allowing users to write and post “seditious” comments. Coup or no coup, Thailand is notorious for imprisoning citizens accused of sending SMS messages or writing web comments that allegedly insult the royal family — a crime under Thailand’s lese majesté laws.

Cybercrime legislation is also a crucial policy tool to enhance trade, promote the growth of the IT sector, empower Internet users and protect data and national security systems from various cyber attacks. But in Southeast Asia, the policy objectives have been expanded to impose stricter control over the media and the Internet.

Myanmar and Vietnam provide examples of how online censorship is directly and indirectly undertaken by ruling parties.

MYANMAR IN TRANSITION

In Myanmar, there has been an easing of media regulations in recent years, but the lingering effect of censorship is still felt even in cyberspace. Connectivity problems often prevent many Burmese from accessing the web and Myanmar’s Internet woes are largely related to the country’s creaky infrastructure. However, the government is also accused of deliberately preventing the improvement of Internet connections in an effort to control the spread of critical information. Censorship also may be indirectly enforced by controlling Internet speed and making it difficult for citizens to acquire cheap telephone handsets and SIM cards.

In common with many societies in transition, Myanmar is currently besieged by growing ethnic and religious conflicts, some of which have turned violent, especially clashes between radical Buddhist monks and the Muslim minority. The crisis is reflected too in Myanmar’s social media, where young people who are hungry for information and political engagement are actively discussing and sharing their personal convictions. But what needs to be addressed is the alarming rise of racist remarks and hate speech on the Internet against the Muslim minority and other persecuted ethnic groups. If this threat is not immediately addressed, the military-backed government could invoke this as a reason to impose more restrictions on Myanmar’s new media.

DISSIDENT BLOGGERS IN VIETNAM

Vietnam’s mainstream media remain under strict state surveillance and licensing, while social media networks are regularly blocked. Dissident bloggers continue to push the boundaries despite arrests and harsh prison sentences.

The government often uses Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which bans anti-state propaganda, to detain bloggers who oppose the government. Last year, Decree 72 took effect, putting into force a law that many activists have described as the harshest legal offensive yet against freedom of information. The new regulation bans the sharing of news stories or “compiled information.” But the government claims it is intended only to protect intellectual property.

Also last year, Vietnam’s prime minister issued a directive ordering a crackdown on “reactionary” blogs. Broadly speaking, vague provisions in the law allow authorities to make arbitrary arrests with little accountability.

But if Vietnam scored low on Internet freedom because of its record of jailing dissident bloggers and blocking social networks, its netizens, meanwhile, are demonstrating the potential of the Internet to promote political causes. Doan Trang, a dissident blogger, observed that a growing number of Vietnamese bloggers have been tackling human rights and other political issues.

“Despite the emotional style which may sometimes reveal their non-professionalism, they filled the vacuum left by the mainstream media, which in most cases would only report news without producing any in-depth analysis,” he wrote on his blog.

Facebook is regularly blocked in Vietnam, but this hasn’t stopped Vietnamese users from maximizing it to promote various causes. They often create humorous Internet memes to dodge censors, which have proven effective in spreading news and alternative views. The recent maritime tension between China and Vietnam saw the emergence of a vibrant and nationalistic online campaign that united netizens in opposing China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea.

But for political analyst Patrick Sharbaugh, this movement could have a lasting impact on domestic politics. “Once this latest flare-up has passed, users there will have had a strong taste of what it is like to feel comfortable with expressing political sentiment online,” he wrote on article-sharing website Medium on May 16.

Speaking of social media-driven protests, Malaysia’s Bersih (Clean) and the Philippines’ Million People March are outstanding examples of how the Internet can inspire offline political interventions. Bersih united thousands of Malaysians in opposing election fraud, which seriously undermined the legitimacy of the country’s ruling coalition in national elections last year. Angered by seething corruption, Filipino netizens, meanwhile, succeeded in organizing a massive rally in the nation’s capital in the aftermath of the “pork barrel” scandal that tarred numerous high-profile legislators last year.

In Thailand, the anti-coup opposition has the potential to develop into a broad and popular pro-democracy campaign. Social media has been the primary tool used by protesters to share news, launch creative protests and organize opposition to the coup regime, which the military has worked hard to counter. It is anybody’s guess if the opposition will become a decisive factor as events unfold.

Could these various innovative protests lead to Arab Spring-like uprisings?

Perhaps yes. But so far, these protests have not yet reached the level where governments have been removed from power. The greater challenge is how to make social media in Southeast Asia more accessible to a wider audience, especially the poorest of the poor. Except for Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, Internet penetration remains low in the region. Social media influence may be growing, but it must reach the majority of the population to have a lasting and radical political impact.

For now, it seems that the governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have succeeded in creating at least one common platform across ASEAN — namely, a regulatory environment that is aimed at subtly and not so subtly undermining free speech and trying to control the media. This has to be reversed and, instead, Southeast Asian governments should embrace the liberating power of social media.

Different shades of redbaiting

December 2nd, 2020

Published by Bulatlat

It is President Rodrigo Duterte who normalizes the nasty propaganda offensive against the Left. The redbaiting president sets the tone parroted by subordinates and apologists. This is echoed even by bureaucrats who interpret the president’s anti-Left rhetoric as a motivation for career promotion. This is how redbaiting as a nefarious manifestation of a dubious political ideology is transformed into an aspect of governance.

The occupant of Malacanang Palace is always the most rabid and notorious redbaiter-in-chief. Duterte has his own uncouth style but his ranting is no different from former presidents who used their privilege to attack critics and activists. Duterte may sound like a mad man when he talks gibberish but his predecessors also dished out incoherent inanities against the Left. Blame the communists and their sympathizers for what the government has failed to solve, accuse the opposition of conspiring with the ‘enemies of the state’, demonize activism, criminalize political organizing, and whip up Red Scare. But at the same time, make contradicting claims about the supposed obsoleteness of socialism and irrelevance of progressives in politics. The Left is absurdly both viciously monstrous and petty in the eyes of the ruling clique.

Redbaiting is a political act in aid of the conservative agenda. But it is preached by those in power as a righteous crusade against evildoers and godless activists. Those who embrace it are either victims of reactionary indoctrination which reflects the sorry state of political literacy today, or zealous guardians of a moribund state of affairs. They are both obscurantists and attack dogs serving the interest of the ruling ideology. They see red everywhere but not the other colors that dominate the political landscape. They provoke, cheer, and join state forces in unleashing violence against red dissenters.

Some are professional anti-communists; majority are amateurish in mimicking the worldview of their oppressors. Not all are paid mercenaries of the party in power. Some are even politically persecuted but harbor an irrational hatred (or fear) of communism. They are ready to collaborate and compromise with fascists and imperialists but abhor any links with ‘totalitarian’ leftists. Some are religious who use theology to bless state-sponsored violence targeting National Democratic formations. Some are scholars who trade critical thinking and political commitment with the perks of building a portfolio based on anti-Left nitpicking. Some are petty social climbers redtagging those they perceive to be a threat to their careers. Some are public opinion influencers who echo the views of their corporate patrons which translates into a comical behavior of pandering to those who wield power on one hand, and a condescending behavior to those who are organizing the marginalized on the other. Some are naïve friends misperceiving activism as the problem, relatives overcoming the humiliation they are experiencing as discriminated wage laborers by appropriating the views of the class enemy, and so-called apolitical acquaintances who are constantly warning against Leftist machinations.

They can all tolerate various political persuasions but aggressively dogmatic in naming the activist, the leftist, the communist as if failing to do so would harm the balance in the community or ruin their reputation. They may come from different backgrounds but they all share varying levels of resentment against the politics of the Left. They are also pitiful and pathetic for thinking that their seemingly innocent political gesture is not redbaiting but an act of good citizenship.

They are a reminder that in order to effectively counter redbaiting, it should not end with deposing the president alone. It needs bigger and bolder goals like the overhauling of the governance structure and cultivating a new political culture and literacy that truly empower ordinary citizens.

In the meantime, the redbaiters are acting as if their arrogance has no limits. They only appear strong as long as the party in power is there to give legitimacy to their irresponsible actions. They eventually reveal their insignificance when their political bosses lose clout or when the crisis of the social order has sparked a massive discontent.

Not all redbaiters are worthy of our precious attention and political outrage. When we push back against redbaiting, it is always in pursuit of our urgent tasks as activists: Organizing resistance against tyranny and mobilizing the masses to build a new future founded on the politics of change and hope.

January 2020 in Asia-Pacific: Landmark rulings on genocide and internet shutdowns. Read more

February 2020 in Asia-Pacific: Coronavirus, censorship, and threats against the media. Read more

March 2020: COVID-19 and censorship plague Asia-Pacific

What we saw spreading quickly across the region in March was not just the dreaded coronavirus, but the mainstreaming of laws, regulations, and other emergency measures deemed essential in fighting it. These measures are also – perhaps not coincidentally – very useful in suppressing critical voices. In short, the fear, disruption, and confusion caused by the pandemic are enabling various governments to attack freedom of expression in the name of addressing a public health crisis. Read more.

Published by Bayan Metro Manila

President Rodrigo Duterte’s late night spiel clarifying what he meant by the infamous ‘shoot them dead’ order confirmed our fears that he is applying ‘tokhang’ methods in addressing the COVID-19 health crisis. This is both alarming and infuriating since it could enable law enforces to commit rights abuses with impunity.

Duterte’s incoherent explanation about police procedures in making an arrest and the circumstances that make it necessary to shoot suspects were the exact arguments he used in justifying why the police should kill suspects resisting arrest (nanlaban) in 2016 and 2017.

Duterte was not defending the legality of his ‘shoot people dead’ directive, he was reviving a Tokhang rhetoric that led to bloody consequences.

The commander-in-chief was addressing not just the public but state troops who are manning checkpoints and communities under lockdown. Duterte appeared to be rambling but he was actually normalizing the use of guns and aggressive police actions in the name of protecting public safety. He was both instilling fear among the people (obey or risk punishment) while directing the police to establish full control through the use of extreme measures.

We have condemned the militarized approach in the fight against COVID-19. We condemn too the use of the Tokhang model in shaping narratives, mobilizing the bureaucracy with the police and the military in command, and the president’s narrow and intolerant view on dissent during an emergency situation.

Tokhang failed to solve the drug menace but it desensitized local communities as state forces went on a rampage committing various types of abuses. We fear that Duterte is using Tokhang methods not to contain the virus but to impose draconian social control measures. This is a looming threat as the government continues to be remiss in delivering aid to millions of households. Rather than fast track the implementation of social amelioration measures, Duterte is more focused in deterring people to protest or even complain about the lack of food and other services in their communities. Duterte’s late night outburst shows that his government is preparing to contain unrest and not how it will ensure that people’s needs are addressed if the lockdown is extended for another two weeks.

Duterte keeps on making televised speeches but remains silent on the issues of slow testing, inadequate protection for frontliners, and the delayed distribution of cash aid to poor households. Here is a government demonstrating its insensitivity to the plight of ordinary citizens and the inhumanity of talking about killing hungry protesters. The gall to continue asking for public support despite its callousness and unrestrained hostility to those who are demanding accountability.

We reiterate our urgent demands: free mass testing now, food and cash aid now, protection for frontliners now, and the lifting of unnecessary lockdown restrictions.

Published by Manila Today

We are told that in order to appreciate nature and protect the environment, we have to go somewhere and participate in an outreach activity. It is there in the rural where we could restore forests, watersheds, and waterways. But here in the urban, we are merely incentivized to reduce carbon footprints, plant trees, and lead an eco-friendly lifestyle: buy eco-bags and manage waste efficiently.

The focus of the latter is the self since the collective burden of enhancing sustainability is outsourced to individuals. If the air is dirty or the water is polluted, then it is the responsibility of individuals to rethink and change their everyday habits. They can compensate their guilt by volunteering in a CSR-sponsored activity either in the suburbs or some popular tourism destination.

What is lost in this narrative is assigning accountability to policymakers who often conspire with big business in legitimizing the wanton plunder of our finite resources.

Indeed, citizens have a crucial role in cleaning our habitats; but it is the government which has the mandate and capability to mobilize an entire bureaucracy in order to ensure the rational usage of the commons. Government can regulate the activities of the extractive industry. State agencies can promote environment awareness through schools, media, and other opinion-making institutions.

Through innovative land use planning, policymakers can redraw the boundaries to promote social cohesion and ecological balance. Concretely, in the urban, it means making cities more livable, stimulating inclusive development, and building zones that uplift the living conditions of all.

But instead of fulfilling their duties, politicians betray their constituents by uncritically endorsing the worldview and business needs of their campaign donors. This includes dignifying the corporate spin about the supposed harm in society if public assets are not immediately handed over to the private sector.

Because of this, open spaces are targeted for commercial use, idled lands are converted into shopping enclaves, public properties are devalued and sold to private developers. Least priority is given to the building of parks and mass housing.

What narrow-minded and money-hungry politicians aspire to create is another pathetic replica of the First World. Then and now, the unquestioned indicator of progress in the urban is the skyscraper. A city is said to be booming if it has an expanding skyline dotted with towers, high-rise, and iconic buildings. Urban development is equated with malls, commercial centers, and flyovers.

Hence, the unlamented rapid privatization of public spaces; the corporatization of urban planning; and the distortion of the concept of ‘green city’. Thanks to corrupt and inept bureaucrats, urban planning is now largely assumed by corporate technocrats who buy, design, and build city blocks to maximize profit.

In recent years, real estate projects have adopted so-called green features which paid commentators exaggerate as an example of responsible and innovative investment. Suddenly, land developers who displaced farmers and urban poor residents have become ‘green’ heroes and visionaries. Labor exploiters are praised for integrating environment protection with commercial development.

Meanwhile, the coercive arm of the state is deployed to clear the land, evict residents, and persuade the public that these measures are needed for the benefit of the greater good, including the protection of the environment and strengthening the climate-readiness of communities.

Green Corridor

Believing that a democratic alternative is better compared to the business-driven greening initiative, Nilad environment network has launched the ‘green corridor’ campaign to promote the preservation and expansion of green spaces in the country’s premier urban hub.

It is touted as the people’s response to the ascendancy of the corporate sector in reshaping the cityscape with regard to enhancing the region’s green characteristics. This necessitates the formation of a broad movement composed of concerned citizens, environmentalists, activists, and civic groups which can counter the nefarious money-powered elite consensus.

Nilad’s campaign demands an inventory of green spaces, the expansion of the coastal green belt, and the enumeration of threatened wildlife habitats in Metro Manila. This can be used as reference in publishing a green map, the identification of small and large parks, and the tracing of bike lanes.

The political advocacy also involves local and national legislative lobbying. Laws need to be updated such as clarifying what it means to have an open space, green space, and green urban space.

Through local ordinances, we can determine the state of parks. Are parks expanding? Are they open to the general public? Policymakers have to understand that parks are more than just decorations or an optional feature of urban planning that can raise the land value of an open space. Green parks are actually essential to improving the overall health of individuals in a modernizing society. More importantly, parks boost democracy by facilitating the interaction of citizens from all walks of life. Today, as private developers gain tighter control over a rising number of parks and open spaces in the urban, the opportunity to exercise dissent and political action in public areas is getting more restricted.

Also needed is a comprehensive inventory of trees in Metro Manila. Some cities such as San Juan are mobilizing volunteers in order to count and specify the number of trees in every barangay. But the absence of a region-wide inventory of trees and a systematic accounting of tree planting programs make it easy for PPP contractors to cut trees and reduce the size of parks without generating public backlash.

On the part of Nilad, it will crowdsource the monitoring of parks and even the tagging of trees through social media. Decentralized greenwalks will be organized to evaluate the accessibility and maintenance of parks.

‘Green corridor’ is inevitably a political movement that will directly engage legislators, policymakers, and urban planners. It seeks to intervene in the ongoing conversation dominated by big business perspectives about the planning of the future of cities. It is an education campaign that aims to raise public consciousness and vigilance about some large-scale projects like the Manila Bay reclamation that threaten to destroy the biodiversity in the region. Finally, it upholds the principle that the people themselves are ready to decide and design the way we live and how we ought to live instead of simply delegating these issues to so-called experts and tycoons. Simply put, in greening the city, we envision a space where both rich and poor can inhabit in order to do business, create art, make love, enjoy nature, and practice politics.

This post is based on a keynote presentation delivered by the author at the first Global Voices Asia-Pacific Citizen Media Summit June 2, 2019 in Taipei, Taiwan.

The rise to power of someone like Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who gained global notoriety for launching a bloody campaign against illegal drugs, is linked to the manipulation of online information tools by populists who end up dominating elections.

Indeed, Duterte admitted to hiring a cyber army in 2016 and ran a campaign which prominently featured the use of social media to promote his candidacy. Later, his government was accused of deploying online trolls to distort public debates by spreading disinformation. He has also been also criticized for bullying the media while dangling before the public proposals to police the internet.

It is therefore no surprise to hear many people associating Duterte’s ascendancy with the alarming trend of ‘digital authoritarianism’.

But the internet cannot simply be blamed for enabling the victory of politicians like Duterte, who is in fact a newcomer in a region dominated by authoritarian regimes which came to power years before social media use became ubiquitous. For example, Cambodia’s Hun Sen was first elected prime minister in the 1980s. Thailand’s military has staged 12 coups in the past century. Singapore’s ruling party has been in power since the 1960s, and Malaysia’s ruling coalition held power from the 1950s until its defeat in 2018. Brunei has an absolute monarchy, while Vietnam and Laos are communist states.

Applied to the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia, digital authoritarianism refers to how the internet has been weaponized in aid of existing authoritarian regimes. It signifies the use of the online tools that many hoped would empower citizens for mass surveillance and the promotion of divisive hate speech. It reflects the actions of paranoid, repressive states seeking to prevent the rise of opposition forces by destroying connections and solidarities between communities, and online spaces of resistance.

Cybercrime legislation

Taming the ‘disruptive’ internet has been the focus of many states in the region. Internet legislation is often framed in aid of boosting national security objectives, protecting the public interest, and preserving law and order. In shaping public opinion, crusading governments have rationalized their actions by invoking the need to protect the public from online evils. They often invoke the need for social harmony, public tranquility, and defending the country’s morals and history. Indonesia, for example, seeks to censor pornography and other ‘obscene acts’, while Malaysia cites racial harmony when removing offensive internet content.

The first set of anti-cybercrime laws sought to update draconian media regulations and make them applicable in the era of social media and smartphones. Across the region, governments passed laws and orders on cyber libel and cyber defamation. What Vietnam’s decree no. 72, Myanmar’s article 66(d), Cambodia’s social media prakas (regulation), and Thailand’s Computer Crimes Act combined with the harsh lèse-majesté law have in common, is the intent to criminalize any online activity deemed a public threat or subversive in the eyes of authorities.

The current priority is the building of consensus to justify the passage of laws against so-called ‘fake news’. Last May, Singapore passed a law which defined false news this way: “A statement may be found to be false if it is false or misleading, whether wholly or in part, and whether on its own or in the context in which it appears.” Media groups were right to call the measure Orwellian. Laws like this are too broad and too vague—yet brutally precise in targeting free speech.

The author delivering his presentation at the Global Voices Asia-Pacific Summit in Taipei.

China model

The systematic approach to clamping down on free speech is often characterized in news reports as the adoption of the so-called ‘China model’. It points to the use of sophisticated technologies by security forces to control the local population—in particular, the weaponization of bureaucracy to silence dissent.

This is only partly correct, because China is not to blame for what’s happening in several Southeast Asian countries. Applied to the region, the ‘China model’ is even more sinister because of the way it is fused with built-in or local models of oppression to create a deadly mix of tools and processes that buttress the authoritarian features of governments.

What are these local instruments of oppression? Antiquated media laws, new cybercrime measures, security offices designed to gag the population, agencies toeing the line of the ruling party, and social institutions coerced to self-censor and kill critical thinking.

To speak of ‘digital authoritarianism with Chinese characteristics’ without explaining the region’s machineries of censorship would likely exaggerate China’s role in the overall equation of oppression—and make it more difficult to recognize the impunity perpetrated by evil regimes.

For it is not that governments in Southeast Asia suddenly became authoritarian because they were inspired by what China is doing. They already have repressive laws on defamation, sedition, and whistleblowing. What they got from China, primarily, was that nation’s precious political support, and the license to import surveillance hardware and totalitarian techniques to reinforce indigenous methods of controlling the local population. This has resulted in a frightening pattern of mixing digital and archaic tools of oppression to preserve the rule of despots and destroy hope of an alternative future, whose  political impact is not limited to suppressing free speech, since it has the potential to hack elections, undermine political processes, and destroy accountability.

From Asia to Silicon Valley

Is there a way out of this situation we are in? How can we break the rule of autocrats? How can we reclaim the promise and potential of the internet to strengthen our democratic vision? How can we assert our demands when voting results are digitally manipulated, public discourse is polluted by disinformation, and institutions are held hostage to archaic rulings?

I will dare to say we must go back to the basics of political organizing. At the grassroots level, we must fight not only fake news but cynicism, while planting the seeds of hope for a new political future. If we want new laws, the starting point is not lobbying, but political education in our communities. We want social movements backed by real political strength that can engage both corporate and bureaucratic powers. Our hope lies in a strong civil society that can make an impact from Asia to Silicon Valley.

Through political organizing, we can form new partnerships with various sectors who can contribute to the campaign. Students, writers, workers, farmers, software developers—each of these groupts have a role to play in this fight against what we call digital authoritarianism.

We must address the roots of conflict in society, attacking the deeper problems engendered by economic policies that are biased against the poor, and building power in the local sphere to challenge the nefarious impact of elite rule. In other words, we must work directly to combat the forces and change the social conditions that allowed authoritarians to claim power in the first place. Technology will be our friend in this long fight, but it is the people—and mainly the people—who will lead the struggle.

So it is neither a social media revolution nor a digital revolution that will save us from the clutches of digital authoritarianism, but no less than a people power revolution.

The Chinese embassy in Manila released a music video dedicated to COVID-19 frontline workers, but it quickly drew widespread anger among Filipino internet users because of the song’s indirect reference to the South China Sea, known locally as the West Philippine Sea.

The music video of the song “Iisang Dagat” (One Sea) was released on April 23. The lyrics were written by Chinese Ambassador H.E. Huang Xilian and the song was performed by Chinese diplomat Xia Wenxin from the embassy and several Filipino and Chinese celebrities.

The song mentions the friendship between the two countries and their mutual cooperation in dealing with the pandemic.

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China’s Clandestine Gamble in the Philippines

The rapid expansion of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators or POGOs is linked to rising Chinese influence on the government of Rodrigo Duterte. But this is a controversial, if not unmentionable, connection because the Chinese government has officially rejected POGOs, while the Philippines denies that it is giving preferential treatment to Chinese citizens for such businesses. For many Filipinos, however, POGOs have come to symbolize the dark side of state-backed Chinese investments in the country.

POGOs deal with online gambling. Since gambling is prohibited in many countries, POGOs allow bettors to play and transact through the internet.

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November 2019: Blackout and landslide: 100 days without internet in Kashmir and election victory in Hong Kong

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December 2019: India protests, internet shutdowns, Ampatuan verdict, and Hong Kong’s “White Christmas”

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Published by Bayan Metro Manila

It’s not the first time that President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered law enforcers and state troops to shoot people dead but to hear him give the same directive during his press conference last night was extremely jarring, to say the least.

He was reacting to the protest of some residents in Quezon City who were merely asking for assistance yet he made it appear as if those who joined the action were conspiring to create destabilization.

His outburst was meant to make people forget that the hunger and deprivation affecting millions is caused by the government’s slow action and failure to properly prepare after the lockdown order was imposed in Luzon more than two weeks ago.

He warned against provoking social disturbance but his government is responsible for this. He was given emergency powers and more than 200 billion pesos to deal with the crisis but the government remained slow in distributing food and other relief to poor households.

Millions stayed at home, lost their jobs and livelihoods, and desperately waited for the promised assistance that was not only delayed but also inadequate.

Instead of addressing the bottleneck in the delivery of relief, Duterte directed his anger at those who were asking help from the government. It reflects an authoritarian mindset which projects a leader in control but is actually besieged by a nagging fear that he has already lost hegemony.

Duterte is haunted by the knowledge that his government is incapable of giving the basic needs of the population that is why he has chosen to rely on his trusted generals to be in charge of the COVID-19 task force.

The government is wrong to think that it can contain the virus by spreading fear. It has arrested curfew and quarantine ‘violators’, it filed charges against those who post ‘fake news’, it has summoned officials accused of undermining the efforts of the government, and it is now running after internet users who are criticizing the incompetence of the Duterte presidency.

The president’s order to shoot protesters who will endanger the lives of the police is a serious threat to civil liberties. This was the commander-in-chief giving specific instructions to police and soldiers manning the checkpoints and communities across the country. When the president issued a similar command in the past, it led to more than 5,000 drug-related deaths, displacement and bombing of Lumad communities, massacres in Negros, extrajudicial killings of activists, and other impunity attacks targeting critics of the state.

To prevent social unrest, Duterte must acknowledge the failure of his approach in confronting the country’s social problems. But his militarist thinking and anti-poor bias have polluted his judgment.

Duterte underestimates the people’s capacity to resist as it becomes more rabid in spreading terror. Our only option is to help ourselves by organizing our ranks and together we can beat COVID-19 and the virus in Malacanang.