04/18/2022, 13.33
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Pabillo calls for a president for the poor, not someone beholden to Duterte

by Stefano Vecchia

The apostolic vicar of Taytay and former auxiliary bishop of Manila, beloved by the downtrodden, spoke to AsiaNews about the situation in his country ahead of the 9 May election. Human rights are increasingly seen as a burden. Extrajudicial executions call for justice. He personally supports Leni Robredo. Speaking about the war in Europe he said: “What the Russians are doing in Ukraine, China could do to us.”

Milan (AsiaNews) – The Philippines will go to the polls in a few weeks, on 9 May, to elect President Rodrigo Duterte’s successor, as well as many local officials. Bishop Broderick Pabillo, former auxiliary bishop and later apostolic administrator of the Diocese of Manila, has been one of the strongest and most courageous critics of many of Duterte’s policies and of the limits of democracy and rights in his country. Since August 2021 he has served as the apostolic vicar of Taytay, on the island of Palawan. AsiaNews has spoken to him to take stock of the situation in the Philippines in light of this very delicate vote.

The Philippines is approaching major elections, not least because they come at the end of a long pandemic that hit the archipelago hard. What can you tell us about this and what are the pandemic’s consequences for Filipinos?

The pandemic has shown us how we are all connected to one another. No one is safe unless everyone is safe. In many places, especially the less accessible islands and mountain areas, the level of vaccination remains low; here it was not possible to reach the population and inform them adequately about the pandemic.

During the pandemic we also heard of cases of corruption involving the Department of Health and Pharmally, a company defended by President Duterte. We don’t have enough money to buy vaccines and protect our healthcare workers, yet corruption involves billions. Obviously, bad governance has been amplified by the pandemic.

Inevitably, an election of this importance raises many issues and touches many problems by casting a new or different perspective on them.

Other issues that have come to the fore during the election campaign include the obvious lies aimed at revising our past. Social media have played a major role, especially with regard to the Marcos dictatorship. Then we have extrajudicial killings in the name of the ‘war on drugs’ and the labelling of all opponents and progressive groups as communists. In all these situations there is a lack of transparency and the culture of impunity is evident. No one is held responsible for the abuses committed.

In addition to the pandemic, the May vote touches other issues such as the economy, democracy, and human rights. How do you see the situation and how will the elections affect the future?

The economy is falling behind and the country is heavily indebted. Human rights abuses are increasingly seen as a burden on the progress of government projects, especially the rights of the poor, workers and indigenous peoples. Politics is undermined by pressure on the political opposition and progressive groups. The mechanisms for balancing powers are being dismantled.

The Supreme Court has been tamed with the removal of its chief justice, while government representatives on the Control Commission and the Commission on Elections have links to Duterte, as well as the armed forces and the police. The Philippines needs leaders who don’t owe anything to the outgoing president, who are independent and courageous in pointing at Duterte and acolytes for their abuses.

Along with the industriousness and resilience of Filipinos, two things draw international attention to the Philippines. The first is the historical revisionism concerning the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos and the second is the recognition of the struggle for human rights and democracy by the population as evinced by the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Maria Ressa. How do you explain this apparent dualism and how do you see the role of the Catholic Church in what appears to be a permanent struggle for rights, peace and democracy?

As a people, surely Filipinos are resilient, but there is a limit to their patience. The Duterte administration has exploited this patience. The growth in support for Leni Robredo (the only candidate today able to challenge Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos, son of the former dictator) as shown by her large election rallies, indicates that people want a change of course, away from an administration that is based on lies, arrogance and intimidation.

The Church is calling for the current administration to be held accountable. Its abuses should be investigated, that justice may be done, especially for the thousands of victims of extrajudicial killings. We are also facing rampant corruption, which is the cause of the country’s debts. And we need strong leadership to maintain our independence from China without falling into the hands of the Americans.

What are the main issues that voters and candidates should have in mind and who among the candidates could best respond to the needs and expectations of the population?

Human rights, care for the environment, the economy, abuses by the military, and dependence on China are some of the problems that should be prioritised. We should defend our territory from the People’s Republic of China, especially in the Western Philippine Sea (which the Chinese call the South China Sea). We should also have programmes that can actually lift people out of poverty.

Usually, choosing a candidate was the lesser evil, but not this time. Leni Robredo and her camp do not come from political dynasties, have not been touched by corruption and have a reputation for transparency and sincerity in their service to the poor and commitment to human rights. I really hope they win, despite not having the financial resources of other experienced politicians.

How is the Catholic Church following the electoral process and how is it directing Catholics in relation to the May vote?

As a Church we call for respect for the vote, and we explain that voting is one way to show love for the country and not to be misled by those who try to buy votes. We also ask people to be active and support good candidates in the election campaign.

One last question: How does the Philippine population see the war in Ukraine and the suffering of so many in what is also a show of militarism and authoritarianism, contempt for rights and life?

What the Russians are doing in Ukraine, China could do to us. If we let the Russians act with impunity, the Chinese will feel encouraged to do the same with us or Taiwan, so we join the condemnation of Russia’s invasion. Unfortunately, just as Putin controls what Russians think through control of mass media, so does Xi Jinping in China. That said, all Filipinos are directly affected by the economic consequences of rising commodity prices triggered by the war.

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