Risa Hontiveros describes herself as "a martial-law baby". She is part of the generation of Filipinos who came to political awareness in the years before the people power revolution deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986.
Her earliest memories include the nights when, visiting her uncle, the family couldn’t return home because of the curfew imposed under martial law. The children would hang over the balustrade, watching the grown-ups talk politics as they ate dinner.
Over time, support for Marcos turned to opposition, and finally to resistance, and Hontiveros settled on her own political commitment – not to armed resistance, like the Filipino Communist Party, but to democratic socialism, to working within the system for the betterment of the poor.
Now 52, Ana Theresia Navarro Hontiveros is the sole senator for the Akbayan Citizens Action Party in the Philippines Congress. She is also an irritant to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, and therefore at risk of being jailed – or worse.
Hontiveros was elected in the same poll that brought Duterte to power in 2016. Just two years later, she is one of several prominent female Duterte critics facing criminal charges. The times, she believes, are as bad – maybe worse – than they were under Marcos. Certainly, more people have been killed. At least 20,000 have lost their lives in the so-called war on drugs and Duterte is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity.
“We martial-law babies grew up and became activists in the dying years of martial law,” she says. “And now here we are, living it again, as though we didn’t learn our lesson. It seems worse now. The number of killings. The blatant sexism and misogyny, and the destruction of democratic institutions.”
Ana Theresia Navarro “Risa” Hontiveros, the sole senator for the Akbayan Citizens Action Party in the Philippines Congress.
Hontiveros could become the second senator to be jailed at Duterte’s instigation, joining Leila De Lima, the former head of the Human Rights Commission, who was convicted on drug charges described by Amnesty International as “pure fiction”.
Is Hontiveros frightened? Sometimes, she admits.
She is a mother of four, and a widow — her police officer husband died of a heart attack three years ago.
She has built a career on activism on behalf of farmers, fisherfolk, unionists, dispossessed Indigenous people and the poor. But politics in this country has always been an elite game, and as Hontiveros admits with a laugh, “I am a petit-bourgeois girl”.
The role of dissident
It was 1978 when Hontiveros joined her family in the first big “noise barrage” protest on the eve of that year’s general election. The country’s opposition leader, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, was contesting the election against Marcos from jail, where he had been sent on trumped-up murder and firearms charges.
November 2016: Protesters oppose the burial of former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the People’s Power Monument in Quezon city, north of Manila.
Hontiveros stood with her family in their backyard, banging on pots, pans and washing basins with ladles and sticks. “It was very noisy,” she recalls, and it went on until dawn. She was 12.
At 15 — having just starred as one of the Von Trapp family children in a high school production of The Sound of Music — she decided to throw her energies into the campaign against the building of a nuclear power station at Bataan.
Influenced heavily by the liberation theology inspiring Latin America at the time, she chose to go to the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University because of its tradition of civic activism. In her first year, 1983, Ninoy Aquino was assassinated after returning from three years’ exile in the United States.
“After that, a thousand flowers bloomed,” she says. “The student movement, the mass movement.” Some of the people she was working with disappeared or were shot. Eventually the breakthrough came: her graduation coincided with the people power revolution and the end of Marcos regime.
The Communist Party split in the early 1990s between those who wanted to continue armed rebellion and those with faith in the new constitution. Eventually, a coalition of left-wing forces coalesced to become Akbayan. Hontiveros represented Akbayan in the House of Representatives from 2004 to 2010 and then, after two unsuccessful attempts, entered the Senate.
A fatal encounter
The jail threat hanging over Hontiveros began last August with the killing of a 17-year-old student, Kian Loyd delos Santos, in one of the bloodiest nights of the drug war.
Delos Santos was shot dead by police in a back lane in Caloocan, part of the crowded honeycomb of metropolitan Manila. The police narrative was the standard line – that delos Santos was a drug user, that he was armed and shot at police, that he was killed in self-defence.
Protesters march with the hearse of Kian delos Santos during his funeral in Caloocan, Manila, August 2017.
Contrary to normal practice, though, the CCTV cameras in the area had not been switched off. Footage showed the police dragging a young man, apparently delos Santos, into the lane where his corpse was later found.
Three eyewitnesses – two of them children – said they had seen the police punch and slap Delos Santos before shooting him as he begged for his life. The witnesses, in fear of their lives, sought refuge from local bishop Pablo Virgilio David. He called Hontiveros, who gave the children her personal protection and then, after a special Senate hearing, put them into the Senate's custody.
The hashtag #justiceforkian went viral. In an echo of times past, another noise barrage was organised. It felt, for the first time, as though the people might have had enough.
“People were confronted with that visual proof of what was done to a child,” Hontiveros says. “I think even a population that by then was so almost numbed and terrorised and frightened, possibly more cowardly than brave, was just ‘Oh my God, they did this to a kid?’.”
October 2016: Jimji, six, cries out in anguish, saying “Papa” as workers move the body of her father, Jimboy Bolasa, found murdered during Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs”.
As for the child witnesses, she will not release their names. “They are both teenagers and they witnessed the killing of their friend Kian,” she says. “They were in fear of their lives but still they said to me, ‘We want to tell the truth about what happened to Kian because we know him. We know what he did and what he didn’t do. We know what was done to him’.”
During the Senate hearing, a journalist snapped a picture of the mobile phone screen of Duterte’s then justice secretary, Vitaliano Aguirre, while he was texting a member of the organisation Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption, urging them to press charges against Hontiveros for “kidnapping” the children.
The VACC, while independent in theory, is in fact close to the president, who has appointed its principals to important government positions. It was the VACC that initiated the charges against de Lima and against the recently sacked chief justice of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno, another Duterte critic.
Former supreme court chief justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, ousted by Rodrigo Duterte’s government.
Hontiveros showed the Senate a picture of Aguirre’s text message and called on him to resign, but the kidnapping charges against her went ahead anyway, along with new wiretapping allegations over her distribution of the photo of Aguirre’s phone.
The woman responsible for investigating charges against government officials, ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales, is an appointee of the previous administration, and seen as independent. But she reaches the age of compulsory retirement this month, and Hontiveros expects a new ombudsman to be appointed “close to the president’s heart. And then the charges against me, which have been stuck for months, will move very fast.”
Both cases against her are weak, she tells me. But then the charges against Senator De Lima were also weak.
Hontiveros also believes that the Delos Santos case is part of a slowly changing attitude to Duterte’s war on drugs among the population. “People will say, ‘Yes, I support the president, yes, I support the war on drugs,’ but they are also saying, ‘I’m afraid that my family or relatives will be the next victim. I support the war on drugs but I prefer that the suspect be arrested, not killed.’”
State of confusion
It is hard, Hontiveros says, to build a party at the same time as pursuing reform, all the while under duress from the government: “We are building our house and living in it at the same time.”
‘A leader must be a terror to the few who are evil’: A poster for President Duterte on the window of a store in Manila.
Political parties in the Philippines are more flags of convenience than machines for pursuing policy programs and contesting power. New ones are born and die with great rapidity. Politicians routinely switch allegiance. Other candidates run as "guests" in one party without leaving their party of origin, some running under a number of party banners simultaneously.
It’s not hard to find people who cast one vote for Duterte as president in 2016, and another for opposition candidates. I met a man who had voted for both Duterte and Hontiveros, because he believed both to have courage and integrity.
What insights can Hontiveros offer about the bundle of contradictions that is Rodrigo Duterte? In the early days, she says, there was “debate among comrades about his game plan. We were saying, ‘Is there a game plan or is he just making it up as he goes along?’ But I think he does have a game plan and in fact it is very simple. It’s not a platform of governance, but simply to centre all power on himself, and to do what he wants and to get away with anything.
USPresident Donald Trump with Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte at the ASEAN summit in Manila last year.
"He has a lot of things on many different burners all at the same time and whichever seems to make headway, whichever group of his supporters is working on that, then he will give a signal to that to advance it. He is quite Machiavellian, and he’s not stupid. He’s very smart.”
Under the constitution, presidents are limited to a single six-year term. But Duterte has already announced that he wants to change the constitution to introduce what he describes as a federal system of government. Exactly what that will mean in practice is not clear, but Hontiveros suspects that the aim is to allow him to serve more than one term, or at least to select his successor. A new survey by the respected pollster Pulse Asia Research found that two-thirds of respondents oppose changes to the constitution.
'We made mistakes'
Duterte’s hold on public popularity faces its first true test at the midterm elections next May, and it will also be a test of Akbayan. In an engaging display of frankness, the opposition party’s website proclaims that its “coalition character” is both a strength and a weakness: “On the one hand, it provides wider space and latitude for a pluralist exercise and consensus building. On the other hand, it remains relatively loose and slow in responding to challenges, opportunities and threats.”
Akbayan has pushed measures to prevent and even outlaw political dynasties, and yet it is largely dependent for its impact on one of those dynasties. Suppressed during the administration of Gloria Arroyo between 2001 and 2010, it made serious political headway only from 2009, when it aligned with the Liberal Party, dominated by the Aquino dynasty.
Street hawkers on an overpass above Epifanio de los Santos Avenue in Manila. The decades of democracy have not alleviated the plight of the poor.
That democratic institutions are so under threat in the Philippines is not, as Hontiveros acknowledges, entirely Duterte’s fault. The blame is shared with her own side of politics.
Through the three decades since the fall of Marcos, including those of the Aquino administration, poverty has continued to define the lives of most Filipinos, even when the economy improved.
According to government statistics, more than a quarter of Filipino families lack the income needed to meet basic food needs. Another quarter live precariously, saved from desperation only by an insecure job or a remittance from a family member working overseas. The middle class live alongside the poor, constantly aware of the ease with which they could slip down.
During the preceding administration of Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino – Ninoy Aquino's son – the economy improved, though largely thanks to many Filipinos effectively voting against their country with their feet. More than one in 10 now work overseas, mainly in menial jobs, and the remittances they send home to their families are the largest single contributor to GDP.
Workers install a street lamp in Manila. Corruption has meant the Philippines has failed to improve services and living standards even in times of economic growth.
“Our beautiful people power revolution … we made mistakes,” says Hontiveros. “Apparently, we weren’t able to broaden it enough physically and deepen it economically and socially over the past three decades to the majority who are still poor.”
Meanwhile, the Liberals have had their own corruption and pork-barrelling scandals. The hopes of the people power revolution are now so discredited that the term “yellow” – the Liberal Party colour – is used as a term of political abuse.
This, Hontiveros says, is the challenge for the future. She has attracted a strong personal following and almost celebrity status, fuelled, she hopes, by her legislative record, most recently on mental health. She is committed to continued reform — if she gets the chance.
She has visited De Lima in jail. The 58-year-old has been refused an airconditioner despite bouts of pneumonia and difficulty breathing in the punishing heat. A collection of her handwritten letters from jail has just been published and distributed with messages of support from politicians – including Noynoy Aquino – and journalists. In one letter, De Lima reflected that she was probably safer in jail than she would be outside.
Jailed senator Leila de Lima.
Hontiveros says she is not sure how she would cope with jail. She tries not to think about it too much.
But after all those years of political work, there is barely a choice. The administration will pursue her whether she pursues issues or doesn’t. “So I might as well just keep on, and try to be part of building this house, and do what I can.”
Margaret Simons is Associate Professor of Journalism at Monash University. This article first appeared in Inside Story.
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