Sat, Mar 03, 2018 - Page 8 News List

Persecution can keep democracy’s ideals alive

By Leila De Lima

On the evening of Feb. 23 last year, I was in my office in the Philippine Senate, waiting for the hours to pass until the agreed time of my surrender.

That night marked the very height of the hounding I had been suffering at the hands of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his henchmen. Yes, hounding, for I felt like prey being toyed with and tortured by a predator right before it goes for the kill.

I was initially referred to as an unnamed female government official. However, anyone who knew me or Duterte, or the spate of extrajudicial killings that were happening as part of his so-called “War on Drugs,” knew that he was referring to me.

“We need not destroy lives in order to destroy drugs,” I said.

With that, I signed my own arrest warrant.

As far as I was concerned, short of killing me, my enemies had already done their worst.

I thank them for making that mistake. It placed me somewhere that I could not have reached without their help: in the company of giants and immortals.

Nelson Mandela. Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr of the Philippines. In Asia, Ilham Tohti, who was named the winner of the Martin Ennals Award. And many, many others.

Just like that, I was no longer just one woman. I am a prisoner of conscience.

My persecutors thought that putting someone like me in jail would isolate me until I withered into oblivion. I have to say that in my 10 years of public service, this has been the most liberating and most engaging experience of my life.

It also came with so many realizations.

First, political persecution is never about the individual. It is about an idea.

You cannot kill or jail an idea. By persecuting the messenger, you strengthen it.

Second, authoritarianism and populism are ideas that can never be killed. They are always there in the shadows of the human mind and society, waiting for someone to expertly manipulate reality or the people’s perception of reality, to make them seem like the one true answer to all of the people’s woes.

Third, populists and authoritarians create the illusion of simplicity, compared with the “lofty” ideals of democracy and liberalism. If we are ineffective in connecting these with people’s “real” daily needs, we will always be accused of being out-of-touch elites, paving the way for populists and authoritarians to step in.

Finally, political persecution is a threat to democracy. Persecutors want their victims to be silenced, and for others to take heed and obey.

However, it is also a warning in another sense: It is better to be proactive than to be passive.

If it is true that “the hottest place in hell is reserved for those, who, in times of moral crisis, refuse to take a stand,” then I would rather be jailed in defense of what is right than go to hell in the company of those responsible for our collective descent into impunity, fear and inhumanity.

Leila de Lima is a detained senator and a member of the Liberal Party of the Philippines, a founding member-party of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats, an organization of liberal and democratic parties in Asia. This opinion piece is part of the Silver Lining Series written by members of the council to celebrate its 25th anniversary this year.

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