A former member of Rodrigo Duterte’s Cabinet says there was much to like about the Philippines President’s plans in the early days of his administration – but now the world must act on his regime’s human rights abuses.

At first glance, a left-wing academic and social worker would seem an unlikely fit for the administration of a self-styled strongman who has encouraged the extrajudicial killing of drug addicts and dealers.

Yet when Judy Taguiwalo was approached in 2016 by newly elected Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, she saw a role in his Cabinet as a challenge worth accepting.

Speaking to Newsroom during a visit to New Zealand, Taguiwalo says many in the country were surprised when Duterte revealed his plans to offer four Cabinet posts to “the underground left” as part of a push for peace with communist insurgents.

While not a member of the far-left, Taguiwalo has been an activist her entire life – twice detained as a political prisoner during the far-right dictatorship of former ruler Ferdinand Marcos – and put her name forward after a progressive alliance suggested she apply for the role of social welfare and development secretary.

“I talked to some of my friends and especially to my sister … she said, ‘Why not, you’ve been marching all your life, you’ve been asking the government to do this and do that, and now you have a chance to show you can make changes in government’, and I thought that was a good reason to join.

While most international coverage of Duterte’s presidential campaign focused on his hardline law and order stance, Taguiwalo says he aligned with the left on a number of issues.

He had promised to end exploitative forms of temporary employment, implement an independent foreign policy, and pursue peace with the country’s communists.

Duterte’s promise of a war on drugs came with acknowledgement of the need for rehabilitation as part of a three-pronged approach to the issue.

Judy Taguiwalo (centre) hands out relief goods to the victims of an earthquake in Mindanao as Rodrigo Duterte (back) watches on. Photo: Getty Images.

“For the drugs, it was one of his many pronouncements but that wasn’t the sole pronouncement he made.”

After submitting her name for the role, Taguiwalo heard nothing for weeks – then, at the end of the month, she was called to Duterte’s hometown of Davao for what she thought would be a job interview and a chance to learn more about the man she had never met before.

Instead, he announced that those gathered were already members of his Cabinet.

Taguiwalo says Duterte was clear that he wanted his officials to live a simple life without luxury cars and other accoutrements, telling them: “I don’t want you to be lords and masters, I want you to be humble.”

One of her first tasks was to organise Duterte’s post-inauguration dinner, an event which took place among the urban poor of Manila rather than in a glitzy ballroom.

“The rhetoric was great for me – these were the kinds of things I wanted to hear from a president,” Taguiwalo says.

But by the end of 2016, she had already developed concerns, including whether Duterte’s commitment to ending pork barrel politics was being followed through by himself and his legislators.

It was Taguiwalo’s order clamping down on politicians’ access to an aid fund which she and others feel were critical for her rejection in mid-2017 by the Philippines Commission on Appointments, which had the ultimate say over an array of roles appointed on an interim basis by the country’s president.

“I wasn’t hard-headed: I said I understand you need to provide for your constituents and I’m willing to help you with that. You recommend to us, these are the criteria for availing of the benefits, then they can come and they will be assisted for that … but no.”

Judy Taguiwalo says international observers must continue to place pressure on the Philippines government to end its bloody war on drugs. Photo: Sam Sachdeva.

After her rejection, Taguiwalo’s relationship with Duterte soured: earlier this year, he accused her of using her position to help communist rebels, claims she has called “unfounded and completely false”.

Despite that, she still has some positive words for her former employer, describing him as “down to earth” and citing his work to resurrect several committees scrapped by the previous administration, such as an anti-poverty commission.

“He reads a lot, because he gave us books: ‘I have a book, you should read it, it’s about the drug war in Colombia’.”

But while people wanted him to succeed, Taguiwalo says he has failed in most of his promises, keeping contract laws in place and ending peace talks, while his war on drugs has led to mass bloodshed.

“A lot of the basic promises that provided for me a reason why it was okay to join the Cabinet are gone.

“I’m sad but also angry, I’m angry because that so many people have died, more than almost 5000 in the drug war, and one of the mothers said … it’s the poor who are being killed in this drug war.”

“You can kill all the rebels, you can kill all the critics, but if the social conflict, economic crisis remains, then it will return and return again.”

His administration has pursued “trumped up charges” against political opponents, while the early release of hundreds of rapists, murderers and drug criminals sparked a public outcry and a swift U-turn.

Despite that, Taguiwalo says the public still seems to support Duterte: candidates backed by him in midterm elections earlier this year won big, although there were some concerns about the voting process.

She says the international community must continue to put pressure on the president and the Philippines as a whole to end the drug killings and political imprisonment of Duterte’s opponents, while peace talks must resume.

Most importantly, the country’s social and economic conditions must change if the insurgency is to end once and for all.

“You can kill all the rebels, you can kill all the critics, but if the social conflict, economic crisis remains, then it will return and return again.”

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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