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US-Philippines Ties: The De Lima Dilemma

The Philippine government has threatened to introduce visa requirements for U.S. citizens after banning 3 U.S. senators, supporters of jailed Philippine Senator de Lima.

By Michael Beltran for
US-Philippines Ties: The De Lima Dilemma

Opposition Senator Leila de Lima waits for her fellow senators prior to addressing the media after a warrant for her arrest was issued by a regional trial court Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, in suburban Pasay city, south of Manila, Philippines.

Credit: AP Photo/Bullit Marquez

Philippine Senator Leila de Lima has been jailed for almost three years now. Words of support for de Lima, a fervent critic of Rodrigo Duterte’s regime in the Philippines, still rattle the government. The president is reportedly now mulling stricter travel regulations for U.S. citizens visiting his country after he banned the entry of three American senators who expressed solidarity for the imprisoned lawmaker. 

Just before Christmas, the U.S. government passed a 2020 appropriations act with an amendment proposed by U.S. Senators Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Richard Durbin (D-IL) denying entry to those involved in the “wrongful imprisonment” of de Lima. In early December, U.S. Senate Resolution 142 was approved condemning the Philippine government for the same act, a move spearheaded by Senator Edward Markey (D-MA). 

“This was not something that suddenly came about,” de Lima told The Diplomat from prison. Links to the U.S. senators, she says, like many other outpourings of sympathy, are a result “of the Duterte administration’s utter failure to address the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines and the blatant attempt to normalize attacks on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.”

All three American legislators were barred from the Philippines on Duterte’s orders to the Bureau of Immigration in late December, with Markey being the latest to be confirmed banned by Malacanang (the Presidential Palace) on January 1.  

Salvador Panelo, Malacanang spokesman, slammed the trio of critics for their apparent bias and intervention into Philippine politics. He asked that they consult with the U.S. ambassador to the country before “blabbering nonsense.” 

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In a retaliatory move, Malacanang is now threatening to require Americans to secure visas before flying to the Philippines. Such a move would significantly reduce the number of incoming tourists to the popular vacation site and former U.S. colony. Currently visa-free entry is granted for a 30-day period. 

De Lima says that the reaction came “from a position of a maladjusted adult throwing a tantrum because he was, again, at the receiving end of valid criticisms that he neither has the maturity nor the factual or legal foundation to adequately defend against.” 

Elected to the Senate in 2016, de Lima largely positioned herself as an opponent of Duterte and his flagship campaign, the war on drugs. On many occasions, she denounced the thousands of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by the authorities as part of the anti-drug program. 

De Lima was leading the Senate investigation into the killings when Duterte and his many political allies turned the tables on her and managed to charge the lawmaker of drug trafficking in February 2017. In expressing his support for de Lima, Durbin tweeted that charges against her were “highly questionable,” a sentiment held by many lawyers and human rights advocates locally and internationally.

De Lima recently marked 1,000 days in prison. She said the Philippines has seen “three years of impunity” and is set to endure “three more years of bloodlust and deceit,” underscoring not only her position against the extrajudicial killings of suspected drug users but the general alarming human rights record of the Duterte administration. 

Duterte has on more than one occasion looked to force and armed strength to solve problems from eliminating political opponents to declaring all-out military rule in the southern part of the country for more than two years. Voices like those of de Lima and others seek to expose this ghastly side of Philippine domestic politics and conflict. Support from foreign entities amplifies this and echoes the call around the globe. 

De Lima is a major figure in the Philippines’ Liberal Party. Not unlike the Democrat Party in the United States in the Trump era, it has been an opposition force under Duterte, at least in mainstream politics. All three U.S. senators slapped with a travel ban are from the Democratic Party and have come to verbal blows with Republican President Donald Trump. 

Trump has previously extolled his friendship and admiration for Duterte. The two authoritarian figures shared warm moments on the former’s visit to the Southeast Asian nation back in November 2017. The bond between the two was so strong that a few months later Trump expressed an inclination to follow Duterte’s example in dealing with the drug problem. 

Not long after, the “great relationship” as Trump described it was further cemented with a financial aid package of around $26.5 million for Philippine law enforcement in July 2018. This was followed with military aid amounting to roughly $100 million under the U.S. counterterrorism program Operation Pacific Eagle. 

Markey, Durbin, and Leahy have had a decidedly different approach to dealing with the Filipino leader. All three condemned the imposition of a travel ban and the human rights record of the regime in general. Durbin reminded the public that de Lima’s situation was “symbolic of the larger price one increasingly plays for peaceful dissent under Duterte.”

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Markey declared that he stands with “the people of the Philippines and my state’s vibrant Filipino-American Community in fighting for the highest democratic ideals and against the strongman tactics of the Duterte government.”

The Philippine side has clarified that any new travel policies will not affect Filipino-Americans who wish to return home. 

Leahy suggested that instead of threatening new visa requirements the Philippine government should “release Senator Leila De Lima immediately or provide her the fair, free trial she is entitled to.”

Panelo hit back by explaining that de Lima’s sentence is in full accordance with the law. He recommended the U.S. senators to “avail [themselves] of appropriate remedial measures under Philippine law instead of resorting to unfair publicity stunts.”

While Panelo defends the legality of de Lima’s incarceration, Durbin and Leahy’s amendment never questioned the grounds on which the charges were made, and did not suggest they were outside the bounds of the law, but rather that they were unjust and inherently “wrongful.”

Despite the restrictions of her cell, de Lima’s case has managed to reach other like-minded liberal politicians in her quest to clear her name and oppose a president she has labelled a “tyrant.” Duterte’s knee-jerk reaction to moves in the U.S. Senate does seem on par with his other antagonistic reactions to international criticism. However, enacting a visa requirement for citizens of a global superpower will definitely strain relations and set a precedent for more drastically insular measures. Condemnation from abroad looks likely to continue, intensifying the microscope on the Philippines.

Michael Beltran is a freelance journalist from the Philippines.

Correction: An earlier version erroneously said De Lima had been convicted. She has not, her trial is ongoing. The Diplomat apologizes for the error.