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There’s been plenty of well-informed commentary recently, such as here, here, here, here and here, suggesting that Indonesia and the Philippines’ human rights standards are diminishing steadily and catastrophically (respectively).

I agree with that general sentiment. The days when those two nations could credibly claim the moral high ground within ASEAN on championing human rights are increasingly hard to remember, especially for the Philippines.

One curious parallel between the two nations is how the two current leaders (Jokowi and Rodrigo Duterte) came to prominence and then to power. Both were previously mayors of major cities with huge problems (Jakarta and Davao). Both promised to do something about the cities’ respective problems and both did well, or well enough, in the eyes of the voting public to credibly claim that they had cleaned up a city and could do the same for their country.

One key difference though was where they saw the problems and committed to action. Jokowi largely proposed solutions through the lens of administrative and systemic reforms, while Duterte’s interventions have focused, prominently if not exclusively, on eliminating problematic people.

And yet, for reasons I suspect reflect the limitations of both Jokowi and the Indonesian electorate, Jokowi irresistibly gravitates towards Duterte’s position on dealing with drugs. My suspicion is that, like Duterte, there is a personal and political unpalatability to resolve the extraordinarily complex social issues driving the domestic drug market in both countries.

Thus I suspect, for respective domestic political audiences, it suits both of them to be able to say that the potential execution of the Filipino woman Mary Jane Veloso (a good summary of the case is available here) occurs only because of the wishes of the other president.That is an absurd situation, but my increasing fear is that her life will soon become another sacrifice to delay the day when both countries need to look more closely in the mirror and recognise some home truths.

For those who suggest it is too hard, I point out that a comparable commitment was certainly achievable just over a decade ago. In successfully saving the life of a Filipino citizen threatened with execution in a foreign country, then Filipino President Gloria Arroyo, source here, made clear that…

“With over 1 million overseas Filipino workers in the Middle East, and 8 million the world over, my Government has a deep national interest in their wellbeing, wherever they live and work. Every life is important.”

Gloria Arroyo was a physically diminutive woman and politically imperfect, but in this she was an ethical giant who puts the moral pygmies now guiding Southeast Asia’s largest democracies to shame.

 

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