MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - The brazen manner by which Tanauan Mayor Antonio Halili was killed - while singing the national anthem during the Monday flag ceremony - is another blow to the rule of law in the country.
While there might be some feeling of schadenfreude over the death of a local official notorious for shaming drug suspects, the fact that an LGU (local government unit) executive was openly murdered should give us pause as to the state of our nation.
Equally scandalous, however, is President Rodrigo Duterte's reaction to the crime, which is to suggest that the mayor deserved it: "Earlier, Halili in Batangas. He pretended to shame addicts by parading them, but he was involved, it was him."
Think about it: A government official was just killed in broad daylight, and the country's leader responds not with outrage but with glee. As if upholding the rule of law and defending citizens were none of his business.
As if his own equivocal judgment - "I suspect he was into drugs" - sufficed in lieu of due process.
Ominously, the President, just days before, joked that vice mayors should "do away" with their mayors to easily replace them.
The assassination of Halili, followed by the ambush of General Tinio Mayor Ferdinand Bote just a day later, is just one of the signs that we are heading toward a further breakdown of law and order, and the ascendency of authoritarian rule.
The "anti-tambay" (or anti-loiterers) campaign, which basically demonizes marginalised youth and criminalises the act of doing nothing, gives arbitrary powers to a police force whose track record does not inspire confidence.
The case of Genesis Agoncillo, arrested for the absurd "crime" of shirtlessness and killed while in police custody, speaks of how deadly this campaign can be, and how unjust it is for the voiceless and powerless poor.
There is also the attempt to do mandatory drug testing on schoolchildren as young as 10 years old.
Without any clear rationale or evidence as to its efficacy, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency is pushing for a policy that will only drain public financial and human resources while potentially putting children in danger, against the backdrop of Mr Duterte's stated disregard for the rights of drug suspects, including minors.
Meanwhile, the government's "drug war" has continued - with little done to investigate the thousands killed - even as academics (see drugarchive.ph) are finding disturbing patterns in the way it has been carried out. For instance, they have documented a drop in the killings whenever there is public attention on them, as in the Senate hearings on Edgar Matobato, and the outrage over the deaths of Jee Ick-joo and Kian delos Santos.
One might argue that, despite all this, we're still a democracy because there's still freedom of the press and assembly, and the Constitution remains intact - for now.
Nevertheless, from the rise of fake news to the harassment of media outfits; from the arrest of Duterte heckler Francis Rafael to the violent dispersal of NutriAsia workers; from the interminable martial law in Mindanao to insidious efforts toward Charter change, we are also seeing how, one by one, our freedoms are being stifled.
In light of these developments, I cannot but fear that we are sliding deeper into an undeclared dictatorship - a martial law in all but name, one that uses as its raison d'être the very violence it engenders.
As the election season draws near, and as the killings of mayors like Halili and Bote are met with impunity, there is no stopping politicians (or anyone, for that matter) from using drugs as an excuse to kill their opponents - even as the government can always implicate politicians for any deaths - and use them as a justification for further draconian measures.
The challenge for all Filipinos, then, is, firstly, to resist attempts to further undermine our institutions; secondly, to call for investigating the truth behind all the killings; and, thirdly, to demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice, while also holding our leaders to account for their actions or inaction.
If our nation is to survive, it must be governed by laws, not men.
Nobody, not a sniper or a police officer, and not even the President, must be allowed to take justice in their own hands.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media entities.