He thought it was a clap of thunder as it echoed through the humid air between the river and mountains that surrounded him. But it was a shotgun blast, and it tore through his spine.
Panicked neighbors rushed to him and frantically hoisted his bloodied body onto a motorized tricycle for a desperate 15-minute ride to the closest hospital. But there was too much damage; he needed a neurosurgeon and the closest was hours away.
With ambulance sirens blaring, they rushed south through the Philippine countryside while he coughed and choked on his blood.
For the next days and weeks, Brandon Lee’s body hovered on the thin line between life and death, as his heart sputtered and lurched in and out of its rhythm through eight cardiac arrests.
“The neighbors told my family that there were two men waiting at my house before I got there, acting suspiciously,” he relates.
“The CCTV had been disabled for 10-15 minutes during the time I was shot.”
Months later, through the unwavering support of family and friends, enough funds were scraped together for a 20-hour medical transport flight that lifted him away from his home for the past 10 years and back to the United States.
At the time, Brandon wasn’t convinced he should take the flight. “I didn’t want to leave. But in hindsight I realize it made sense because my injuries were much worse than I thought and I needed specialized care that just isn’t an option there.”
I turn my head as he tells me these things, a year and a half after his shooting, hoping that he can’t see my tears through our shared Zoom portal.
Brandon, on the other hand, is steady and unshaken by the truths he shares. He clarifies that the reason our interview needed to be midday rather than morning wasn’t because of his exhaustion, as I had assumed, but simply because of the practical and very time-consuming steps he must take each day to stay alive as a person with quadriplegia, paralyzed from the chest down.
“When my family tried to investigate,” he continues, “they looked nearby where there is normally [CCTV] that records things, but it had been disabled for 10-15 minutes during the time I was shot.”
And with his youthful face close to the computer screen, he also explains that on that August evening in 2019, at the home he shared with his wife and their infant daughter, it was the Philippine government that had tried to assassinate him.
Stories like Brandon’s remain shocking even as they have, tragically, become familiar under the current Philippine administration. What’s far less familiar to most is that US dollars, including those from anti-vaping interests led by Michael Bloomberg, are helping to support this murderous regime.
The Philippines is a Pacific Ocean archipelago of over 7,000 islands, some so delicate that they come and go with the tides. The country is rich in resources like gold, petroleum and timber, with long shorelines offering both sandy beaches and opportunities for international trade (especially with the United States).
But the Filipino people have long suffered at the hands of brutal colonizers seeking to exploit these assets, beginning with the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500s (the islands are named after King Phillip II), and followed by the Americans and the Japanese in the 1900s.
My US education taught me nothing about the Philippines, its people or their history, and I was conscious of the glaring gaps in my knowledge as I logged in to an online meeting of the Baltimore chapter of the Malaya Movement for the first time a few months ago.
Malaya, Filipino for “free,” was formed—along with organizations such as the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP)—to educate people like me to help change US-led policies that support political killings and human rights abuses in the Philippines.
It was during one of these meetings that I met Brandon Lee and learned about his red-tagging.
Red-tagging is a threatened death sentence to anyone critical of the actions of the Philippine government. Red-tagging lists, featuring the names and faces of people being targeted, are posted on the doors of neighborhood buildings and on social media by Philippine police, military or connected vigilantes. Their message is clear: Quit speaking out or die.
Traditional burial blankets were left outside their homes, along with a message: “Gray May, June Gloom, No-Sky July.”
Brandon Lee’s red-tagging came in response to his work as a journalist and environmental activist, campaigning against the harms that hydropower projects could have on local farmers in his community in the Northern Philippines Cordillera region, Ifugao. His activism included his role as human rights officer for the Ifugao Peasant Movement (IPM)—a position he took on when his predecessor, William Bugatti, was gunned down in 2014 by Philippine forces after being red-tagged.
Soon after Bugatti’s shooting, Lee and several fellow activists received an ominous warning. Traditional burial blankets were left outside their homes, along with the following message: “Gray May, June Gloom, No-Sky July.”
One recipient, Ricardo Mayumi, was assassinated a year before Lee was shot.
In December 2020, Lee spoke to the Philippine Senate about his years of red-tagging and his attempted assassination. He ended his comments by pleading for an answer to some basic questions.
“Who is the monster here? Who is the real terrorist?”
Everyone in attendance knew the answer: President Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte’s evolution into a murderous dictator began decades ago with an ostensibly virtuous focus on public health, prompted by escalating rates of “shabu” use (a form of methamphetamine) among the poorest and most underserved citizens—initially in the southern city of Davao, where he served three spells as mayor. It was here, where he allegedly deployed death squads against suspected criminals, that he earned his nickname, “The Punisher.”
Supposed addiction is no longer the sole focus of Duterte’s hate, but it was his first. Since he won the presidency in 2016, this hate has evolved into an unimaginable, national “quit or die” drug war and human rights tragedy, as noted by the United Nations, the US Department of State and a recent, independent investigation by ICHRP.
His tactics include “Tokhang” (knock and kill) operations, which involve police going door to door to locate supposed offenders. Not only has he admitted to killing people with his own hands, but he has also empowered the police and military, and masked vigilantes closely linked with those entities, to do the same.
The confidence with which Duterte has defended these mass murders and other abuses committed in the name of public health is terrifying. His rhetoric brutally dehumanizes anyone remotely associated with drugs—calling them the “walking dead” that no longer have “cognitive value.” In one speech he bragged, “I used to do it personally just to show to the guys that if I can do it, so can you.”
Duterte has grotesquely exclaimed: “Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s three million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
And like Hitler, Duterte’s control and power over his people has morphed and expanded over time—allowing him to undermine democracy and to attack activists and journalists like Brandon and the indomitable Maria Ressa, as well as lawyers, lawmakers, universities and even children (whom Duterte has called “collateral damage”).
Just last month, on a day now labeled Bloody Sunday, nine activists were shot and killed near Manila during a Tokhang red-tagging operation that took place two days after Duterte told police: “Kill them, make sure you really kill them, and finish them off if they are alive.”
His hate extends beyond activists and opponents, beyond people who use or sell illicit drugs. To smokers, for example.
His hate extends beyond activists and opponents, beyond people who use or sell illicit drugs. To smokers, for example. Arguing for increases in tobacco and alcohol taxes for public health reasons in 2019, Duterte—a former smoker himself—declared that smokers “should be exterminated from the face of the earth.”
His drug policies, by forcing people to hide their drug use (which can mean foregoing treatment)—or simply eliminating drug users by killing them—offer the rapid, visible appearance of change. And disturbingly, by marketing this image of change in the name of public health—rather than addressing the complicated and systemic issues around drug use and harms (poverty, mental health, education, to name a few)—Duterte has built a formidable public following.
Polls have shown Duterte’s approval ratings in the 80s and 90s. This despite the evidence that his brutal policies have been a “massive failure” in reducing the illicit drug supply, as the murders continue.
The power of a Duterte is not grown in isolation, however. It relies on powerful supporters and collaborators. And a difficult truth for Americans is that we are part of the problem—because the US Congress regularly appropriates assistance, our tax dollars, to the Philippine government to support arms sales, law enforcement and military training in the name of national security (efforts are currently under way to halt this funding until Duterte’s human rights crimes cease).
Like wider drug prohibition in the Philippines, Duterte-backed nicotine regulations have very mean teeth.
Former President Trump embodied this support in 2017, when he called to “congratulate” Duterte “on the unbelievable job” he had done with his drug war, and offer a warm invitation to visit the Oval Office. (Duterte did not visit, but instead Trump made the trek to the Philippines later that year, where Duterte sang him a love song over a shared dinner).
Partnerships with the private sector—especially among the mining, agribusiness, logging and coal industries—have also fueled Duterte’s political power. These conflicts of interest have made the Philippines one of the deadliest countries for environmental activists such as Brandon Lee.
But the powerful influence of US power and money in the Philippines doesn’t stop with tax dollars and private funding. It also extends to donations made by the US-based billionaire philanthropist, Michael Bloomberg.
Bloomberg began sending funding to the Philippines in support of “comprehensive national tobacco control management” nearly 15 years ago through the “Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use.” Between 2007 and 2020, 60 Bloomberg grants were awarded to various Philippine organizations.
Taken at face value, the mission of Bloomberg funding—“ensuring better, longer lives for the greatest number of people”—would seem the antithesis of Duterte’s views on human life.
If banning nicotine is the primary focus of Bloomberg’s funding, then he is certainly getting a return on investment.
Yet Bloomberg and Duterte share a common belief in nicotine prohibition policies—as reflected by their simultaneous signing of public smoking bans in their respective mayoral cities of Davao City and New York City in 2002.
And if banning nicotine is the primary focus of Bloomberg’s funding, then he is certainly getting a return on investment. Duterte has signed into law both a 2017 nationwide ban on smoking in public (which includes a penalty of four months in jail and a fine if caught) and a 2020 ban on harm reduction options such as vapes, heated tobacco products and other novel nicotine delivery systems.
And like wider drug prohibition in the Philippines, these Duterte-backed nicotine regulations have very mean teeth. Duterte has not only told smokers and vapers that they will be arrested and jailed should they smoke or use nicotine in public places, he has arrested them—including 14,000 smokers (in one city in one year) and 200 e-cigarette users.
It’s hard to believe that Bloomberg Philanthropies and its affiliated tobacco control organizations, The Union and the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, didn’t realize that the grants being awarded to enforce tobacco bans in the Philippines (some with unsettlingly aggressive titles such as “Greater Teeth and Tools: Enforcing and Implementing the Tobacco Regulation Act”) could be used to add a further crackdown to the extrajudicial arrests, incarcerations and killings already taking place.
But the truth is, Bloomberg and affiliates were quite aware of what they were doing. This was revealed in October 2020, during public talks hosted by the Philippine FDA (P-FDA) on the topic of e-cigarettes and heated tobacco products. Filipino citizens and stakeholders in attendance voiced concern that the P-FDA authorities charged with making decisions about nicotine policies had been awarded grants by the Bloomberg Initiative and The Union.
P-FDA representatives first denied and then subsequently confirmed the claim. In response, a House resolution was submitted by two Philippine Congresspeople on December 2, 2020 detailing the contributions of Bloomberg and the conflict of interest inherent in such funding. It would arguably appear to be a violation of both the Philippine Constitution and US law, given that Bloomberg funding can be seen as a foreign agent intended to influence Philippine policy. The ensuing congressional investigation revealed that the P-FDA has taken at least $150,000 from Bloomberg Philanthropies in support of tobacco control efforts.
“Whether the grant was meant to influence the FDA’s decision leaves little to the imagination.”
Clarisse Yvette Virgino is the Philippine representative for CAPHRA (Coalition of Asia Pacific Tobacco Harm Reduction Advocates) and a law student. Living in the Philippines, she is also a former smoker who has been a vaper for the past 10 years.
“The conflict of interest arises from the fact that the recipient of the fund is a regulatory agency that was specifically tasked to draft the guidelines for the regulation of these novel products,” she explained, “while the donor is an anti-vaping foreign organization which promotes its own advocacy on tobacco control.”
“Whether the grant was meant to influence the FDA’s decision leaves little to the imagination,” she added. “The P-FDA, by the way, is an attached agency of the Department of Health.”
Her summary of these deeply troubling implications raises the question of how the tobacco control movement, which should be designed to support human life, has gotten so perverted that one of its largest funders is willing to bankroll law enforcement for a murderous regime in the name of nicotine prohibition.
Unfortunately, my repeated efforts to get comments and clarification from both the Bloomberg organizations and the P-FDA met with silence.
When I speak to Brandon about the Bloomberg conflicts of interest, he points out how, similar to smoking and nicotine restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic has helped Duterte tighten the noose on the Filipino people under the guise of public protection.
Duterte’s efforts have included telling police to “shoot them dead” when it comes to people who don’t adhere to mask and quarantine restrictions (others have been locked in cages as punishment for perceived quarantine violations).
This increase in Duterte’s power, even if under the virtuous guise of fighting COVID-19—”public health” again—has been disastrous. It has seen extrajudicial killings increase by more than 50 percent with the murders of 7,000 people in 2020, according to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
These deaths have been further fueled by Duterte’s 2020 Anti-Terrorism Act, which includes a broad and ambiguous definition of “terrorist,” to include anyone deemed to pose a serious risk to public safety. The legislation has caused outrage, including among US Congress members who have called for the US to finally cease funding the violence and destruction.
Brandon has a sense of urgency in his voice as he recounts the growing number of atrocities taking place in the Philippines—a marked shift from the equanimity with which he described his own shooting earlier in the conversation.
“The COVID restrictions are very militaristic,” he says. “You have to wear a mask and face shield when you leave your home and you need a travel pass that usually only lasts for 24 hours just to go to the marketplace for food. Otherwise you might be detained or abused by police.”
“Last July, in the region neighboring where I lived, a 15-year-old and her 18-year-old cousin were detained for quarantine curfew violations and sexually assaulted and raped by the policemen that detained them. The 15-year-old was murdered by gunmen the next day right after she reported the rape at the police station.”
As he describes these unbearable realities, I see a glimpse of the spirit of activism that drives him. He is a true humanitarian—full of integrity and fierceness, and inspired by protecting others, not himself. Traits that are in short supply among the powerful US leaders and donors who continue to support Duterte in the service of their own interests, with callous disregard for the profound suffering and loss of life that they are causing.
The author’s fee for this article is being donated to ICHRP-US (the International Coalition for Human Rights in the Philippines).
Top photograph of a mural in the Philippines by Helen Redmond. Photograph of Brandon Lee courtesy of Lee.