Philippines: Duterte’s reign of terror poses need for left unity

A protest against Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte.

Since Rodrigo Duterte began his term as the 16th president of the Philippines in 2016, Filipinos and the international community have watched in horror at accounts of dead bodies found nightly in the country’s streets, linked to extra-judicial killings (EJKs).

What is more appalling is that the police force, supposed to protect and serve people, are involved in or directly doing the killing. Those familiar with the Philippine’s recent history, especially the heroic struggle by anti-dictatorship and democracy movements that toppled the brutal authoritarian rule of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, wonder where this is heading.

The Real Numbers Update report from the Philippine National Police (PNP) website listed a total of 81,919 anti-drug operations, resulting in 119,361 arrests and the deaths of 3987 suspected drug users from July 1, 2016, to January 17. The Human Rights Watch World Report 2018, said more than 12,000 drug suspects were killed in the same period.

In a speech delivered to the Philippine Senate by Senator Antonio Trillanes in February, he pointed out that there were 16,355 drug-related homicide cases still under investigation from July 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017 in the PNP Real Numbers Update report.

He said this means the real number of deaths related to the drug war is at least 20,322.

Despite the big variation in numbers, one thing is clear — tens of thousands have already been killed by Duterte’s “war on drugs” policy. The dead were denied justice and killed like animals in their homes or in the street.

Among the dead are innocent minors and children who are considered “collateral damage” of the senseless killing.

Extra-judicial killings

EJKs are not new in the Philippines. Suspected communists and activists were killed, involuntarily disappeared and tortured in police and military custody over two decades of the Marcos’ regime. It also happened under successive post-Marcos governments.

What is new is the police’s role in the mass killings and Duterte’s cruel, aggressively unapologetic stance about his government’s intention to continue killing Filipino citizens. Much worse, no one has been punished. The impunity by which the law is blatantly disregarded daily is unprecedented.

Even if the number of EJKs so far under Duterte is as low as the PNP claim at 3800, it already equals the number of people reportedly killed in the 14-year record of the Marcos dictatorship. It would be about three times the number of EJKs recorded during the nine-year watch of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo from 2001 to 2010.

According to a feature article on the website of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), extra-judicial killing seems to be Duterte’s hallmark, if the campaign against criminality if his 19 years as mayor of his home city of Davao in southern Philippines is anything to go by. The article reveals the similarity between Duterte’s methods as a city mayor and what is happening nationally now he president.

The article described the operations of the dreaded Davao Death Squad (DDS), a vigilante group that Duterte founded. It allegedly killed 1424 people from 1998 to the end of 2015. The report noted that 132 of the victims were children.

The DDS is believed to be responsible for summary executions of street children and individuals suspected of petty crimes and drug dealing in Davao. An article from The Guardian also described a hearing held by the Philippine Senate in March 2017, wherein Arturo Lascanas, a retired police officer and former leader of Duterte’s first DDS hit squad, said under oath that the president personally gave them orders to kill in 1989 when he was still mayor.

The article quoted Lascanas’ admission that he personally killed about 200 people. Lascanas also alleged that Duterte’s son and current Davao vice mayor, Paulo Duterte, had links to the drug trade. However, the Senate closed the hearing for “lack of further proof”.

First they came for drug users

When Duterte campaigned for presidency, he promised his means to stop drug use in the country “will be bloody” and that “there will be no need for more jails — just funeral parlours”.

The term “tokhang”, from the Visayan language meaning “to knock and plead” became the most feared word. It is because when a Police Operation Tokhang, goes to one’s neighbourhood, it practically means someone will get summarily executed or hauled to a police station on mere suspicion of drug use.

In February, the Department of Justice filed a motion seeking to declare the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), as terrorist groups. It also sought to tag a former lawmaker, four former priests and at least 600 individuals as terrorists. 

The list includes UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, and Joan Carling, UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and currently co-convener of the Indigenous Peoples Major Group on Sustainable Development.

The motion to tag activists as terrorists blurs the lines of legitimate dissent and terrorism. It is doubly alarming because of the recently passed law granting subpoena powers to the police, despite their implications in summary executions. This could lead to more impunity or it could also signal that activists will be the next target of tokhang operations.

International human rights groups already warned that indigenous leaders and environmental defenders are killed in the Philippines at an alarming rate.

Prospects for left unity

After Marcos’ ousting, The Philippine left divided into various factions. The big question at this juncture in the country’s deeply worrying situation is whether the left can unite in the fight against Duterte.

There is a crucial, difficult, and inspiring possibility of building a new left in the country at this historic juncture.

In a piece at Waging Non-Violence, Joshua Makalintal identified three groupings. The first is the traditional militant left, the National Democrats, under the Maoist umbrella of the CPP that worked with Duterte at the beginning of his term.

However, the coalition did not survive as Duterte did not support prominent leaders from left-wing movements that he initially appointed to cabinet positions in appointment hearings. The leaders came from left mass-based organisations that work in close partnership with the National Democrats. The groupings recently launched the Movement Against Tyranny. 

Secondly, there is Tindig Pilipinas or “Rise Up Philippines”, a broad coalition that includes minority parties in the Philippine’s legislative branch and affiliated groups.

This grouping ranges from members of the Liberal Party, the social democratic party Akbayan, and the nationalist, anti-communist Magdalo group. The Liberal Party is the most established party in this grouping, while Akbayan has the second largest left base next to the National Democrats. Magdalo is composed of former junior officers of the armed forces led by Trillanes.

The “third force”, the newly-organised Laban ng Masa, or “Struggle of the Masses,” is a coalition of socialist-oriented groups who have been consistent in their opposition to Duterte’s presidency from the start. The coalition’s leader is activist-academic Walden Bello.

Bello ran a Senate campaign supported by many progressive organisations and NGOs in 2016. He is well known in the international anti-globalisation movement.

The Philippine left and the pluralist progressive movement is much smaller now compared to its strength when Marcos was ousted. The work ahead in opposing Duterte will be difficult and there is that challenge of winning back the masses that became disappointed for the lack of structural changes after 1986. Many of them voted for Duterte.

[Abridged from Red Pepper.]

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