The Philippines: On the frontline of Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’

September 29, 2017
People light candles at vigil against President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, in Manilla on September 21 last year.

In its first year in operation, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’ has taken more than 13,000 lives and left the country mired in a human rights crisis.

One of the organisations at the forefront of opposing Duterte’s war is In Defence of Human Rights and Dignity Movement, iDefend, a coalition of more than 50 human rights and grassroots organisations.

Green Left Weekly’s Peter Boyle spoke to iDefend spokesperson Ellecer “Budit” Carlos about the situation. Below is an abridged version of the interview. The full interview can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal


iDefend says that the Philippines is facing a "human rights crisis". Please describe what you mean by this.

The Filipino people are now being brutalised and dehumanised by a multi-fold human rights crisis under Duterte’s “war on drugs”.

This is the administration’s defining cornerstone program, which has led to the killings of thousands of the most vulnerable Filipinos; routine mass roundups and arbitrary arrests in the poorest communities; the extreme over-congestion of jails; the rise of certain police excesses and abuses of power like maintaining secret places of detention and arrests for ransom; and a steep rise in torture and enforced disappearance.

These conditions, the establishment of a de-facto social cleansing program, were created by Duterte and other public officials through sustained public pronouncements predisposing the police and non-state actors to becoming more violent.

Duterte’s public kill rhetoric and encouragement of the police to be quick on the trigger, even offering them bounties and protection from litigation, has amounted to the arbitrary derogation of the right to due process and the right to life.

It is a situation whereby the police routinely violate their own rules of procedure and the rule of law, and circumvent due process to settle justice on the streets.

If this institutionalised impunity and permission structure for mass murder persists, we face the threat of rolling back all the human rights education and sensitisation work human rights groups and the Philippine Commission on Human Rights have undertaken for decades, transforming even the most law abiding and decent law enforcers into butchers.

Despite this, Duterte seems to continue to enjoy significant public support. How do you account for this?

Duterte took advantage of a very disoriented and frustrated public. His popularity was a product of collective despair and disenchantment with the failures of the liberal democratic regimes of the past 30 years.

These elite-dominated regimes after the EDSA Revolution in 1986 – the popular peaceful uprising at the end of the Marcos dictatorship, sadly hijacked by the Philippine oligarchy – were unwilling to fulfil the promise of radical social reforms.

Another major factor contributing to his popular support, and for his drug war in particular, is the fact that those most impacted by crime and drugs are the poorest of the poor.

When poor people experience a crime and they report it to the Philippine National Police, police officers in many cases will do nothing. The wheels of justice, due to bureaucratic inertia and corruption, grind slow or not at all for the poor. In many cases, the police will even try to exploit and abuse impoverished complainants.

The poor also do not have the means to live in gated communities or pay for private security.

This is why so many Filipinos have lost faith in the criminal justice system and have come to support the alternative justice dispensation system this violent president is offering.

Duterte is able to maintain a strong support base because the majority of Filipinos have been deprived of information and knowledge channels for developing a broader world view and the capacity for critical thinking and analysis.

Widespread abject poverty and the deprivation of the right to education and information, coupled with despair, make the poorest of the poor vulnerable to becoming exploited and manipulated.

This inability to make sense of the permanent crisis in the Philippines and not knowing how to take action has led many to place their hopes on a strongman.

The left, which has the tools to raise people’s consciousness, does not have the strength to do so.

This acquiescence, passive consensus or even active consent among Filipinos (and I must mention here that this is by no means the majority of Filipinos) also has historical roots; it is a sad by-product of oppression under the hands of our colonisers and reinforced and sustained by the Philippine ruling class.

We are a family- and village-oriented people, but beyond this, we lack the sense of community and in a greater sense, genuine nationalism.

In fact, we are quite a divided people, regionalistic to a fault, overriding sometimes our better judgement and eroding even our core values. That is why many of us are easily trapped into developing a false sense of patriotism, even becoming supportive of killings.

Spanish colonialism and US imperialism have stunted the development of our sense of unity and compromised the core values of some Filipinos. Duterte effectively exploited this social characteristic.

On top of all this, Duterte’s innermost circle, comprised of former leftists, understood how to apply mass organising and mobilisation methods.

Duterte has, at the very grassroots, organisers and propagandists who are establishing mass base structures with government funds such as the Kilusang Pagbabago (Movement for Change). This will serve as his fascist machinery on the ground.

He is also making full use of government media and information agencies, appointing apologists and popular celebrities, most being rabid lackeys.

In spite of Duterte’s propaganda, we should take comfort in the fact that there has been a massive mind-set shift among the urban poor communities which have been most impacted by the drug war.

We are also quite sure that the majority of Filipinos are just silent, many of them are afraid. The unorganised who try to speak out are subject to bullying and lynch mob behaviour from a few neighbours, friends and even family members, who have fallen into the Dutertism trap.

I think it is safe to say that the erosion of his popularity is well underway.

How has the case of the police killing of Kian affected people's attitudes to Duterte?

The recent spate of police executions of minors, including the case of Kian Delos Santos, created a public outpour of anger and showed that there remains a mass sentiment of opposition to extra-judicial killings.

The killings of the minors also coincided with a further rise in the numbers of daily executions.

We believe that these have sped up the mind-set shift and the broadening of the circles of outrage and disapproval among Filipinos. As a result, we saw the mass mobilisations of organised forces grouped in various loose coalitions.

Duterte tries to present himself as standing up to imperialism. Is this true?

The Australian Secret Intelligence Service Director General Nick Warner’s meeting with Duterte and the public photograph showing them “fist-bumping” – Duterte’s signature pose and the symbol of Dutertismo – is a verification of the reality that geo-political and economic interests supercede human rights.

This is true regarding the US and Philippine relations as well, as revealed by the statements of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said that “the US and Philippines have a long-standing friendship, and while human rights are important, we should not put them in front of economic and strategic interests”.

The actions and statements of Werner and Tillerson are a reaffirmation of the US and the Coalition of the Willing’s interests and authority in our part of the world.

Duterte has received financial aid from the US and Australia while both countries now have managed to get on his good side.

The US and Australia will surely exploit all developments in the Philippines that justify the boosting of their presence in the Philippines and ensure that the Philippines falls further into the anti-terrorist “rabbit hole”.

Their double-dealing with Duterte make the US and Australia complicit in the war on drugs, the rise of authoritarianism and the conflict in the southern part of the Philippines.

Duterte last year announced he was severing ties with the US, both militarily and economically. He made strong public statements against the US to project himself as anti-imperialist and socialist. But this is all part of the act.

The Presidential Communications Group, the Defence Secretary and the Philippine military has always done damage control and counterbalanced his statements, maintaining that the Philippines continues to have good relations with the US.

Senior military officers have made it clear that the US still has much more to offer, with Philippine military officers still training in the US, and the US and Philippine militaries engaged in sustained joint-exercises in Mindanao.

All US and Philippine military accords and defence agreements remain intact and in effect.

Duterte, while continuing with desperate efforts to project himself as different from his predecessors, has done nothing to compromise the interests of the Philippine elite nor the geo-political hegemony of the US and its well-entrenched influence in the Philippines.

Duterte continues to maintain the old neoliberal policies which favoured the elite democratic rulers and the exploitative transnational corporations.

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