Presidential Communications Operations Office

Just three months into his term in office, new Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte can claim both immense domestic popularity as well as an impressively sinister trail of wreckage, and has raised the hackles of human rights advocates and a significant number of Western politicians and lawmakers.

Duterte, a self-styled anti-establishment candidate from the relatively minor Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan, or PDP-Laban party, was elected on a mere plurality. Yet he has since managed to secure a 91 per cent approval rating – the highest presidential approval rating on record in the Philippines. The soi-disant socialist is proving popular with the military for his frequent base visits and his promises to improve salaries and benefits for military personnel and their families, and has exhibited substantial commitment to social issues by appointing progressive liberals to governmental positions involving environment, welfare, employment, and labour. His macho demeanour and propensity for straight-talking has won him the allegiance of much of the Filipino public, who feel that only an outsider candidate with hard-line opinions and a frank, straightforward sensibility can solve the fundamental issues facing the nation. Primary amongst these issues is the Philippines’ rampant drug problem. However, it is Duterte’s alarmingly violent drug policies, and the vicious war on drug users that he has implemented since entering office, which are setting off alarm bells for the international community.

Duterte, an advocate of extrajudicial killings of drug pushers and suspected users, has cracked down severely in this regard and has vowed that his drug war will not end, ‘until the last drug lord, last financier, and last pusher have surrendered – or [has been] put behind bars, or below the ground if they so wish’. Since his inauguration on 30 June this year, over 3,600 people have been killed – or ‘neutralised’, in Filipino police terminology – in Duterte’s war on drugs, yet fewer than 2,000 of those deaths have been attributed to ‘above-board police operations’.

Presidential Communications Operations Office
Image courtesy of Presidential Communications Operations Office, © 2016, some rights reserved.

The remainder of these deaths are the responsibility of the Davao Death Squads (DDS). Despite a name well suited to a Marvel comic strip, this ring of vigilante hit men is no laughing matter. The DDS are likely responsible for upwards of 2,230 drug-related killings, and Duterte has been worryingly ambiguous on the subject, leading many to believe that the DDS are operating under his leadership. In a senate inquiry in September, an admitted assassin testified that in Duterte’s past role as mayor of Davao, the now-president had ordered assassinations – earning himself the nickname ‘Duterte Harry’. More recently, an anonymous but verified senior serving officer of the Philippines National Police (PNP) has come forward to the Guardian to share gory details of Duterte’s alleged dirty war, claiming that the president has established 10 covert special-ops police teams to whom lists of criminals, drug pushers, and drug users are given, with orders to target and exterminate. The bloodied corpses of victims are then left in city streets with placards to identify them as drug criminals.

This anonymous hit man argues, ‘We are not that bad policemen or bad individuals. We are just a tool, we are just angels that God gave talent to, you know, to get these bad souls back to heaven and cleanse them… We are here as angels. Like St Michael and St Gabriel.’ Duterte, for his part, has denied involvement in these killings, but has refused to back down from his dramatic statements and signature abrasiveness, noting that no law exists to stop him from merely threatening drug criminals.

Concerns about Duterte have been building in the past weeks and months. From undermining US efforts to pressure China’s maritime force in the contested South China Sea, to dragging down the value of the Philippine peso to a 7-year low, to calling Barack Obama a ‘son of a whore’ at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Laos, Duterte has wasted no time in establishing a reputation as a firebrand. The concerns of the international community have intensified in recent days following his much-repeated statement in which he compared his war on drugs to Hitler’s extermination of Jews, saying: ‘Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there are 3 million drug addicts … I’d be happy to slaughter them … At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have… You know my victims, I would like to be, all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.’

After ensuing international outcry, Duterte has since issued a quasi-apology, insisting he had neither intended to offend the Jewish community nor denigrate the memory of those killed in the Holocaust. But Duterte’s reactions to criticism from the global sphere with regard to his drug policies have not been as sympathetic. After being lambasted by the European Union (EU) for his extrajudicial killings, Duterte responded in a press conference in Davao that the European nations’ imperialistic histories mean that they have no right to criticise his actions, accompanying his retort with a literal raised middle finger. Furthermore, on Sunday 2nd October in a speech in Balocod City, following vocal concerns from US lawmakers about the narcotics war, Duterte threatened to call a halt to the 2014 Philippines-US Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which enhanced the US military’s access to the Philippines on an ad-hoc basis as part of Obama’s ‘pivot to Asia’. In the same speech, bringing vindictive playground politics to new heights, Duterte added: ‘If you Americans are angry with me, then I am also angry with you… Tomorrow I will be friends with Putin and Xi Jinping.’

The question now is how Duterte’s dirty war and abrasive temperament will play out in the long term for the Philippines and globally. Despite promising during his campaign to undergo a ‘metamorphosis’ of behaviour upon inauguration, the president has continued his streak of insults and bad behaviour since taking office – at odds with the general narrative of democratically-elected leaders calming down significantly from their invective-ridden campaign trails. Duterte’s vicious and morally reprehensible manner of addressing the Philippines’ drug crime problem seems unlikely to catalyse positive change. Secret subsidisation of vigilante police squads only serves to promote systematic corruption in the police force, and erodes the efficacy of the nation’s law enforcement. Further, as Vanda Felbab-Brown writes for the Brookings Institution, ‘by eliminating low-level, mostly non-violent dealers, Duterte is paradoxically and counterproductively setting up a situation where more organised and powerful drug traffickers and distribution will emerge’. Duterte possesses supermajority support, the inclination to swap out reliable allies like the United States and European Union for more incendiary ones such as China and Russia, a swathe of domestic supporters who admire his frankness, the opportunity in the coming years to appoint 11 of the Philippines’ 15 Supreme Court Justices, and an evident disregard for legal constraints, ethics, and rule of law – all elements which render the possibility of a Duterte dictatorship a frightening possibility in a nation still haunted by the spectre of the Marcos regime.

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