Despite its heavy cost to the poor, Duterte won’t stop his war on drugs
In late September, Daniel Berehulak, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, travelled to the Philippines to document the war on drugs declared by President Rodriguo Duterte.
“I have worked in 60 countries, covered wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and spent much of 2014 living inside West Africa’s Ebola zone,” Berehulak wrote in a haunting photoessay published this month by The New York Times. But the horrors he witnessed over the course of his 35-day assignment in Manila were of a different order.
Invited recently by an interviewer to recount his experience, Berehulak broke down. His photographs – of the bodies of men and women gunned down as they went about their lives; of funerals; of blood-spattered homes and alleys – reveal a city that has become a hunting ground for vigilantes and police officers roused by Mr Duterte’s call to purge the country of drug dealers and users.
According to research by writer Jodesz Gavilan, 6,199 Filipinos were killed on suspicion of being either drug users or pushers between June 30, when Mr Duterte assumed the presidency, and December 25 – an average of almost 35 executions per day. Among the dead are children – one of them a five-year-old girl – and the elderly.
There is no cause to believe that the killings will stop. The pledge to rid the Philippines, notorious for its high rates of methamphetamine abuse, of the scourge of drugs was a key feature of Mr Duterte’s presidential campaign. Domestic opposition to Mr Duterte is fragile. And international figures who have sought to restrain him have been confronted with coarse invective and absurd threats.
When the president of the United States, Manila’s long-standing ally, called on the Philippines to follow “basic international norms” in its drug war, Mr Duterte fired back by calling Barack Obama a “son of a whore”. When Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, initiated an investigation following Mr Duterte’s boast that he had personally executed people during his long reign as mayor of Davao City, the president called him an “idiot” who lacked an “understanding of international law” and threatened to burn down the United Nations. Mr Duterte has not spared even Pope Francis.
These frequent paroxysms of profanity have earned Mr Duterte global notoriety; some have come to regard him as an unhinged but amusing buffoon. Filipinos caution against such a characterisation.
They warn that Mr Duterte – who came to power by claiming to be the authentic voice and champion of millions of aggrieved citizens who have long felt neglected by the nation’s political establishment – is deadly serious about imposing his will on the country.
Their fear is not that Mr Duterte is an authoritarian in the mould of Ferdinand Marcos who wants power for the sake of power and self-enrichment; it is rather, as one expatriate Filipino lawyer told me, that he is a “true believer” – a man with the political instincts of the late president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, and the outsize ambitions of Singapore’s founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew.
He has very little patience for, or appreciation of, the Philippines’ governmental structure. He views the existing system of checks and balances as borrowed, an impediment to the country’s progress.
In reality, the Philippines, despite its problems with narcotics, was not a country in decline when Mr Duterte announced his run for the presidency. The country’s economic performance over the past decade has been impressive. In spite of tensions with China and localised eruptions of domestic political violence, it had experienced a relatively long period of calm and stability.
The chink in the armour of the establishment that Mr Duterte defeated was the vast inequality over which it presided. The skyscrapers in Manila’s Makati financial district could scarcely conceal the city’s expanding slums. A tiny percentage of the post-Marcos elite amassed much of the country’s wealth as millions languished in poverty.
President Benigno Aquino’s promise of “inclusive growth” was received in the country as a cruel joke. In 2012, 40 families between them owned nearly $50 billion (Dh183bn) of the country’s wealth. Manuel Roxas II, the candidate of the status quo, personified privilege: grandson of a former president, son of a senator, US-educated, multimillionaire. Mr Duterte, a long-serving provincial mayor, cast himself as the outsider. The public wielded him as a weapon against the ruling class.
Part of the reason for Mr Duterte’s popularity – recent surveys show that 86 per cent of all Filipinos trust the president despite the extrajudicial killings – is the hostility so many people continue to harbour for his predecessors. Another reason is the benefits he has showered on the poor.
Under the “Duterte Health Agenda”, 20 million Filipinos have been given entitlement to free medical check-ups. Elsewhere, he has terminated the licences of mining companies that are known violators of environmental regulations and enabled indigenous people to reclaim the lands that had been seized from them.
How, some relatively well-heeled but passionately constitutionalist Filipinos now wonder, is the Duterte presidency going to evolve: by building on what exists, or by tearing it all down? His offensive on drugs suggests the latter. By seemingly encouraging vigilantes, Mr Duterte, who promised to clean up the country within six months of his election, has already jettisoned the rule of law.
Drug users who surrendered in the thousands in the hope of being granted amnesty have instead become targets. The due process enshrined in the constitution no longer offers protection to suspected drug users from the death squads who have quickly developed an addiction to dispatching people with impunity. (As Mr Duterte helpfully clarified, due process applies only if a suspect makes it to court, and he, dispenser of summary justice, is “not the court”.) America’s influence – its capacity to temper Mr Duterte’s conduct – stands severely diminished.
The nation which until just a few months ago saw China as its greatest threat has begun, under Mr Duterte, to court Beijing. He betrays a deep-seated resentment for the United States, his anger at America’s past atrocities in the Philippines deepened by the humiliation of the Philippines’s present dependency on America. Even the Catholic Church, which played a vital role in the pro-democratic People Power movement that ended the rule of Marcos, has lost its nerve.
For now, Mr Duterte looks unassailable and unstoppable. The savage truth is that almost all the victims of this straight-talking outsider’s war on drugs are the poor.
Kapil Komireddi is a frequent contributor to The National
Updated: December 28, 2016 04:00 AM