Filipino President Fuels Vigilante Violence over War on Drugs

Original content provided by Jacob Atkins

Courtesy of Al-Jazeera

Courtesy of Al-Jazeera

The Players

President Rodrigo Duterte: casually dubbed as “The Punisher” by Time Magazine, the newest head of state for the Philippines has proven to be a controversial leader during his brief sojourn. Sworn into office on June 30, and already Duterte is worrying the international community with his evident indifference towards human rights. Almost as if inspired by the dystopian world portrayed in The Purge, currently the professionally trained lawyer is presumed to be the mastermind behind an extensive series of extrajudicial killings against suspected drug dealing criminals throughout Manilla. Amplified by Duterte’s cavalier attitude towards such allegations, vigilante violence is intensifying as newspapers continuously publish blacklists of people supposedly involved in the drug trade. While Filipino government sources say that 600 people have been targeted, local media estimate the death toll to now exceed well over 1,800. Taking into account that Duterte originally appealed to Filipino voters due to his anti-drug manifesto, such fanatical policy goals are also complemented by an array of disparaging comments to his own colleagues and foreign dignitaries. 

US Ambassador Philip Goldberg: the senior diplomat was the most recent American representative insulted by Duterte. Widely reported by Western news outlets, the Filipino president called Goldberg a gay “son of a whore” after the envoy expressed disapproval over some commentary Duterte made while serving as mayor of Davao in 1989. Specifically, the president showed little remorse or concern for an Australian missionary who was raped and murdered during a prison riot in his native city. Followed by saying, “I was angry she was raped, yes, that was one thing - but she was so beautiful, I think the mayor should have been first - what a waste,” Duterte made zero attempt to apologize or annul his words. He even told the United States and Australia to “shut their mouths” after they asked for an explanation. On top of this, Goldberg was also bad-mouthed by Duterte for apparently interfering with the recent elections and delivering unwanted statements to better serve US interests in the region. 

Senator Leila De Lima: on a domestic level, not even Duterte’s colleagues are immune to his brashness. Formerly part of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, De Lima is one of 158 governmental workers to be publicly condemned by Duterte for secretly supporting the country’s drug cartel, despite the lack of evidence to prove such charges. Opposed to vigilante violence altogether, recently De Lima decried Duterte’s abuse of power and continuous character assassinations of public officials. Alongside others, she is one of many Filipino politicians who believe Duterte will do anything in his power to squash opposition and dissuade others from challenging his supremacy. Instead of persecuting drug addicts, though, De Lima is advocating for the implementation of more rehabilitative services. Since the drug crackdown began two months ago, over 500,000 Filipino drug users have turned themselves into authorities in hopes of avoiding any potential trouble.  

 Courtesy of Al-Jazeera

 Courtesy of Al-Jazeera


The Background

In addition to Guam, Puerto Rico, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba - Spain forfeited the Philippines over to the United States after coming out defeated in the Spanish-American War. Being passed from one colonial power to another, the political situation in the Philippines has been rocky ever since it obtained independence in 1946. To acknowledge the historic ties between the Philippines and the United States, though, it’s uncanny how Duterte parallels Donald Trump. 

Both of these cantankerous men gained support over platforms to expunge crime and moral wrongdoings. With a zeal similar to the Republican presidential candidate summoning the Mexicans to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, Duterte arrived to office determined to eradicate the Philippine’s “war on drugs” with equal-levels of biased furor. Similar to Trump’s rhetoric against undocumented Mexicans as “rapists and criminals, or Muslims as inherently dangerous, Duterte has said quite candidly that citizens involved in illegal activities are legitimate targets for assassination and not worthy of second chances. Apparently Duterte isn’t the only one to believe this is true, for he won by a landslide (39% of votes in the last election) with more than 6.6 million additional votes than his closest rival, Mar Roxas. 

As previously mentioned, Duterte served as the mayor of Davao from 1988 to 1998. It was during this decade that his legacy for cleansing cities of drug-related crime began. Considering that Davao was once infamously known as the murder capital of the Philippines, today the city is rated as one of the most tranquil in Southeast Asia because of Duterte’s policy reforms. However, many suspect that Duterte accomplished such a transfiguration through contracting individuals to be part of his own personal death squad who executed petty criminals and alleged drug dealers. Between 1,020 to 1,040 people are said to have disappeared during the former mayor’s tenure. 

Courtesy of Al Jazeera

Courtesy of Al Jazeera


The Story

Today the Filipino president is threatening to enforce martial law if the judiciary tries to interfere with the full-blown drug war. Responding to internal disputes from his ministry, Duterte delivered quite a livid speech to military troops last week where he said that, “If this will continue and if you will try to stop me, then fine. Would you rather I declare martial law?” Obviously not caring about the separation of powers, this proclamation comes after Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno communicated her concern to Duterte for releasing names of judges accused of being part of the drug trade. Rather than influencing citizens to get involved, Sereno reminded Duterte that Filipinos are entitled to legal representation before being indicted for a crime. 

Further implications of Duterte’s presidency are evident in today’s territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Out of all the countries within this contested area, the Philippines has proven to be the most vocal antagonist against China’s attempts at developing new land in a bid to obtain more access to nearby beds of crude oil. Instead of aligning Filipino foreign policy with the United States’ (as the Philippines has historically done) it appears as though Duterte is halting multilateral negotiations and reevaluating his relationship with the West - which is certainly complicated considering that over 75,000 American troops are currently deployed in and around the Philippines. 

All in all, if Duterte sticks to his words, he would be on the logical path to becoming the world’s most contemporary dictator.