President Duterte’s War on Drugs

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I’d like to thank all of you who made time to be here to listen to this short lecture on a major development, possibly the first turning point, in the Philippines’s history in the twenty-first century. Thanks as well to the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy for having the patience to stand by when I said earlier this year that I didn’t feel prepared to talk about my country’s newly elected President, Rodrigo Duterte. That was because I remained in Korea for most of the previous winter break to be able to work on a book project, and returned to the Philippines during summer to get a feel of ground-level sentiment. I still don’t feel fully confident about what I can say about the current presidential regime, but I might be able to have a better sense now, about a few matters that might remain intangible even to native intellectuals.

The so-called War on Drugs by Mr. Duterte has been attributed to a number of causes, only one of which can be confirmed with finality. That single cause would be the psychological reason, and like all psychological case studies, it is framed by a narrative: Sebastian, or Bastê, the younger son of Digong (the nickname of Mr. Duterte) was supposedly seriously addicted to illegal drugs and almost permanently ruined by his habit. Upon witnessing Bastê’s suffering, his father decided to wage a merciless battle against drug personalities – providers, suppliers, even addicts – until the problem would be exterminated from the face of the earth, or at least the city of Davao when he was mayor, and now the Republic of the Philippines during his presidency.

Like most originary narratives, this tale has a legendary dimension to it, and this quality serves to invest Mr. Duterte’s anti-drug campaign with the aura of a crusade: not merely a war, but a just and holy war. But legends in modern contexts also allow leaders a significant amount of leeway, if they manage to convince their followers of the legend’s righteousness and provoke a sufficient degree of cultural anxiety: witness the panic over racial impurity propagated by Adolf Hitler, or the worry over big-government intervention stoked by Ronald Reagan, or the decline of American supremacy proclaimed by Donald Trump. About a hundred miles away in this same peninsula, we have Kim Jong-un, whose very existence is premised on an assumption of a legendary, or maybe even super-legendary, persona.

The implication we can derive from these examples is that originary narratives are useful in seizing the imagination of a leader’s followers, but any political problem that results from it cannot be solved on the level of cultural resistance alone, by demolishing or deconstructing the legend, for example. In the case of Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs, we are confronted by a number of predicaments, and I wish to focus on three of these, each one related to the others, and all of them involving the Duterte administration in confrontation with a small but articulate and well-publicized opposition:

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First, the unsolved killings that have resulted, more than half of over three thousand as of last count and still rising, are declared as extrajudicial and state-sanctioned by the opposition, while the Duterte administration denies its involvement in them and declares these cases as “under investigation”;

Second, the human-rights issue in the killings is considered fairly cut-and-dried by the opposition, wherein the murdered individuals are deprived of due process and are therefore victims of human-rights violations; the administration’s apologists, on the other hand, are reaching for essential redefinitions of the term “human rights” to cover the rights of upright citizens against criminal violations, as well as the applicability of human rights to developed situations only; and

Third, the rash of killings is regarded by certain sectors of the opposition as one element in a larger schema, one where the administration promotes peace with armed rebel groups, pivots away from the country’s long-term Western alliances to turn toward China and Russia, and forms a largely unopposed and popular dictatorial government. This return of repressed tyranny, according to this scenario, is strengthened by coalitions with orthodox Communists, Islamic militants, and business figures, distinct from the oligarchic families that once agitated for the ouster of Ferdinand Marcos thirty years ago.

From my semi-amateurish observations of social media and occasional dialogues with sensible figures on both pro-administration and opposition sides, I would say that the opposition has more solid footing in the case of the first two issues, involving the legality of the killings and their human-rights component. The administration may deny that it had approved some or even all of the killings, but Mr. Duterte had gone on record, during his campaign and after he became President, that he wanted to see all drug personalities dead. This sweeping statement definitely included addicts, regardless of the conventional perception that, like his son Bastê, they may have been merely victims of drug lords and pushers. In terms of human rights, the administration’s supporters tend to suffer from a fanaticism and/or euphoria that affects their ability to follow rational and critical thought processes. This accounts for their unnecessary complication of the concept of human rights – a concept that has been and should be formulated as simply as possible in order for it to be universally applicable.

What shows up in these two problems are characteristics that mark both Mr. Duterte and his followers, and make any attempt at evaluating contemporary Philippine politics convoluted and probably impossible to resolve – and even more difficult to confront directly, as US President Barack Obama found out when Duterte lashed out at him. We have what appears to be a predilection for contradictory statements expressed with expletives and obscenities on the part of the President, and echoed in many of his followers, who it seems derive license and inspiration to also be rude and illogical in their encounters with less-devoted observers.

The third issue is where the differences between the administration and the opposition acquire some historical resonance. When oppositionists warn that Duterte may be laying the groundwork for the declaration of martial law, they are raising the specter of the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, whom Duterte considers the “best president” the country ever had. Here we may argue that Duterte is outright deluded, unless by “best” we mean the ability to plunder the national economy while depriving entire sectors of society of not just their basic freedoms, but sometimes even their lives. Duterte made this statement during his campaign, so it may have been possible that he was courting the support of the Ilocano-speaking northern provinces. From his mother’s record as anti-Marcos activist, he may have had enough awareness that the Philippine experiment with dictatorship was the only instance in Asia where a once-prosperous country had wound up impoverished as a result. Even Indonesia, which supposedly had a worse case of plunder during the term of Suharto, managed to join the Asian developing nations’ circle while he was still in power.

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Explanations for the Philippines’s developmental travails are more complicated than simply stating that the country had a rapacious and self-deluded tyrant at the helm, but that should be a topic for another session. The real issue in terms of the irreconcilability between Duterte’s followers and his critics is the same entity that provided the first and most sustained opposition to Marcos before and during martial law: the Philippine Left, which used to be unified under the Communist Party and its legal organization, the National Democratic Front. After the Party found itself marginalized by the people-power uprising that ousted Marcos, internal criticisms directed at its leadership intensified and came to a head when the Party members were divided between those who supported the founding leadership, called reaffirmists or RAs, and the rejectionists or RJs.

Both sides had their party-list candidates as well as prominent personalities who participated in the post-Marcos electoral processes. But during the presidency prior to Duterte’s, the RJs aligned themselves with social democrats and became identified with the winning candidate, Benigno “PNoy” Aquino III. In a dramatic political turnaround, the RAs cast their lot during the previous election with Duterte, who won by castigating Aquino and his party for their anti-people policies. In many ways, the residue of this mutually destructive struggle between Left-identified groups dominates the responses to Duterte. The reaffirmists are being upheld by the present administration via the nearly concluded peace talks, while the most extreme among the rejectionists argue that Duterte is unsuited for the presidency and that the Vice President, Leni Robredo, should be upheld in his stead. (To her credit, Robredo maintains critical support for Duterte and repudiates the clamor to install her as Duterte’s replacement.)

Thus the prevailing attitudes toward Duterte disavow any middle ground. The few people I know who come from either the pro-Digong or anti-Digong camp, who opt to criticize Duterte without advocating for his overthrow, get shouted down, sometimes abusively, by their own friends, and get accused of selling out to the other camp. On my own Facebook posts, I get identified sometimes as a Duterte supporter or “dutertard,” other times as an apologist for Aquino’s yellow-wearing Liberal Party or “yellowtard.” In terms of the killings, one could not argue for long that the President should reverse his policy and attend to the other demands of his office. Either you accept the President and agree that all the killings are justified, or you denounce the killings and automatically conclude that this President should be replaced.

This is ironic for Left-leaning individuals, who should possess the capacity for critical thinking and complex analysis, but that is the point where we find the state of Philippine politics at this time. Thank you for listening, and I hope to be able to find possible insights and solutions from your responses.

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About Joel David

Teacher, scholar, & gadfly of film, media, & culture. [Photo of Kiehl courtesy of Danny Y. & Vanny P.] View all posts by Joel David

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