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The cost so far of Filipinos' gamble on thug rule



The Philippine post-election landscape looks cratered. It has been only eight weeks since Rodrigo Duterte was inaugurated.

DuterteBy one count, over 600 extrajudicial killings in the so-called drug war have come to light. Bodies are discovered with cardboard signs alleging their involvement in the trade. Dead men can't defend themselves. The police have presidential carte blanche and vigilantes abound.

This has been supplemented by a 'name and shame' campaign against more than 100 officials in various levels of government across the country. It breaches constitutional law which presumes innocence until proof of guilt, and it perverts equality before the law.

In this climate, it makes no difference whether you're a Duterte-voting driver from an impoverished neighbourhood, a young woman in her last year at university, or a shady mayor with a retinue of bodyguards. The bullets find you.

Such violent impunity is accentuated by Duterte's insistence on moving Ferdinand Marcos' remains from Ilocos Norte — where they had been kept as a condition of repatriation in 1993 from Hawaii — to Libingan ng mga Bayani. The Heroes' Cemetery. This is being undertaken on no more grounds than that the president had made a promise to his mate, the late dictator's son.

Duterte and his supporters may rail against crime, but there are other kinds of rot. There is burying truth; there is honouring a dishonourable man. There is using the full force of your office to reshape the country in your image.

Filipinos have been here before. It must be excruciating for survivors to witness. In response to a recent letter from the Supreme Court Chief Justice regarding due process, Duterte quipped, 'Would you rather I declare martial law?'

It's hard to make sense of how far the Philippines has managed to regress in such a short time. I used to be able to put things in context. Last May, I wrote here about trying to reconcile with president-elect Duterte, hoping that the hope of so many Filipinos cannot be wrong. I understood the regard for order and security as high priorities in a society where rules are taken as suggestions, plunderers get to run for office (again), and being a journalist can be fatal.


"If all that Duterte manages to deliver in the concrete are bodies on the street, then what a wicked and useless gamble Filipinos have made."


Yet I fret more than ever for friends and family. If life is so expendable, who can be safe? What if my brother-in-law is mistakenly identified as a drug 'pusher'? What if my dad goes to a cockfight and armed vigilantes do a drive-by? What if my more outspoken friends are targeted?

It is disheartening that many Filipinos seem to approve of Duterte's methods. This is the purge many had wanted, and the results only bolster what they believe — that the Philippines can only function under an iron hand. They see the current campaign as a necessary, painful transition to better things. They are wrong. Nothing personal, just history.

The glib analysis is that thug rule is all Filipinos have ever known, and they seek its comfort. More than 300 years of Spanish colonisation, immediately followed by 48 years of de facto rule by the United States, which was interrupted by Japanese occupation. Only two decades span the end of World War II and the start of Marcos' very long presidency.

However, there are complications to the view that Filipinos are inept at self-governance. Post-Marcos reconstruction is now taken for granted, yet it involved drafting a new constitution, devolving power to local units, setting a social reform agenda and liberalising the economy. Cory Aquino and Fidel Ramos were flawed in their own way, but a functional democracy emerged under their governments. Its current economic fundamentals are strong, despite slow global growth, and can be objectively attributed to policies under Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III. Increasing per capita income is expanding the middle class.

This is not to suggest that the resentments that carried Duterte into office aren't real. They are very real. Filipinos look to infrastructure in places like Singapore and lament what might have been. But allowing Duterte to squander the Philippines' economic and political credibility could thwart the very things that they want to achieve. If all that he manages to deliver in the concrete are bodies on the street, then what a wicked and useless gamble Filipinos have made.

I feel most of all for civil society stalwarts who not only have to contend again with authoritarian excess, but its newly avid supporters. On Philippine social media and comment threads, asserting human rights is complicity with drug lords and dissent is treason. Such rhetoric has its provenance in the president, who routinely insults critics and tells them to shut up. These are difficult conditions to work in, to put it mildly.

But if there's anything I know about the people working at the grassroots, in churches and NGOs, some in the halls of power, it is that they are intelligent, principled, innovative and alliance-driven. They will need to strategise and consolidate at great speed.


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister .

Main image source: Davoa Today, Flickr

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Duterte, Philippines



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Catholic bishops in the predominantly Catholic nation of 100 million have also denounced the crackdown. "Can we correct evil by doing evil?" Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo asked in a Mass that coincided with Mr Duterte's speech. Bishop Pabillo said there is no proof the victims were engaged in drug trafficking. "No one told us that, aside from the cardboards placed on top of them," he said.

Father John George | 18 August 2016  

Thank you, Fatima. This is a very important article as it exposes what happens when people elect leaders who boast they will be strong on crime. It has to be said, however, it is not the first time that we have seen vigilantes operating in the Philippines. The Filipino military has often used such tactics against organisers and supporters of effective trade unions in the country to ensure that workers are kept on starvation wages and working in very dangerous and poor conditions. The work of Fr Brian Gore with the National Sugar Workers Federation of the Philippines demonstrated to the world what conditions are like for ordinary people and peasants are like in the country. The problem is that now there is a president, Rodrigo Duterte , who is openly justifying such actions against drug users and drug dealers. Apart from unleashing such dreadful violence and stomping on human rights, the punitive approach to the drug problem has been shown time and time again to be very ineffective. We should be encouraging leaders everywhere to adopt the medical approach to helping addicted drug users to cease using heavy drugs. When people are not buying the expensive drugs, the criminal gangs pushing them have no clientele.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 18 August 2016  

Australian companies that utilise off shore call centres in the Philippines, should bring pressure to bear on govt; otherwise they're complicit with Marcos-esque government tactics

Anthony Grimes | 18 August 2016  

Fatima Measham has highlighted the risks and severity of anti-drug policies in the Philippines, under the new President. Well I happened to watch a T.V. show, made by Ross Kemp, on the subject of the drug scourge in Chicago. The situation appears really hopeless, with even the local police involved in the industry. Duterte may well anticipate this cancer-like curse in his country. I honestly think the man is acting out of desperation.

malcolm harris | 18 August 2016  

Thank you, Fatima. Though the gross human rights violation in Duterte's campaign against illegal drugs is condemnable and should stop, I believe however, it is too early to judge that the Filipino people made a "wicked and useless gamble" in Duterte. It was not a 'gamble' in the first place. The people made a clear and well-thought of choice by electing Duterte. It was also a denunciation of past regimes that plundered and oppressed them. Knowing they deserve something better, they are also mindful if and when promises are fulfilled or broken. In saying "the people are intelligent, principled, innovative and alliance-driven", it means they are ahead in strategy. Consider: the resumption of peace talks with NDFP with prospects of ending civil strife by addressing historical socio-economic roots of poverty and injustice in the country; progressive elements in government dedicated to uplift the people welfare; people's organisations consistently committed to the struggle for genuine freedom and democracy, and Filipino churches in solidarity with the downtrodden and not to the ruling powers... All these indicate how well they people are organised and determined to achieve just peace, genuine independence and a sustainable future with, without and beyond the Duterte administration.

Rev Berlin Guerrero | 18 August 2016  

I agree on some points here like The Man should not stop his critics and that extra-judicial killings are abhorable. However, to be fair with The Man, in his 8 weeks, he also did a long list commendable jobs for the Filipinos. Didn't he? If you are pro-good and you havent done any wrong, you can sleep at night because The Man is doing his job well. He is not perfect, but personally he is perfect for us at this time. Just my own take of this subject matter.

Cris-Cruz | 18 August 2016  

Good to see an article about the Philippines in Eureka. I think there is a danger of reductionism in the statement: "If all that Duterte manages to deliver in the concrete are bodies on the street, then what a wicked and useless gamble Filipinos have made." The current situation in the Philippines is more complex than that. True the body counts is there and it is utterly lamentable and it sounds absolutely scary but there are also some positive developments that I think this newly installed government is doing. This fight is now unmasking the depth and gravity of the menace of drugs. In addition, Duterte has actually appointed highly respectable Secretaries in his cabinet. For instance, Gina Lopez – an environmental activist with great intellect and passion for the Department of Enviroment. There is also, Leonor Briones, highly respected academician, for the Department of Education. That is a good and hopeful sign. Duterte’s background from being a mayor of Davao City to the Presidency is a phenomenal break of the usual mould of those to sit in Malacanang. One might call it a gamble, but every electoral call, whether here in Australia or in the Philippines is always a gamble.

Eric Aragones | 18 August 2016  

Unfortunately, living in the Philippines and seeing the violence, muggings and the like because of drugs, something had to give. What is happening is extra-judicial killings, but there had to be a sudden break. Use the law - a joke as anyone with money can buy "justice" her and again the poor suffer and the problem continues.

Michael Holdcroft | 18 August 2016  

Fatima, I have to agree with you . Married to a Filipina for 38 years , I have had a continuing interest in Philippines over the past 50 years,making frequent visits 'back home' to La Union, fairly near the Marcos homeland in Illocos Norte . I along with my wife and many expat Filipinos in Canberra were hoping against hope that Duterete would not be elected but it seems the poverty stricken voters, bribed as usual, won the day. We are outranged by the plan to intern Marcos in the Heroes Cemetery .He is definitely not a HERO ! I witnessed at first hand some of his excesses .I can not for the life of me see why this is allowed to happen. On my last visit two years ago,I was impressed by the evident increase in prosperity in Manila and to a lesser extent in the Provence .People seemed to have more hope for the future. Sadly the level of poverty and the gap between the rich and poor seems to have widened, showing 'trickle down economics' has not worked . Hopefully sanity will prevail and Durerete will over extend his power and be impeached

Gavin | 19 August 2016  

Having witnesed from Jesuit Manila Uni the Filipino attachment to papacy under Poe John Paul and the role of the Church in overthrow of Marcos it beggars belief that as reported, the self-professed dictator cursed Pope Francis back in November 2015, calling him "a son of a whore." Duterte later apologized after the bishops publicly condemned this incident.-the guy needs careful watching at minimum!

Father John George | 19 August 2016  

Egotism has long-term consequences. In the short window of opportunity between the Spanish-American War and 1905, the possibility of statehood within the United States was lost, probably, in retrospect, to the eternal relief of the US Congress and Executive, it being one thing to incorporate within the generally orderly administration (because of the Anglo majority) of the United States small polities with non-Anglo majorities such as Guam, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and American Samoa and another to run an archipelago with a huge non-Anglo population. The urge for 'independence' is sometimes a Luciferian preference to rule in hell than serve in heaven as with much federal influence and lots of money from the US Treasury, the Philippines could have evolved like the primitive Jim Crow southern polities, in its case into something closer to the prosperity of a Singapore-Taiwan-South Korea-Japan. Could a Marcos kleptocracy have existed under the civil rights lawsuits of a US Department of Justice? And with possibly a 46th state across the water from them, Australian navigation might not be held hostage by Chinese sitting in the Spratlys.

Roy Chen Yee | 22 August 2016  

I congratulate you, Fatima, for writing this article. It is very timely, and I disagree with the defensive comments of 3 people on this feedback section. The TIME's cover story, in fact, complements your article because it compared the drug and crime statistics in the Philippines numbers from other countries. In all accounts, the Philippines rated lower than many countries in crime rate or drug crisis. It concluded: "Duterte has succeeded in convincing large numbers of his people that drug use constitutes such an emergency that the very existence of the nation is threatened and that only his rule can save the Philippines. It's the oldest autocratic trick in the book." So to those who considered themselves to be 'progressive liberals' who continue to defend Duterte and his autocratic regime, will you please shut up!

Melba Marginson | 27 August 2016  

The Filipino law enforcement authorities, as professional as their counterparts elsewhere, would know who the big people in the drug trade are, the ones who elude arrest because they know how not to leave a trail of evidence to themselves, but who from years in business can't but help leave a trail of suspicion to themselves. Presumably they live inside layers of security, which is why the trails of extrajudicial suspicion stop at small fry instead of big fish. But, to paraphrase Doubting Thomas, unless we see the holes in the sides of the big fish, we may have to conclude that the vigilante program is a PR distraction that is not meant to clean up the drug trade all the way to the top, for what is a gated enclosure or an armoured limousine to a Law that has become lawless?

Roy Chen Yee | 10 September 2016  

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