Duterte, the Philippines and a Psychopathic Reign of Terror

It is time for the Philippines to face up to the fact that its president, Rodrigo Duterte, is a psychopath drunk on killing. The reign of terror he has initiated and promoted has in just one year claimed more victims than the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other Islamist terror groups have in the whole of Southeast Asia and the western world in 20 years – including the 3,000 dead in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

The latest rash of killings – 81 in the past few days – includes a terrified 17-year-old boy named Kian delos Santos who was filmed on CCTV, given a gun and told by police to run while screaming that he had to go to school the next day. His body was found curled into a fetal position with the gun next to him. The killing has ignited protests across Manila by a few hundred people – and international condemnation. But, sadly, previous local protests have been muted in relation to the outrageous scale of deaths, more than 7,000 and climbing, most of them poor and powerless.

Although he noted the arrest of the three policemen who killed the youth, the president remains unrepentant. "There is no due process in my mouth," Duterte once told reporters prior to the latest outrage. "You can't stop me and I'm not afraid even if you say that I can end up in jail."

This is terror

There is no other word than terror for this policy because the intent is to spread fear and pander to the basest instincts of the public. It is past time to stop it. Duterte knows full well that by encouraging extrajudicial killings (EJKs) on a huge scale, many innocents will fall including children as young as 3, not to mention poor vendors and users of methamphetamines.

Meanwhile, the elite are undisturbed if they wish to indulge in cocaine reveries, secure in the knowledge that they are protected by the high walls of privilege. As the mayor of Davao City for decades, Duterte knows perfectly well the depth of dishonesty within this police force to which he has given a literal license to murder. It is a police force known far and wide for its propensity to commit the crimes they are supposedly paid to investigate and prevent. And woe betide those who complain.

What is astonishing and gives the whole nation a reputation for barbarity on a scale not seen in this region since the Khmer Rouge ruled Cambodia is how readily the elite, lacking respect for national institutions, find excuses for Duterte. He also maintains approval ratings that hover around 80 percent as the middle and poor classes also seem convinced that carnage under a strong leader is a prescription for progress. It is this same worship of form over substance that places unqualified boxing hero Manny Pacquiao in the Senate along with former movie stars and television presenters.

Darker desires

But there are growing concerns that Duterte’s ambitions go well beyond just the drug war to follow in the footsteps of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who almost singlehandedly was responsible for setting the Philippines decades behind its Southeast Asian neighbors in terms of corruption, poverty and stunted development. His latest outrage is to tell the police it is okay to gun down human rights workers.

Beyond that, he has used threats of government action as a cudgel against businesses that do not follow his ways. The latest is the forced sale of the country’s leading English-language daily, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, to a crony, presumably to stop its criticism of his murderous drug war but which is likely intended to cow the entire press corps. He fired the chairman of the Dangerous Drugs Board, Benjamin Reyes, in May, when Reyes used the board’s official figures for drug users – 1.8 million, according to a 2015 survey. Duterte has continued to use the figure of 4 million addicts – not users – against the evidence. Business leaders in Manila admit privately that they fear criticizing the president lest their companies face retaliation.

Duterte’s most trenchant critic, human rights activist and lawyer, Senator Leila de Lima, remains behind bars on trumped-up charges of abetting drug trafficking. Duterte has declared martial law in Mindanao using the localized Marawi fighting as an excuse and he threatens to expand it to the entire country. He has given Marcos a hero’s burial despite the fact that Marcos falsified his record as a supposed World War 2 guerrilla leader, and has worked to make Marcos’s son Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr. his No. 2 by attempting to negate the election of his rival, Vice President Leni Robredo.

A country also off the rails

What lies behind this lethal drug campaign, one asks? The first clue may be that Duterte himself was – and maybe still is – a drug user. He has admitted to past over-prescription use of the drug Fentanyl, an opioid far stronger and more addictive than shabu, the most common and cheapest street amphetamine. Fentanyl and similar opioids such as Oxycodone are the legal drugs of the rich, available from doctors on prescription and at a cost far in excess of shabu.

Whether or not he still takes Fentanyl or similar drugs, it is clear that by his own definition of drug users he himself should have been gunned down by police or vigilantes a long time ago.

Murdering alleged drug users is nothing new in the region. Thaksin Shinawatra tried it more than a decade ago in Thailand but never with the zeal of Duterte and soon abandoned it. Even Thaksin’s military successors have realized that this approach to the drug problem does not work. But Duterte continues to see it as the centerpiece of his presidency despite the evidence of massive abuse by the police and attendant thugs. Sadly, even his critics in the Senate, such as Panfilo Lacson, a retired head of the national police, draw distinctions between EJKs of innocents by corrupt police and of those such as the mayor of Ozamiz City, Reynaldo Parojinog, who was gunned down on July 30 along with 15 others including family members during a supposed drug raid.

The Parojinog family were feared masters of their province – and perhaps political enemies of the president – but such is the situation in much of the provincial Philippines, not excluding Davao, long controlled by the Duterte family. The wiping out of the Parijinogs puts the Duterte administration in the same league as the 2009 massacre of 58 people including 32 journalists accompanying a political rival of the late Maguindanao Governor Andal Ampatuan. Kill anyone associated with your enemies.

In any event it is not the local warlords who are Duterte’s main victims but the poor and weak. Previous regimes in the Philippines have resorted to state killing – Marcos’s police used to gun down supposed street criminals as a way of courting public favor and of course the dictator’s chief rival, Benigno Aquino, was murdered by soldiers at the airport in Manila as he was hauled off a plane in 1983. Presidents have routinely aimed their guns at leftist peasants and labor organizers suspected of supporting the communist New People’s Army, which itself uses assassination as a political tactic. But these killings, as brutal as they were, targeted relatively few victims compared with today’s bloodletting.

The sad truth, however, is that while Duterte is off the rails, at base there is a tolerance for murder among Philippine politicians that makes better organized, more disciplined authoritarians (such as China) seem soft by comparison.

Nor can Duterte claim that his murderous campaign has achieved the promised results. Drugs are still readily available, if dealers and users are cautious, and the president himself admits it will take six years of slaughter to succeed. If that means he intends to use a corrupt police force to kill 1.8 million drug users – the drug board’s figure – or his own of 4 million – the Philippines is in for a nightmare beyond imagining.

Almost as shocking as the mass murders themselves has been the mostly feeble response as supposedly principled people hide behind Duterte’s popularity in superficial opinion polls. Some churchmen have spoken out, most recently the senior Cardinal Luis Tagle. But the mainstream business and academic communities have been mostly silent, preferring to comment on steady GDP growth numbers, promises of infrastructure spending and the government generally following conservative macro-economic and financial policies.

Much of the left also has been curiously silent despite Duterte’s obvious failure to do more than make a few rhetorical gestures in their direction. This may be accounted for by Duterte’s tacit cooperation with communist guerrillas during his early days as Davao mayor, when a bloody purge was underway in the city. But what does the Left get out of Duterte now? The talks with the NPA are dead. The President failed to put his weight behind two left-leaning ministers, Gina Lopez at Environment and Judy Taguiwalo at Social Welfare, leading to their rejection by the Committee on Appointments after serving just months in the job.

What will come of this? Duterte appears to have frightened Filipinos into mass acquiescence in cold blooded killing on an unprecedented scale. But this is a tragedy with its roots in the use of assassination and murder as a tactic by the government (and the communist Left) for decades. If they are to restore the decency and good name of the nation, Filipinos will ultimately have to come to terms with themselves.