Rodrigo Duterte’s sudden decision to fire Vice President Leni Robredo from his murderous drug program, 18 days after he had appointed her to it, appears to represent one of the few times someone has got the best of the Philippine president and embarrassed him.
Duterte in effect on November 7 dared Robredo to become co-chair of his Inter-Agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD), the apex unit of the president’s anti-drug program. Many feared Robredo was walking into a trap in that she would have little or no power and could be set up to take the blame for its failures. Instead, she came aboard forcefully demanding statistics and actively seeking to understand what the program was all about.
Robredo, a human rights lawyer and activist elected independently of Duterte in 2016, has been a forceful critic of the drug program from the start. Since the two were elected together, he has done his best to neutralize her, cutting her out of cabinet meetings and making other moves to limit her power. He has worked behind the scenes to replace her with Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the eldest son of the corruption-riddled Marcos clan.
The president originally offered Robredo the position as “drug czar” for six months in an effort to mute her argument that the drug war needs reassessment following the deaths of thousands of suspects in extrajudicial killings. He later extended her term as co-chair, a cabinet position, until the end of his term in 2022.
But Robredo began to garner uniformly positive notice in the press for her commitment to investigating it. That was too much for the president. Duterte, a longtime political observer in Manila told Asia Sentinel, became apprehensive that she was hijacking his war on drugs by expanding the discourse and making drug use a public health problem rather than a criminal offence.
“I think Duterte’s mouth got the better of him when he reacted to her criticism, thoughtlessly forcing him to dare her to do it herself,” said a spokesman for a human rights NGO. “She called his bluff, went on to capitalize on his blunder, hoisted herself as someone with a more sensible idea to wage the ‘drug war,’ upstaging him. He must have thought to immediately cut her down before she created more trouble. In the end, Duterte blinked and lost significant credibility as a result.”
The offer to co-chair the ICAD was politically charged and designed from the start to embarrass the vice president and weaken her politically, according to another source, with a Manila-based international country risk consultancy. “When the palace saw that she was benefiting politically from the position and was getting favorable media coverage, it seems they ended it.”
The firing didn’t intimidate Robredo into backing off. At a press conference in Camarines Sur 435 km southeast of Manila on November 25, she demanded to know “What, are you afraid of the people?" She went on to say she hadn’t asked for the position but that “I take your job very seriously. The wish of the house is a government that is the real champion of illegal drugs.”
She went on to say she would soon report to the public what she discovered during her 18-day stint at the anti-drug agency: “I will state my findings and my recommendations. You can count on it: even if I am fired, they will never be able to revoke my resolve.”
Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo labeled her requests for information during her period at the agency “missteps and red signs” that couldn’t be ignored. On November 19, he said Robredo's "insistence" on getting access to information "added to Duterte's reconsideration of his earlier desire to appoint her in the Cabinet," adding that her requests for information could "imperil the welfare of the Filipino people and the security of the state."
The Duterte forces became suspicious that imperiling the “welfare of the Filipino people and the security of the state” might include taking what she had learned about the real dimensions of the drug war to investigators for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is investigating Duterte’s drug war with the aim of charging him with human rights violations that could land him in the International Criminal Court of Justice. That was too much. Law enforcement agencies acting on the president’s orders have refused to give such information to independent human rights and lawyer groups, even from the country’s own constitutionally established Commission on Human Rights.
Later, however, Duterte was forced to apologize for accusing her of having invited in UN probers, according to local media.
Duterte’s crusade against drugs is estimated to have resulted in the extra-judicial killing of more than 6,000 (by the police) or up to 25,000 (by international human rights groups) mostly poor and powerless Filipinos. Most of them have been killed in “shootouts” by police, or by two-person death squads on motorcycles who ride up behind unsuspecting drug users and shoot them. Most are users of shabu, the Filipino version of methamphetamine.
From the start, the drug program has been suspect. Although Duterte claimed there were 3 million to 4 million drug users in the Philippines, his own Dangerous Drugs Board in 2016 contradicted that, saying 1.8 million Filipinos might use the drug at least once in a year. So Duterte fired the head of the drugs board.
In fact, international drug rehabilitation authorities have condemned the program from its inception, not only because of its unspeakable violence but because even the most punitive programs have little effect on drug use. That is a lesson learned in Thailand at the start of the current century, when then-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra declared a similar war on drugs.
After 2,800 people – mostly poor and powerless – had been gunned down and stopped by police, it was later discovered by human rights organizations that fully half of them had nothing to do with drugs but were people who had run afoul of a thoroughly corrupt police force. The Philippines is no stranger to such corruption. National Police Chief Oscar Albayalde, the country’s top law enforcement official, was forced to resign his position in October over accusations that he allowed 13 police officers to resell confiscated drugs when he was a provincial commander in 2013.
Once the drug war had come to a stop, use of methamphetamine, called ya ba in Thailand, resumed at previous levels. Later, a top Thai police official suggested that the use of ya ba be legalized and that drug rehabilitation programs be increased.
That has never happened, and it is unlikely that it will happen in the Philippines either. But the futility of the killings has long been apparent to everybody except the general public, which continues to back Duterte.
A realistic anti-drug campaign in the most successful of countries, arguably centered around legalization and rehabilitation, is liable to take years, if not decades to have an impact. The wellsprings of the Philippines; its drug problem stem from a substandard education system, a spiraling birth rate – the highest in the region by far and endorsed by the Catholic Church – as well as lack of opportunity which has driven a full 10 percent of the 106 million population overseas.
There is little to do in the barangays besides ingest cheap shabu and, for the more criminally minded, commit street crime, a category in which the Philippines also ranks worst in Asia by far.