Philippines’ President Duterte Earns his Cowboy Spurs

Just six weeks into the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte, the world is discovering with a good deal of horror that the Philippines is getting what he promised: hundreds of deaths of people who may or not be connected to the drug world, at the hands of death squads who are killing, often with little evidence.

That has earned Duterte the approval of 91 percent of the country’s citizens, according to the Asia Pulse polling organization. But at the same time he has threatened to take power through martial law, offered to “destroy” an unnamed woman public official, called the US Ambassador a “son of a bitch” and a homosexual, complicated attempts to preserve a common front against China over ownership of the South China Sea by sending former President Fidel Ramos as his personal emissary to meet Chinese officials, and has promised a hero’s burial next month to the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos, whose death squads killed more than 2,500 people, whose family stole an estimated US$10 billion and who allegedly faked his military record of bravery. Marcos’ body has lain in a glass coffin in his home state of Ilocos Norte since his death in exile in 1989.

He also offered to pardon Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whose own family is believed to have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars and who turned loose her own death squads which killed hundreds of leftists on the pretext of ridding the country of communists. Arroyo, however, has since been acquitted of the plunder charges by the Supreme Court, saving him the trouble of a pardon. He has grown close to Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator, an indication that doing away with impunity is not on his list of goals.

In addition he has said he wouldn’t honor the international agreement his country signed in Paris last year to limit carbon emissions in the effort to combat global warming despite the fact that the Philippines is considered one of the countries most liable to violent weather associated with global warming.

Taken together, these actions obscure commendable actions he has already taken as president, including drafting and implementing a freedom of information act that news organizations and political reform groups had been attempting to push through the legislature for decades. His State of the Nation Address, delivered on July 25, began with an offer of amity for Muslims seeking semi-autonomy in Mindanao and with Communists who have been fighting an insurgency for decades. He pledged to continue the extensive government reforms put in place by his predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III and substantially increase infrastructure spending. His record of clean government during his tenure as mayor of Davao City, 1,500 km south of Manila, is probably an indication that he means it.

He has largely ignored or vilified the Catholic Church, which has continued to stall progress on reproductive health rights. Even before he was elected, he ordered polluting fish farms to be cleared off Laguna de Bay, the lake that supplies Manila with fresh water.

As Asia Sentinel reported on Aug. 9, there is deep anger and frustration in the Philippines with lawlessness and drug use, particularly methamphetamines, which is the highest in Southeast Asia, an indication of the stratospheric approval ratings that Duterte has enjoyed so far. But internationally, he has mainly stirred revulsion. Domestically, there are reports that the elites are deeply unsettled, not only by the killings but by Duterte’s raw lack of decorum and his foul mouth.

By the first of August, more than 300 human rights organizations had signed a joint statement drafted by the International Drug Policy Consortium to “urgently condemn the alarming surge of killings of suspected drug users or dealers in the Philippines” and to call for an immediate halt to the killings, which are often committed off the backs of motorcycles by masked individuals riding pillion.

“International drug control agencies need to make clear to [Duterte] that the surge in killings of suspected drug dealers and users is not acceptable ‘crime control,’ but instead a government failure to protect people’s most fundamental human rights,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “President Duterte should understand that passive or active government complicity with those killings would contradict his pledge to respect human rights and uphold the rule of law.”

People are being killed who are misidentified or shot by mistake, an indication that Duterte’s lists of suspected drug dealers and users is compiled apparently by hearsay. One list of 150 so-called drug kingpins that included mayors, top police officials, judges, and members of Congress turned out to be riddled with errors, naming people who in some cases were dead.

Dionisio Santiago, former head of the Philippines Drug Enforcement Agency, told the New York Times that the list was similar to one prepared by his agency that he presented in 2010 to former President Benigno S. Aquino III which apparently was never acted upon. Duterte is said in local media to be about to deliver another list that includes religious leaders, priests and activists, raising deep concern that people may be supplying him with enemies’ lists of people who have nothing to do with drugs.

It was probably a good thing that nobody acted on Santiago's list. Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, the head of the Philippine Supreme Court, pointed out that three of the seven judges named on the list were no longer on the bench, with one dismissed nine years ago and another who died in 2008. There have been many other problems with the list, which nonetheless exposed those presumed guilty to the actions of the death squads. Sereno took on Duterte, sternly pointing out that it was the duty of the Supreme Court to discipline judges and not the president’s.

That may have provoked an outburst in which Duterte threatened to declare martial law, a vow he later backed away from. It’s uncertain who he meant in his threat to “destroy” a “lady” government official he said has been monitoring his every move – possibly with sinister intent – particularly in his fight against illegal drugs, but it may have been Leila de Lima, Aquino’s Justice Secretary and onetime head of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights who was elected to the Philippine Senate. De Lima has been demanding to know who has compiled the death lists.

Certainly, at the other end of society, the death squads sometimes seem frighteningly incompetent or misinformed. A 22 year-old college student and member of a church choir named Rowena Tiamson was shot to death by vigilantes. Her family and friends say she had never been connected to anything having to do with drugs. Others with no apparent connection to drugs have been shot to death as well by the death squads. Duterte’s own vice president, Leni Robredo, who was elected at the same time but not on his ticket, has also demanded an end to the violence, saying she personally knew three people who had been targeted by the death squads but who she believed to be innocent.