Abstract: Pres. Rodrigo Duterte may not be the leader the Philippines deserves but is certainly the leader they could have foreseen. He is brash in decision-making, volatile to criticism, and yet effective by any measure to his dutiful supporters. In this paper, I will analyze the War on Drugs as Duterte’s prime campaign element and its devastating, vigilante effects. The state-sanctioned killings of drug dealers and addicts is less surreal for a country with a recently dictatorial past and historical affections for impunitive political regimes. I will attempt to illustrate the Philippine’s destructive run of criminal politicians and their disposing of honest, critical journalists and other opposition.
Legitimized political impunity not only paved Duterte’s rise to power, but also so divided the electorate that no conceivable challenge to his policies exists. Taking office in June 2016, Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to dismantle the drug trade in the Philippines.
In the wake of his War on Drugs, over 3,000 people (addicts and dealers alike) have been killed by police and vigilantes in the first three months of his presidency. Abandoning any party loyalty after a loss, political opposition in the Philippines runs to the arm of the winner because any opposition is considered an enemy of the state. Somehow, journalists and pundits of the sort have fallen under the drug criminal umbrella and regularly turn up missing. Duterte and his predecessors to the office have enjoyed total control, unwavering support, and alleviated punishments in a very loose Philippine democracy.
The U.S., along with human rights groups, women’s rights groups and the United Nations, has condemned Duterte’s murderous War on Drugs while China has praised it. His presidency raises many questions for the Philippines’ and China’s futures in the South China Sea, as well as American investment in the region.
The Philippines is currently enjoying its steadiest run of success in terms of international relations. It is an emerging market for foreign investment and a newly industrialized country transitioning from an agricultural base to one of services and manufacturing. Though relations with China have been called into question recently, largely because of Filipino reversal of demands on the South China Sea, the economic friendship has paid dividends. Shared democratic values unwind tensions with global superpowers, like the United States, and identical economic concerns keep relations close with other countries still developing. Its national culture is capturing global consideration in recent years, as more than 10 million Filipinos live outside their native country. It has hosted multiple summits for ASEAN, motivated to promote economic and cultural growth for its own state and others in the Asia Pacific.
Enter Rodrigo Duterte. Before winning the presidency in a landslide on May 6th of this year, Duterte was mayor of Davao City on Mindanao, a southern Philippine island. His campaign platform was centered around a hard-liner approach to crime, while he exaggerated claims of reducing Davao’s crime rate. In actuality, the crime rate in Davao City did drop by the mid 2000s, but also over 1,000 deaths had occurred under his regime and had not been reviewed by law enforcement. “Last year the New York-based Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 1,000 people had died in Davao since the 1990s under Duterte’s leadership and urged the Philippines government to investigate the killings.” (McCafferty).
His track record as mayor never pointed to the antidote to political corruption that supporters believe to see. When local women’s rights groups filed a complaint against his objectification of women, he told them to “go to hell”, and when U.S. President Obama spoke out against the egregious War on Drugs, Duterte called him “a son of a whore”. He is but one installment of a string of far-right, loudmouth leaders gaining support and power around the world this year (Trump, Le Pen, Petry, etc.) but the only one as of yet to institute regulated murder by the state. Duterte’s cozying up to China and neglect for the Philippines’ interests in the South China Sea further the notion that his showmanship is for the betterment of Rodrigo Duterte and not the Philippines.
Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs is defended by an air of political impunity. The Philippines’ membership to the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has not safeguarded it from a string of corrupted and acquitted politicians. In the Philippines, partisan officials abandon party loyalty after every election. To stick to a losing candidate is to abandon one’s career in the current political climate. As in HBO’s Game of Thrones, where you win or you die, a Filipino lawmaker abides by the winner or is balled up in packaging tape on the side of the street.
Former President Joseph Estrada allegedly stole more than $80 million from the country on his way out of office. He was sentenced to life in prison, only to be pardoned by his successor, Gloria Arroyo, who was also linked to various corruption scandals. Ultimately, she was acquitted of these charges, promised a pardon by Duterte, and re-elected to Congress all while being placed under house arrest. Though barred from leaving the country due to outstanding charges, Arroyo is now Deputy Speaker of Congress. Similarly, Congressman Romeo Jalosjos of Manila, was re-elected twice behind bars while serving two life sentences for raping an 11-year-old girl.
This may all very well stem from impunitive roots dug by the Marcoses. The dictator and his family stole billions from the country and fled in 1986. Ferdinand Marcos, much adored by President Duterte, shared a similar predilection toward violence at the height of his power. Though many journalists and political opponents and journalists went missing under his rule, Marcos’s family returned after his death and claimed high offices in the Philippines. Ferdinand Marcos Jr. lost the vice-presidency race this year by less than 300,000 votes regardless of protests and court cases revolving around his father’s martial law regime being still unresolved. “Duterte has ordered next month’s transfer of Marcos’s mummified corpse from its refrigerated mausoleum in the country’s north to Manila — for a burial, with pomp, in the best location in the nation’s Cemetery of Heroes.” (Syjuco). President Duterte’s crimes amidst sweeping reforms against the drug trade exemplify the culture of impunity. As of late, he has claimed a 91% approval rating. In response to more disappearances of troublesome reporters and political opponents (58 tied to the Arroyo administration), Duterte lamented, “The Constitution can no longer help you if you disrespect a person.” (Syjuco).
President Rodrigo Duterte will land on his promises to end the Philippine drug trade by any means necessary. “In less than three months, he has presided over three-quarters as many extrajudicial killings as there were lynchings of black people in America between 1877 and 1950.” (Economist). Human rights criticisms from outside governments only annoy Duterte, as they are seen as obstructing his mandate. People merely suspected by their neighbors of holding or distributing illicit drugs have been gunned down by police and ordinary citizens at a rate of 13 fatalities per day. He has hailed former president Arroyo’s ties to 58 missing journalists and threatened that the Constitution will not defend a reporter’s disrespect.
Unlike other loudmouth leaders, Duterte seems keen on keeping his promises from the campaign trail. He is unfazed by the unprecedented extrajudicial death over which he has presided. “Mr Duterte took the row to a new level this week, calling for American special forces to leave the southern island of Mindanao, where they have been training Filipino troops fighting several long insurgencies.” (Economist). Duterte is volatile enough to minimize the aid of its second largest trading partner in defense of his murderous War on Drugs.
America’s high standing in the Philippines is in serious jeopardy under Rodrigo Duterte. The issue would be minimized if domestic opposition was not so suppressed, but Duterte’s supporters are in the media and Congress. The local police forces support the possibility of saying farewell to American military forces, just as they supported state-sanctioned killing. “On September 13th he told his defence secretary to buy weapons from Russia and China rather than America, hitherto the Philippines’ closest ally, and the source of hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid each year.” (Economist). Despite excellent U.S.-Philippines relations with his immediate predecessor, Benigno Aquino, Duterte shows no reluctance in shunning the U.S. from his sovereign country and forming what he imagines is a Russia-China-Philippines triangle of power.
Russia and China are international powers while the Philippines is an emerging power reliant on aid from the U.S. and other nations. The U.S. backed the Philippines on the international tribunal over its land claims in the South China Sea, but Duterte is even rolling that back to cozy up with China.
China is not simply indifferent to Duterte’s War on Drugs, but it is praising it as needed social security. “He’s admitted that children and innocent people have been killed in the campaign, but he has called them ‘collateral damage’ and said, ‘If it involves human rights, I don’t give a shit.’” (Mollman). China agrees. A spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, Hua Chunying, appreciates the leader’s efforts to improve the wellbeing of his people. Duterte responded by saying, “China never criticizes. They help us quietly.” (Mollman). China rewarded Cambodia with investment deals and development aid when it backed Beijing’s territorial claims in the South China Sea back in 2012. Will they offer the same sweeping assistance to the Philippines if they reverse their stance on the international tribunal held this year? “Duterte suggested this week [mid-October] that an international tribunal’s ruling invalidating China’s sea claims—a major victory for the administration preceding Duterte’s—is just ‘a piece of paper with four corners.’” (Mollman).
Rodrigo Duterte is another notch in the far-right, charismatic ideologies that swept into power this year (following “Brexit” and preceding Donald Trump). Yet, he is the only one volatile and effective enough to issue state-sanctioned murder in a country where his approval rating reached a mind-boggling 91 percent. His dominance is boosted by Chinese support and a wave of anti-American sentiment. Still, it is the Philippines’ history of perpetuating impunitive leadership that makes Duterte an acceptable president for the country. The lack of party unity has created an electorate so divisive that citizens are near hopeless for a true democracy.
Idolized an exiled dictator, sanctioned the killing of drug dealers and abusers without due process, minimized the role of his second largest trading partner and source of military aid and training; Rodrigo Duterte is the elected president of an emerging power in the year 2017.