How has Rodrigo Duterte fared as president of the Philippines 100 days after taking office?
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is hitting headlines for all the wrong reasons. He has threatened to pull the Philippines out of the United Nations (UN); he has ridiculed diplomats; he is unapologetic for making rape jokes; and the most serious case against him is his alleged involvement in the spate of drug-related extrajudicial killings across the country.
Yet this seemingly madman on the loose is also the same statesman who has brokered a landmark peace initiative with communist rebels barely two months after assuming the presidency. In fact, Duterte has already achieved what his predecessors in the past 30 years have failed or refused to do: Draft an indefinite ceasefire agreement with the group behind Asia’s longest-running insurgency.
So, how do we make sense of Duterte’s contradictory priorities? Is he a ruthless killer of petty drug lords who is intent on hiding his misdeeds by presenting himself as a peacemaker? Or is he a sincere reformer whose commitment to upholding peace and prosperity for the benefit of all is overshadowed by the vicious “war on drugs”?
“Dirty Harry” from Davao
Duterte was mayor of Davao City for three decades before becoming a prominent national figure in 2015 when he ran for president. He claims to have made Davao a safer city for both residents and investors by fighting crime and corruption. His tough methods against criminal suspects earned him both praise and criticism. He was called “Dirty Harry” and “The Punisher” by the media, while some human rights advocates tagged him as the real brains behind the notorious vigilante group known as Davao Death Squad.
Due to his anti-crime advocacy, various groups in the capital Manila urged him to run for president. The clamor snowballed into a popular grassroots movement, which led to his electoral victory in May 2016.
Duterte’s win was phenomenal. The political and cultural significance of his rise to power is quite similar to the victory of US President Barack Obama in 2008.
The new leader of the Philippines defeated the administration candidate and other politicians with bigger political machineries and resources. Duterte became the first president from Mindanao, an impoverished island that symbolizes the oppression of Muslims and other minorities by the Manila-based elite.
During the campaign, Duterte condemned the oligarchs for perpetuating poverty, and he mocked the ineffective and corrupt leadership of traditional politicians.
His populist messaging worked because he was seen as an underdog candidate, an outsider challenging the status quo, a man of the masses, and a simple mayor from a city in the remote region of Mindanao. Other candidates also promised change, but Duterte’s nonconformist brand of leadership proved to be more popular and credible.
His principal campaign tactic was to focus on his crusade against organized crime—in particular, his plan to wipe out drug syndicates. Duterte vowed to accomplish this in three to six months. He warned that it would be a brutal war against the drug protectors, financiers and their well-entrenched operators on the ground.
There were those who thought Duterte was simply making a sensational remark to attract more votes. It may be true, but as things stand today, it seems the president is hell-bent on fulfilling his bloody promise.
The killings started a few days after the May election. Suspected drug peddlers were found dead almost daily in the streets—their bodies covered with piece of cardboard containing a message that implored the public to reject illegal drugs. Some believe the killings were the handiwork of dirty cops who wanted to silence potential witnesses who might expose their links to drug cartels. Others think the police were sending a message of support to the incoming president’s plan to launch an all-out war on illegal drugs.
After Duterte became president on June 30, the killings intensified. Some of the killings were attributed to the police and vigilante groups. In other cases, the police reasoned that criminal gangs could be involved due to their attempts to liquidate rivals. But the majority of killings involved suspected drug mules and pushers who were killed after violently resisting arrest or while under police custody.
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Duterte blamed drug lords for the rampant killings. He praised the police for the vigorous campaign to eliminate the scourge of illegal drugs in communities. He released a list of politicians, judges and police generals who have suspected ties to drug lords.
Only two months after the inauguration of the new government, almost 2,000 suspected drug operators had been were killed by the police. The number of dead bodies continues to rise every day. Disturbingly, the majority of dead drug pushers were from urban poor barangays (villages).
The human rights community was quick to denounce the extrajudicial killings, which have mainly victimized the poor and powerless. Lawyers pressed for the respect of due process. Some senators voiced alarm over the sudden rise of drug-related deaths. Activists reminded Duterte about the futility of the militarist approach in solving the drug menace if the people’s socioeconomic needs are not addressed.
But President Duterte and the police are relentless as they refuse to acknowledge the traumatic and terroristic impact of their violent anti-drug campaign in poor communities.
Duterte: The Trump of the Philippines?
Aside from his uncompromising stance, Duterte has hit back at critics whom he maliciously accused of being supporters of drug lords and criminals. He has insulted opposition lawmakers and mocked the work of human rights groups, and he has threatened to declare martial law if the Supreme Court challenges his anti-drug campaign.
When UN agencies issued a statement of concern about the extrajudicial killings, Duterte retorted that the United Nations is “inutile” in solving conflicts across the world. He cursed at diplomats, telling them to stop interfering in Philippine affairs.
Duterte has been compared to US presidential candidate Donald Trump because of his politically incorrect and provocative remarks that undermine the international rule of law.
The comparison, which was detailed in an article at Fair Observer, is not apt and accurate. Duterte has been wrongly depicted as another crazy upstart Third World dictator who resembles the rise of Trump and Trump-like leaders in politics. The global media’s fascination over Duterte’s perceived similarities to Trump is a disservice to those who genuinely seek to persuade the Filipino leader to abandon his ill-conceived “war on drugs.”
Indeed, both Duterte and Trump use foul language to intimidate the public and their enemies, and both are guilty of offending women and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. But their personal and political backgrounds are totally different.
Duterte has served his country as a lawyer and civil servant for more than three decades. He is not a billionaire; he is not part of the mainstream elite; he has good relations with the Muslim community; and he claims to be a leftist and a socialist who intends to smash the rule of oligarchs.
Trump is merely a candidate who spreads fear by making nasty comments, while Duterte is already at the helm of the government. Trump is a recent spectacle, while Duterte has been displaying his uncouth manners as a well-seasoned politician—he could a better leader than Trump because of his consistently good record as a local chief executive.
Legacy of Peace
Duterte’s pledge to promote peace in the land, for example, has often been overlooked. While he continues to be pilloried in the press for the violent unfolding of his “war on drugs,” his government negotiators have quietly but successfully initiated a ceasefire agreement with the communist-led National Democratic Front (NDF)—so much so that Muslim separatists have been convinced to go back to the negotiating table.
Instead of launching a total war against rebels, he has placed more emphasis on peace negotiations. He released a number of political prisoners, which led to the resumption of stalled peace talks between the government and the NDF.
On August 26, the two sides agreed to “implement a unilateral ceasefire for an indefinite period.” Both parties say they are now drafting a comprehensive peace agreement, which they hope to sign and implement in the next 12 months. If the peace treaty is signed, it would be similar to the historic agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels.
The announcement of an indefinite ceasefire today is already a welcome development. If implemented properly, the ceasefire can provide immediate relief to militarized communities.
The Maoist-inspired New People’s Army, which has been fighting the Philippine government since 1969, operates in more than 70 provinces. A ceasefire in hostilities between the New People’s Army and government troops is a goodwill measure, which can instantly benefit residents in conflict areas. This is also a good opportunity to peacefully address the roots of the armed conflict such as landlessness, development aggression and systemic corruption.
That Duterte succeeded in negotiating a ceasefire is proof not only of his decisive leadership, but also his commitment to improve the lives of Filipinos. Unlike his predecessors who simply wanted to crush the rebels with military might, President Duterte understood that the insurgency can never be defeated as long as extreme poverty continues to stalk the land. That is why he opted to talk peace with the rebels, hoping that it would lead to the resolution of the armed conflict.
Duterte’s One True “War”
The peace talks are also a proper venue to discuss the necessary social and economic reforms that can uplift the lives of the poor.
Raising the quality of living in the Philippines, especially in rural regions, is the best alternative to the current framework of the government’s “war on drugs.” The best incentive for the poor to reject the quick money schemes offered by the illicit drug trade is to provide them with stable jobs, livelihood and adequate social services.
Duterte risks the loss of popular support to his government if the anti-drug campaign is not overhauled. His allies in the peace movement are, in fact, upset over the unabated extrajudicial killings. Communists have denounced the president’s war on drugs as anti-poor and anti-people. Activists are wary because the killings could be used as a precedent to stifle dissent in the future.
President Duterte’s laudable peace efforts will be meaningless if impunity is not ended and human rights abuses continue to worsen. He can fight drugs and lay the groundwork for peace at the same time without curtailing rights. If he can reason with rebels, he should also be more aggressive in mobilizing the public to his campaign against drug consumption and pushing.
The war against poverty is the true war that Duterte needs to prioritize in order to successfully combat illegal drugs in the Philippines. This is the best path to achieve a just and lasting peace.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Photo Credit: Presidential Communications Operations Office