Duterte’s war on drugs is also a war on class.
Recently elected Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has “stuck to his guns” when it comes to his chief campaign promise.
He has carried out his pledge to crack down quickly and violently on drug dealers, addicts and other suspected criminals. Duterte boasts of the campaign’s “success” while he warns critics he does “not care about human rights,” urging that his “bloody war” against drugs be redoubled.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s “Kill List” estimates nearly 600 people have been executed in the anti-drug campaign throughout the Philippines, but which has concentrated on Metro Manila and other major cities, between Duterte’s election in early May and the beginning of August.
Recently, killings have increased, averaging about 10 a day. In addition, police claim hundreds of thousands of criminals targeted by the campaign have surrendered to police with many held in gravely overcrowded prisons.
Although the Inquirer does not break down the list of those killed by social class, details about many cases suggest the overwhelming majority are from poor neighbourhoods and of modest means. In a recent report about the widow of a victim of the anti-drug drive, Al Jazeera’s Jamela Alindogan summed up the view of many critics saying “the war on drugs is a war against the poor.”
In the US, the Washington Post’s data set “deadly force” shows African Americans are two-and-a-half times more likely to be killed by police, a finding that, along with several high profile killings of unarmed African Americans, helped spark the “black lives matter movement.”
In the Philippines, Duterte has been forced to deny that he has been targeting the poor by naming elites linked to the drug trade in the police, politics and the judiciary whom he promises to target as well.
He has also publicly complained about a picture that has gone viral that shows Jennilyn Olayres cradling her murdered partner, a peddycab driver Michael Siaron, Pietà-like on the street where he was shot with a cardboard sign next to him reading “I’m a pusher”.
There have been several reports of “innocents” killed accidentally after being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And of course, all those murdered who use drugs, sell drugs, or have simply been assumed to have done both have been denied any kind of due process.
Yet among such carnage there is no sign a “poor Filipino lives matter” movement is forming. On the contrary, there has been only limited protest in the face of police terror. Aside from the Philippine vice president, lawyer and social activist Leni Robredo, few leading politicians have spoken out against the killings (not surprising given Duterte’s super-majority in Congress due to turncoatism after the election). Foreign human rights groups have been outspoken in their criticism as have some Philippine groups such as the National Union of People’s Lawyers.
The chair of the Philippine Human Rights Commission Chito Gascon has launched an investigation into the killings leading Duterte to label him an “idiot.” Former Commission on Human Rights Chair Etta Rosales also criticised Duterte saying that despite being a lawyer he is making a mockery of the criminal justice system. Senate justice and human rights committee chair Leila de Lima has denounced the anti-crime drive as a witch hunt, drawing the ominous warning from Duterte: “don’t fight me, you’ll lose.”
But there have been no major demonstrations against the campaign by a usually highly mobilised and critical Philippine civil society.
The lack of opposition to Duterte has been widely attributed to his popularity.
Walden Bello, former Congressman and noted activist-intellectual, points out that Duterte has not “feared to transgress liberal discourse. Not only does this not trouble a significant part of the population, they’ve even clapped for it!” But many of Duterte’s core supporters are from the middle class, not the poor. An election exit poll shows his share of the votes of the poor and less educated was significantly lower than from better off and college educated voters.
“Dutertismo,” as the Philippine sociologist Randy David has termed it, has been driven by middle class worries about rising crime as well as crumbling infrastructure, and continued corruption.
Duterte’s aggressive campaign has played to the deep resentments of those marginally better off after a couple of decades of solid growth and despite the “straight path” anti-corruption platform of the outgoing administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino. The “politics of anger” leaves little room for treating drugs as a health problem, and using the rule of law to deal with it, thereby avoiding the criminalisation of the poor.
Another factor is the limited criticism of Duterte coming from the usually vocal communist left.
A half century long Maoist-style insurgency left tens of thousands of deaths in its wake, including many civilians associated with the left killed by the military. Human rights groups loudly protested against the hundreds of “legal leftists” reportedly killed by the military during the 2001-2010 administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
By contrast Duterte has reached out to the Communist Party of the Philippines, giving their allies several social-welfare related cabinet positions and thus far sticking to his promise of negotiating a peace deal. Hoping for a chance to re-enter mainstream politics, much of the left has been silent about Duterte’s anti-drug killings.
The US has put little pressure thus far on Duterte to ease this bloody crackdown. When US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Duterte in late July, pledging $32 million to support Philippine law enforcement, no mention was made of the extrajudicial killings linked to the anti-drug drive.
In the past few decades, there have been a succession of violent anti-drug campaigns throughout Southeast Asia.
In the Petrus killings of 1983-85 in Indonesia thousands of supposed criminals were executed by the Suharto regime in a crackdown meant to bolster his authoritarian rule. Thaksin Shinawatra declared “victory” after three months of his “war on drugs” campaign in 2003 that killed two to 3,000 people (about half of whom were later found to be unconnected to drugs), and which also targeted the less well-off and catered to panic among elites and the middle class about drug addiction.
That there has been so little protest against Duterte’s “war on drugs” is a sad indicator of the expendability of life at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the name of fighting crime.
Mark R Thompson is head of the Department of Asian and International Studies and director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre, both of the City University of Hong Kong.