The new president promised during his election campaign to kill criminals and drug dealers. Now he is putting his rhetoric into practice, reports Richard Cockett

Usually, politicians are derided for not living up to their high-flying campaign rhetoric. The Philippines, however, has the opposite problem – a president, Rodrigo Duterte, who promised a lot of unlikely things on the campaign trail, yet who seems bent on living upto it.This might be good, temporarily, for his poll ratings, but itcertainly isn’t for the future of this South-EastAsian country of just over 100million people.

The former mayor of the city of Davao,on the southern Filipinoisland of Mindanao,was elected president in May, succeeding Benigno Aquino. Projecting himself as a tough-talking, no-nonsense strongman, Duterte focused his campaign almost exclusively on eradicating crime, drugs and corruption – within six months, by any means, fair or foul. Now he is energetically getting on with it, offending nearly everyone in the process, including his country’s closest ally, America. Yet on this, as in much else, he doesn’t seem to care, and many Filipinos love him for it.

Crime, drugs and corruption: Duterte chose his subjects well. In recent years the Philippines has been one of the region’s fastest-growing economies, expanding at an average annual rate of 6.3 per cent between 2010 and 2015, with income per head growing from $2,372 in 2011 to $2,873 in 2014. The country has captured a big share of global businesses such as back-office processing – call centres, data servicing and the like. Despite this success, however, many Filipinos remain desperately poor, and disgusted by the corruption and crime that they see around them.


In particular, people have clearly had enough of the magic circle of political dynasties that seem to have monopolised power in the country for many decades. Benigno Aquino, for instance, is the son of former president Corazon Aquino, who rode the people’s power revolution to the presidency in 1986 after toppling strongman Ferdinand Marcos. And just as there are plenty of Marcos relatives still in politics, so three of the four candidates whom Duterte defeated for the presidency were connected to the Aquino clan.

Duterte, therefore, ran as the quintessential outsider against the cosy political establishment, and by winning (handsomely, as it turned out)believes that he now has a mandate to turn politics on its head in the name of the people. Indeed, he seems bent on overturning everything from the constitution to the rule of law, from the Philippines’ traditional alliances to the way that politics itself is conducted.

As an outsider and an insurgent, Duterte’s campaign rhetoric made Donald Trump seem like a paragon of reasonableness and politeness. Declaring war on crime and drug-pushers, he promised to send the army and police in hard, to hang offenders, and to kill 100,000 criminals and dump their bodies in the sea. Many hoped that much of this was just bluster, but only a few months into his government, it is evident that he was deadly serious.


According to the police themselves, they have already killed 550 drug suspects since Duterte’s election. According to top broadcaster ABS-CBN, this figure may be as high, in fact, as 1,000. Most worryingly, the broadcaster reckons that 400 of these have been shot dead by murky vigilante groups, or just individuals who feel that they now have a licence to kill. The president,for his part, boasts openly that he has issued shoot-to-kill orders to the police.‘Shoot first, ask questions later’ is the message from the top; the ‘suspects’ never face trial.

However popular this might be with many trigger-happy Filipinos, in a country awash with guns, it clearly flouts due process and several of the legal and human-rights conventions that the Philippines has signed, leading to a clash with the United Nations. Two UN human rights experts have declared that the president’s orders to the police and public to kill suspected drug traffickers amount to ‘incitement to violence and killing, a crime under international law’. The United States gives large amounts of aid to the Philippines, including$32millionto help in law enforcement. In response to Duterte’s war on drugs, America has already warned that such aid is conditional on the promotion of ‘professionalism, due process and the rule of law’.

Yet, like Trump, such criticism just provokes more invective from the Philippines president.He has refused to apologise for calling the American ambassador a ‘son of a whore’, and his government has condemned the UN’s verdict on the war on drugs as ‘baseless and reckless’. As Duterte’s chief legal counsel, Salvador Panelo, put it,‘When you are in New York or somewhere else, 10,000 kilometres or miles away from the Philippines, and then you make such judgments, that’s recklessness’.Duterte himself has described the UN statement as ‘very stupid’.

DYNASTIC RULE: Mother and son Corazon (l) and Benigno Aquino both served as presidents of the Philippines
DYNASTIC RULE: Mother and son Corazon (l) and Benigno Aquino both served as presidents of the Philippines

At home, too,Duterte is increasingly contemptuous of his critics. He has ignored the concerns expressed by the powerful Catholic Church. He has publicly accused judges and government officials of being involved in the drugs trade, and has threatened to introduce martial law if the country’s top judges try to interfere with the anti-drug war.

Duterte recently hit out at Leila de Lima, a well-known senior senator who also happens to be conducting an inquiry into the last few months’ worth of extrajudicial killings. At a public ceremony to mark the 115th anniversary of the police force, with former presidents and the Chinese ambassador in attendance, hecalled her an ‘immoral woman’ and alleged that she used her driver to collect drug payoffs on her behalf.

For now, at least, it looks highly unlikely thatDuterte will be diverted from his course, however much criticism he gets from the churches, the UN or Washington. He remains popular; being seen to be standing up to the UN and in particular America, the former colonial power, also helps. Nonetheless, however satisfying it may be for Filipinos to see so many suspected criminals taken off the streets,

Duterte’s bloody campaign could come at a very high cost in the longer term.

For a start, the steady erosion of the ruleoflaw will put investors off. The Philippines has been considered more stable in this respect than other countries in the region, like Indonesia, Cambodia and Myanmar. ButDuterte’s Wild West version of law enforcement will make big global brands think twice about making significant commitments to a country where the executive actually seems to relish breaching the country’s own laws.

Secondly, it is unwise to antagonisethe USto such a degree, especially at a moment when the Philippines is locked in a bitter territorial dispute with China over ownership of various parts of the South China Sea. This is a row that has steadily been escalating over the last few years, in proportion to the growth of China’s economy and global ambitions. America virtually guarantees the security of the Philippines’ security in the South China Sea, as well as providing muchSpecial Forces training for the Filipino army to tackle the various communist and extreme Islamist insurgencies that have plagued the country over the last decades, especially in Mindanao.

The US describes its posture on the Philippines in the South China Sea as one of ‘strategic ambiguity’, meaning that it is likely, but not absolutely bound, to come to protect the country in case of a flare-up.

Goading Uncle Sam might be good theatre at home, butit could provoke America into making its commitment more ambiguous than it already is.

Lastly, it is also highly unlikely thatDuterte’s war on drugs will achieve much anyway. The lesson from many such dirty wars in Latin America and Asia, involving similar extrajudicial killings, is that violence just begets more violence,without doing anything to address the real causes of drug-related criminality.All the evidence suggests that patience, subtlety and a multi-faceted approach is needed, but that is notDuterte’s style.

Ironically, drugs are not even such a big problem in the Philippines as they are in Colombia, Guatemala or Mexico. In those countries, the drugdealers really do have a stranglehold on progress, unlike in the Philippines. Duterte is risking everything that his country has gained so painfully over the last decade in terms of social, economic and institutional advance in a war that he does not absolutely have to fight.


Dr Richard Cockett was South-East Asia correspondent for The Economist from 2010 to 2014, based in Singapore. He is the author of several books on history and foreign affairs, including Blood, Dreams and Gold; Thechanging face of Burma. He is now a London-based staff writer for The Economist 

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