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Politics

Duterte ignores costs of drug war at his peril

Honeymoon days fade, but muted Western criticism lets him stay the course

Protesters march toward the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila during the Philippines' National Day of Protest on Sept. 21.   © AP

Since he took office on June 30, 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has waged a brutal campaign against illegal drugs without facing any significant resistance. The result was what one watchdog group dubbed a "human rights calamity" as police and vigilantes targeted thousands of suspected users and pushers across the country.

In fact, the Philippines topped the 2017 Global Impunity Index, which measures the pervasiveness of extrajudicial killings and miscarriages of justice in countries around the world. In his second year in office, the tough-talking president has vowed to remain "unrelenting and unremitting" in his war on drugs.

Although he still enjoys a high approval rating of 82%, which is not unusual for Philippine presidents in their first years in office, Duterte is beginning to face growing opposition at home. Tellingly, on Sept. 21, tens of thousands of protestors converged in key public places around the country to call for an end to "tyranny" and extrajudicial killings in Duterte's drug war, and urge his government to uphold human rights.

But Duterte is expected to stick to his guns. Not only does he still enjoy a significant support base, but he is also deftly deploying classic populist rhetoric to portray his critics as saboteurs, who are supposedly intent on destabilizing the nation. Above all, Duterte is enjoying the support, albeit reluctantly, of Western allies, who are more focused on helping the Philippines against the threat of Islamic State in the southern island of Mindanao than condemning his human rights record.

Public backlash

Recent months have witnessed a dramatic uptick in drug-related killings. In early August alone, as many as 91 suspected drug dealers were killed during raids in the greater Manila region.

A visibly pleased Duterte described the killings as nothing short of "beautiful," proudly encouraging the police forces to march on despite a flurry of criticism from the international community. But the gruesome killing in mid-August of a teenager, Kian Loyd delos Santos, allegedly by the police, immediately provoked a public backlash.

Kian was reportedly among 54 youths, aged 18 or younger, who have been killed in Duterte's drug war. But the difference this time was that a CCTV camera captured Kian's murder and his burial prompted an unprecedented protest rally on Aug. 26 calling for justice for his death an end to the killings.

Since then, even Duterte's supporters have begun to speak out, with one senator urging the president to "protect the people first before the police." The Sept. 21 rally, which marked the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1972, drew protesters around the country including in Duterte's hometown of Davao in southern Mindanao.

The Catholic church, civil society groups and political opposition participated in the rallies, with liberal mainstream media providing extensive coverage of the protests. Communist and leftist groups, which have effectively ended their short-lived alliance with Duterte, also mobilized their own massive rallies that saw participants condemning the president as an alleged fascist and "puppet of the West."

The convergence of liberal and communist protesters has raised alarm bells in the administration. Days earlier, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana warned groups from "disrupting the country" and said that the government might declare nationwide martial law "if the [communists] will try to have a massive protest," and "start burning (things) on the streets."

Defiant Duterte

Yet, it is doubtful that Duterte will revise his drug policy any time soon, for at least three reasons. First, Duterte is encouraged by the lack of external pressure to end his brutal campaign, particularly among Western allies. Amid the ongoing counterterrorism operations against Islamic State-affiliated elements in Mindanao, both the U.S. and Australia have expressed strong support for the Philippine government.

Eager to avoid the emergence of an IS Wilayat (province) in Southeast Asia, and particularly in Duterte's home island of Mindanao, Washington and Canberra have progressively toned down their criticism of the anti-drug campaign.

In response, Duterte has proudly claimed that Western officials have consciously shunned raising human rights issues in bilateral discussions, which have largely focused on counterterrorism cooperation.

In early August, Duterte held an unusually cordial meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, where they extensively discussed security issues in Mindanao. Much to Duterte's delight, Tillerson reportedly skipped any discussion of human rights issues and reportedly even expressed sympathy for the anti-drug campaign.

Weeks later, the government published a photo showing Duterte and Nick Warner, head of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, making a fist pump gesture. The two held one-on-one talks on expanding Australia security assistance to Manila, including the deployment of special forces and additional surveillance equipment.

Second, Duterte has been quick to distance himself from erring law enforcers, adamantly denying he has encouraged the killing of innocent individuals. Sensing the depth of public outcry over the killing of Kian, an unusually contrite Duterte immediately struck an apologetic tone. He went so far as to personally meeting the family of the slain teenager to mollify any further backlash.

In a classic exercise of populist vindictiveness, Duterte has also blamed his opponents of "sabotaging" the anti-drug operations to undermine and discredit his presidency. Portraying the killing of minors as part of a conspiracy by criminal networks and the liberal elite, the president has sought to mobilize support among his constituency. Thousands of Duterte's supporters conducted their own rally on Sept. 21, where they expressed their continued support for the president and his drug war.

Third, Duterte has been encouraged by the lack of robust internal checks on his executive power. His allies continue to dominate the legislature, which has the constitutional task of holding the president to account. Despite numerous investigations by the Philippine Senate, not a single police officer so far has been held criminally accountable for suspected extrajudicial killings.

One senior police official, who was accused of overseeing the murder of a provincial mayor suspected of drug trafficking, is even up for promotion. Despite growing skepticism over the direction and conduct of Duterte's war on drugs, the Philippine president is stubbornly pursuing his policy, not only out of sheer force of conviction, but also in the absence of robust internal and external pressure.

Duterte will likely try to avoid the killing of minors to stave off further public backlash. And he can count on public support to continue the war, especially against high profile targets. The ultimate victim of Duterte's unrestrained campaign, however, is the rule of law, which has eluded the Philippines for much of its history.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and columnist. He is the author of "Asia's New Battlefield: U.S., China and the Struggle for the Western Pacific," and the forthcoming book "The Rise of Duterte."

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