In the past few weeks, many people have asked my opinion on the new Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. At first, I was embarrassed to tell them that I didn’t know much about Duterte. During the Philippine election season, I was more focused on learning more about the trials of the Lumad people in Mindanao who were struggling to keep their land from the encroachment of mining companies. So these past few weeks I’ve been doing all I can to read articles and talk to activists to learn all I can about President Duterte.
Many people have compared Duterte to Donald Trump. Both men have blunt and often vulgar language to express their political points. Duterte is a lot more complex a political figure than Trump though. While Trump has often scapegoated minority groups like Muslims and immigrants, Duterte has been a strong advocate for the rights of minority groups like Muslims and the LGBT community. Trump leans strongly towards the Right side of the political spectrum, while many of Duterte’s economic policies lean strongly towards the Left.
Instead of comparing Duterte to Trump, I think a more apt comparison to an American political leader would be President Lyndon Johnson. Like Duterte, LBJ was a course and often vulgar politician. Johnson often used ruthless means to acquire power. Once he acquired that power, though, Johnson often used that power for noble ends. I have very mixed feelings towards Lyndon Johnson’s presidency. If I was an adult in the 1960s, I would’ve supported Lyndon Johnson on civil rights and his Great Society programs to help the poor. But I would’ve opposed Johnson’s policies on the Vietnam War.
Based on what I’ve learned so far, I have similar mixed feelings towards President Duterte. I support Duterte’s efforts on agrarian reform, his efforts to reign in the power of the mining companies who have been complicit in many of the human rights abuses against indigenous people, his efforts to grant more autonomy to Mindanao, and his push for peace talks with the communist and Muslim insurgents in the Mindanao area.
I am deeply opposed, however, to Duterte’s encouragement of the police and of ordinary citizens killing people who are suspected of crime or drug dealing. Killing people without giving them a chance to defend themselves in an impartial court of law means that many innocent people will be killed as well as the guilty. I worry that there is nothing to keep the police or vigilantes accountable so that they do not abuse this right to kill. Right now the Senate of the Philippines convened a Committee on Justice and Human Rights to investigate the charges of extrajudicial killings.
Camila Domonoske wrote in an NPR article about the recent spate of killings in the Philippines:
Rodrigo Duterte, the new president of the Philippines, campaigned as a tough-on-crime candidate, threatening death for drug dealers.
And in the seven weeks since he took office, nearly 1,800 alleged criminals have died — at the hands of police or under mysterious circumstances. The wave of extrajudicial killings has prompted outcry from human rights watchdogs, the Catholic Church and the United Nations.
Now the Philippine Senate is investigating the deaths. Observers believed there had been hundreds. Then, in a committee meeting Monday, the national police chief said that since Duterte was elected, police operations have killed 712 alleged drug traffickers and users. An additional 1,067 killings occurred under unclear circumstances, he said; observers believe some were carried out by vigilantes.
With all of these killings, I’ve been baffled that Duterte’s popularity in the Philippines has risen to over 91%. I did some researching this week, and part of Duterte’s popularity stems from the exhaustion of Filipinos who are tired of the crime and corruption in the Philippines.
Felipe Villamor and Richard C. Paddock wrote a good article for the New York Times about this. They wrote:
Under Mr. Duterte, who campaigned on a pledge to rid the country of drug dealers, 712 suspects have been killed in police operations, National Police Chief Ronald dela Rosa said. Vigilante killings have totaled 1,067 during the same period, he said, although it was unclear how many were directly related to the illegal drug trade…
…Human rights advocates have been horrified by the killings, but Mr. Duterte’s popularity has soared among a large segment of Filipinos weary of crime and enthusiastic about his pledge to rid the country of drug dealers…
…Richard Javad Heydarian, who teaches political science at De La Salle University in Manila, said many members of the public were giving Mr. Duterte wide leeway to deliver on his promise to suppress the drug scourge within three to six months. Mr. Duterte’s “shock and awe” approach reflects not only his commitment to eradicating drugs, Mr. Heydarian said, but also extremely high public expectations.
“The more fundamental question at this point is, why the seemingly unprecedented support for the new president despite global criticism of his uncompromising approach?” he said. “I think it largely has to do with dissipated public trust in existing judicial institutions, a sense that the normal democratic processes are not coping with the magnitude of the crisis.”
David Iaconangelo made a similar point in an article in the Christian Science Monitor. He wrote:
Duterte’s rise to power was also based upon the perception that he would end a different kind of impunity: that of a tiny, insular political class beholden less to their parties and constituents than to their own interests.
More than two-thirds of Filipino legislators belong to political dynasties, noted Richard Javad Heydarian, political science professor at Manila’s De La Salle University, in an April analysis for CNN. Those same dynasties have been the beneficiaries of an overwhelming portion of recent economic growth…
…human rights and faith groups and the families of many of those killed say that state-sponsored violence, which has prompted 114,833 people to turn themselves in, as either drug addicts or dealers, has mainly taken its toll on poor Filipinos who are seldom given the chance to defend themselves from accusations, The New York Times wrote earlier this month.
Phelim Kine, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, told The New York Times that the vast majority of those killed were “not the wealthy and powerful drug lords who actually have meaningful control over supply of drugs on the streets in the Philippines.”
A good analysis of Rodrigo Duterte is to be found in the article The Method to Dutere’s Madness by the website Stratfor. As the first Philippine President from Mindanao, Duterte comes to Manila in a weak political situation. The article stated:
…as the first president from the south, he’s also poorly positioned to unite Manila behind his plans. His arrival is inherently disruptive to the entrenched power structures in Manila, and he did not inherit the sort of party machinery he needs to compel the bureaucracy, judiciary and security forces to carry out his priorities…
…Duterte’s early moves are, in part, an attempt to consolidate power in Manila. He is capitalizing on his present popularity while laying the foundation he thinks is key to the country’s long-term modernization. For example, his tactic of calling out allegedly corrupt officials and business leaders is a way to help him build public support and keep potential rivals at bay, in a manner similar to Xi Jinping’s anti-graft campaign in China.
Duterte’s confrontational style, though, has many risks. The Stratfor article states:
The primary risk is that Duterte will open up power struggles on too many fronts and find himself at odds with too many powerful enemies, leading to political instability such as that which plagued the Philippines from the late 1980s through the early 2000s. His ambitious initiatives will run into resistance from bureaucracy and the courts, as well as elements in the four pillars of political power in the Philippines: the church, the military, the business community and organized labor.
Already, for example, the military is suspicious about Duterte’s peace initiatives and his naming of communists to his Cabinet, along with his intention to reorient and scale back the military modernization drive launched under his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III. With Duterte turning his focus to issues such as tax evasion and stricter enforcement of environmental and labor regulations, he is liable to lose support among some industry leaders…
Meanwhile, the extrajudicial killings of drug suspects has provoked criticism from the church and civil society groups, as well as the United Nations and the United States. The fight Duterte has initiated against illicit drugs is indeed one he will struggle to keep under control, as it is likely to stir power struggles and unleash waves of score-settling violence among rival factions. It may also inadvertently strengthen the empires of some corrupt police, soldiers and government officials who are involved in the drug trade. All told, the violence is likely to get worse before it gets better, and the more seemingly innocent bodies pile up, the more the church and public may turn against him.
Here are two youtube videos of the Committee on Justice and Human Rights investigating the rise in extrajudicial killings and rampant executions of criminal suspects