Rodrigo Duterte is one of the most outspoken political leaders today, with a brashness that is perhaps unparalleled. Perhaps even louder, however, are cries from human rights organizations and media in the United States regarding his ongoing “drug war.” If you were to base your opinion of the Philippines on today’s headlines, your takeaway might be that Duterte is a monster, and that Filipinos live in a totalitarian state akin to North Korea.
But is that a fair depiction? The current leader has been likened to past dictator Ferdinand Marcos (who ruled from 1965-1986), who incited protests in Lafayette Park when he merely visited the White House. US-Philippine relations have improved since then, but will Duterte — or rather, our perception of him — irreparably damage our relationship?
This question is spurred by the recent actions of the Philippine government, which has begun deflecting foreign criticism of its “war on drugs” by stating that the high death toll is not out of the ordinary considering the scope of drug problem. This month, a Philippine senator claimed that reports to the contrary are founded on “alternative facts.” This has spurred eyerolls from critics and urgent calls for the end of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war from human rights organizations.
What impact has Duterte truly had on the island nation? Despite claims that he has both endorsed and even personally participated in extrajudicial killings, why does he remain such a popular leader to his people?
To understand the answer to these questions, it is necessary to take a look at Duterte’s history as the mayor of Davao City, as well as his presidential rise.
“Mayor Rody” vs. “The Punisher”
Duterte’s political career began in 1977 on the island of Mindanao, as special counsel at the City Prosecution Office in Davao City. After a decade in this role, the future president was elected mayor. He was affectionately known as “Mayor Rody” by the locals. Contrasting this chummy persona was the fact that he was well known for his extremely strict stance on crime. For this, he was later labeled “The Punisher.”
As a result of the conflict between Philippine forces and the Moro National Liberation Front throughout the late 20th century, Mindanao was in a state of lawlessness. It is difficult to overstate the problems that armed conflict and crime inflicted upon the city throughout the 2000s: 45 percent of all homeowners had their homes destroyed, while 41 percent of all households were displaced. Nearly two out of ten people were either attacked with a weapon or witnessed a killing. Citizens were fearful and desired a leader who was willing to do whatever was necessary to restore order.
As a mayor, Duterte supported the actions of vigilantes cracking down on criminal activity. One controversial group of such people was known as the “Davao Death Squad,” and their methods were extreme: They were known to apprehend individuals suspected of crimes ranging from severe to petty, and summarily executing them. Such groups persist to this day.
When officials inspect the aftermath of such actions, the process essentially involves a mere evidence cleanup, and rarely follow the basic principles of a crime scene investigation. The “Davao Death Squad” has been linked to the killing or disappearance of well over 1,000 suspected criminals. While these methods are inhumane, it is easy to understand why Duterte’s tough stance on crime has been well-received by his constituents, given the context.
In fact, his harsh methods of dealing with drug problems were so popular that he was reelected six times. His policies ensured continued growth for the area, and voters realized that he was a strong leader for the economy. He also garnered popularity for advocating for LGBT equality, as well as for supporting women’s human rights. These are major reasons why he was so popular in Davao, and why he continues to have a large base of support as he practices his same policies on a grander scale.
On the National Stage
After assuming office on June 30 last year, Duterte sought to expand upon his past successes by utilizing the same strategies that proved successful in Davao. He has also continued to support vigilantism. On the day of his inauguration, he even urged people to kill drug pushers on sight, for which they would be given a substantial bounty.
Arthur Lascanas, a former policeman in Davao City, admitted to being paid $400 to $2000 per murder. With 12 million Filipinos living on less than $2 per day, these bounties can often mean the difference between starving and feeding their children. Poor wages are encouraging 1 in 10 Filipinos to work overseas. When it comes to working locally and strengthening the domestic economy, vigilantism is a viable way of life.
Duterte’s presidency began with a strong economy, which has been rapidly improving since 2000. In some respects, its performance outstrips the American economy; their universal healthcare plan, for example, is addressing inequity, while we still regularly pay absurd out-of-pocket costs. In the US, these substantially higher prices are exacerbated by claim denials from constant medical billing and coding changes.
As Duterte’s strategies have been applied on a national level, have they proven successful? Nearly one year into his term, his guidance has led the country on a track for continued growth. In fact, the Philippines has the fastest growing economy in Southeast Asia. With a focus on tax reforms and improving domestic growth, the nation’s gross domestic product increased by 6.6 percent over the final quarter of 2016. The industrial sector has seen a growth of 7.6 percent over 2016, with a remarkable 12 percent rise in manufacturing.
While critics may contend that his isolationist rhetoric may damage the Philippines, the economic performance of the country speaks for itself. Analysts predict that the Philippines will see continued growth (approximately 7 percent) throughout 2017.
Regardless, the leader’s unconciliatory disposition has also proved to be a liability, from a global perspective. He has repeatedly insulted and chided major world leaders, leading to a lack of confidence in the Philippine market. Duterte angrily blames the US for impacting the economy, but his focus on domestic growth is proving to be more than viable enough to maintain further expansion.
The Price of the Drug War
The human cost of the Philippine drug war has been substantial. Since July 2016, more than 7,000 people have been killed by the Duterte administration.
Through brash and sometimes flippant statements on the matter, Duterte has amplified criticisms of his methods. Earlier this year, the president stated, “When you kill criminals, that is not a crime against humanity — the criminals have no humanity.” In a similarly flippant statement late last year, he drew ire for stating, “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them.”
Likening oneself to Hitler (with an inaccurate statistic to boot) may not be the best tactic when it comes to quelling critics, but this was likely an intentionally inflammatory statement; these statements demonstrate that his interests lie in restoring order during difficult times and not in satisfying those he perceives as foreign meddlers.
Declaring martial law during a state of emergency is an understandable act. But for how long can these methods be considered necessary? At what point will the perceived drug epidemic be solved?
In August of last year, Duterte estimated that there were 3 million drug addicts in the country. Contradictory statistics from the Dangerous Drugs Board estimated that there were actually 1.3 million in 2012. It is highly unlikely that this figure rose exponentially in the intervening years, which indicates that the current drug war may be based on an emotional response rather than a logical one.
The media and casual readers often characterize Duterte as a “dictator,” but this is simply not the case. He is a democratically-elected leader, and he enjoys the support of much of his constituency. His methods certainly deserve to be critiqued and being alarmed by the human cost of his drug war is a rational response.
However, the rationale behind his actions is also understandable, if not agreeable. If we want to maintain US-Philippine relations, we must try to understand the reasoning behind the drug war, and find a way to diplomatically reduce its cost. Character assassination is not the way forward.