“Duterte Harry” goes on the attack

September 1, 2016

Alessandro Tinonga reports on a murderous crackdown on drug sellers and users in the Philippines that has left thousands dead at the hands of police and vigilantes.

NEARLY 2,000 people have been murdered in the Philippines under newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte's "war on drugs."

Duterte, who took office in June, campaigned on a pledge to wipe out crime and the drug trade within his first six months in office. Immediately after his inauguration, he wasted no time urging police to crackdown on drug sellers and users, even going as far as to encourage people to take the law into their own hands. "We will not stop until the last drug lord...and the last pusher have surrendered or are put either behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish," he said.

As a result, an average of 36 people have been killed per day in the first eight weeks of his presidency.

On August 23, Ronald De La Rosa, the director general of the Philippine National Police, told a Philippines Senate hearing that there was no explicit policy to kill those involved with drugs, but said--almost boasting--that some 800 people had been killed at the hands of police during anti-drug operations (the rest having occurred under unknown circumstances).

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte

Human Rights Watch, however, has reported that most of the killings are being carried out by vigilantes with tacit, and sometimes direct, approval by the police.

Even when certain sections of the media have tried put a human face on the victims of the crackdown, it has done little to stem the violence. Last month, a 29-year-old rickshaw driver from Manila, Michael Siaron, was killed by gunmen who left a cardboard sign next to his body labeling him a "pusher." The Philippine Daily Inquirer ran a front-page photograph of Siaron's wife cradling his body in the street under the headline "Thou Shalt Not Kill." Despite this, Duterte's approval ratings stayed above 90 percent.

Fearing for their lives, over 700,000 people have surrendered to local authorities vowing to never deal or use drugs ever again. Jails across the nation are now overcrowded, with some reporting being at over 158 percent capacity.

For many, this "war on drugs" has become a living nightmare, preying on the poor.

Roots of the Offensive

In the months before the election, Duterte would regularly make bombastic statements about how drug pushers and dealers should be wiped out. Most Filipinos understood that this was a genuine campaign promise and not an empty threat.

Duterte, who is the son of a powerful local politician, had been a prosecutor. Through his father's influence he became the mayor of Davao City in a reign that spanned a total of 22 years.

During his reign, Duterte ran the third-largest city in the Philippines with an iron fist. Though today the city is considered to the "safest in Southeast Asia" it's because a death squad nicknamed the "Davao Death Squad" murdered hundreds of people and became the recognized authority of the streets.

The squad would routinely hunt down drug dealers, petty criminals and street children. One report by the Coalition Against Summary Execution (CASE) documented 814 death-squad killings in Davao City between 1998 and early 2009, the majority of the victims being the urban poor.

Though Duterte has denied their existence and any involvement with the group, he made it clear that he supports vigilantes killing suspected criminals. He even boasted about how he should have been the first one to rape an Australian minister who was assaulted and killed in Davao City in 1989.

Despite these horrors, Duterte is seen as an effective leader that can "get things done," in a country where the government and mainstream politics feel disconnected from the everyday struggles of working-class Filipinos.

While former President Benigno Aquino was credited by both the Filipino elite and international business leaders for making the Philippine's economy more competitive, with a growth rate of 7 percent for the last few years, millions of Filipinos live in utter poverty, with millions more facing a stagnant standard of living.

The Philippines has a history of two political revolutions since the 1980s that have kicked the corrupt elite out of power. "People Power I" was a massive uprising culminating in 1986 in which millions came out into the streets, forcing the U.S.-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos out of power and pushing the army back. In 2000, "People Power II" overthrew President Joseph "Erap" Estrada after evidence presented at his Senate impeachment trial showed his control of a vast criminal empire.

Despite this, the Philippines state continues to be run by a small oligarchy of wealthy families who flagrantly use public offices to advance their wealth with no loyalty to their constituents. As professor Richard Heydarian pointed out on CNN, more than two-thirds of Filipino legislators belong to political dynasties that have overwhelmingly received the benefits of the recent economic growth.

Duterte has painted himself as being an outsider to this oligarchy, though he is firmly entrenched within a section of the Filipino elite. Along with pursuing criminals, he has also vowed to go after oligarchs and crack down on the corruption that dominates the government.

This right-wing populism is the key to Duterte' electoral success and current popularity. As sociologist and political activist Walden Bello commented, it was Duterte's "railing against corruption and poverty, his obvious disdain for the rich--the coños as he called them--and above all, his coming across as 'one of you guys' that acted as a magnet to workers, urban poor, peasants, and the lower middle class."

At the moment, the crackdown has been effective in convincing the country that Duterte is a capable strong man that is willing to take action. He has even used the current climate to attack his opponents within the Philippine elite. In August, Duterte publicly named more than 150 public officials--including congressmen and judges--who he claimed had aided or otherwise protected those involved in the drug trade. He has also targeted wealthy businessmen, like online gaming and mining magnate Roberto Ongpin, who Duterte called out publicly as an example of what he says are corrupt oligarchs "embedded in government," that he wants to "destroy." He has shut down several of Ongpin's operations.

The Duterte administration is also attempting to provide some social spending to show that it will give more concessions to the working class. Recently, the government announced that it was planning to spend $18.5 billion for infrastructure projects in 2017, which would be a 13 percent increase.

Contradiction Between Rhetoric and Reality

However, Duterte's populist rhetoric is only a cover for his commitment to continue the neoliberal project that the Filipino ruling-class has been enacting for three decades. In addition to lowering corporate taxes and creating more Special Economic Zones, which essentially means super-exploitative production with virtually no regulation, Duterte expressed his desire to change the constitution to free restrictions on foreign corporations owning firms in the Philippines.

It is no wonder why Duterte's firmest base of support has been amongst the more wealthy sections of Philippine society. Not to mention international capital, where he has received praise from Bloomberg News, JPMorgan and President Barack Obama.

These policies will continue to exasperate the immiseration of the Philippine working-class. Duterte's agenda will do nothing to elevate the 26.4 percent of the country that lives on $230 a year. Everyday, nearly 6,000 Filipinos leave the country seeking out employment abroad because the job opportunities that would allow for a stable life are practically non-existent.

The deep social anxiety that many Filipinos face under the crushing weight of neoliberal capital has created a climate where Duterte's rhetoric about drug addicts and sellers has been effective in misplacing blame. Those involved in the drug trade have now become the official scapegoats for the larger problems that plague the Philippines.

The new climate of fear and violence has undoubtedly increased the obstacles that the left faces to create an alternative to the empty cronyism that was represented by the Aquino presidency and the populist demagoguery imposed by President Duterte. Only working-class struggle has a chance of stopping the neoliberal plunder of the Philippines and an independent socialist alternative will be necessary to build the politics of solidarity.

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