There is no doubt that the first three years under Duterte has been a terrible experiment in authoritarian populism. It is impossible to know the number of those killed in either of his wars. Official figures, such as are collected, are cooked. In the case of the drug war, justly aka the war on the poor, the numbers are very rubbery. For six months they were triumphalist, a thousand a month. Then after exposure of a police kidnap for ransom claimed to be a police drug operation against a “drug lord”, involving the innocent victim’s murder, the numbers were recalibrated downwards.
The mounting EJK losses are largely “explained” as: legitimate encounters with NPAs who shot first; or justified killings of people working for the communists/NPA; or NPA killings; or as with the drug related killings, under investigation and/or just ignored.
The latest drug war figure from the Philippine National Police is 6600 legal killings. These are usually said to be killings in self-defence, or “nanlaban”: “the suspect sensed that s/he had sold shabu [meths] to a police officer and put the officer in danger” by firing at him. Clear evidence in a number of cases has established this is not what happened. The police murdered a “suspect”. I should note that there is a long history, well before Duterte’s time, of “police rub outs”, one that continues in all manner of alleged “ordinary” criminal cases. This “conditioning”, and the corruption of the legal system, probably help to explain why there has been support for this murderous campaign which is supposed to lessen crime and eliminate illegal drugs as a threat to national security, as Duterte promised from the beginning of his presidential campaign.
Observers estimate that at least another 20-25 thousand recorded homicides are drug related, but remain “under investigation”. Many of these were not even suspects, including young children whom Duterte has said are “collateral damage” in the war. Duterte’s former police chief and now Senator De la Rosa recently commented after a 3 year old was shot in a police raid, “shit happens in police operations”. The victims are invariably from poor communities.
In the general war against the people, there have been many hundreds of Extra Judicial Killings (EJKs). These have been used in a similar way to the 25,000 or so killed in the US counter-insurgency Phoenix Program in Viet Nam. To eliminate those who oppose the regime’s policies and silence those who might consider doing so. And increasingly this has meant those who voice criticism of the government. The targets include environmental activists, human rights defenders, unionists, farmers, indigenous people and others such as lawyers (43 dead) and journalists (about a dozen).
Killings and disappearances are supplemented with trumped up charges and detention, often with torture, as well as harassment, threats and other forms of intimidation. An example: the police, military or government supporters hang signs in public places indicating that lawyers, individually by name, or the National Union of People’s Lawyers = NPA, or Communist. the regime has publicly “red-tagged” almost 650 individuals and individuals. One such human rights lawyer was assassinated not long after.
Who does the killing?
Most of the EJKS are committed by the military. Others by military “auxiliaries”, or by para-militaries formed, supplied, paid and given impunity. One of the latter slaughtered the Director of ALCADEV, a school organised by the indigenous people of eastern Mindanao, called the community together and assassinated their two leaders . Their wives and children were witnesses to this cruelty.
In the drug war, it is ambiguous. Indisputable evidence has established that the police operate as “vigilantes” in a significant proportion. Attorneys, prosecutors and judges handle drug cases. If the police do not like the result, they kill the lawyer they see as responsible.
Unfortunately, at the best of times the Philippine legal system is very slow in most cases, politicized (especially the Department of Justice) and corrupt. Thus the street level police say they cannot go through the long processes of according due process, and basically play Dirty Harry. In doing so they rely on Dutere’s promises to protect them. Few have been prosecuted while many have been “relieved” and quietly sent to other commands to continue their careers. Others get promotions and bonuses.
In my view Duterte uses some tactics we associate with fascist leaders. But he is not a fascist. Not an ideologue with a mass movement. Duterte’s regime attempts to impose his mayoral Davao model of pragmatic authoritarianism based on his own machismo laden charisma. He has a vision of a malleable society which, like his hero Marcos, he can, with his sycophantic coterie and traditional pro-corporate bureaucratic advisers, open up, bend and twist the economy towards “development”.
Duterte had his critics long ago. According to Senator Rodolfo Biazon in 2002, “Justice in Davao is not about following the law, it’s about who’s willing to go further”.
But as today many are not concerned with justice, and the end justifies the means. Ex-Mayor of Manila, Fred Lim said “If we had 20 more mayors like Duterte the peace and order situation would improve.”
Today Duterte maintains widespread support from those who think like Lim. Whether it will last is in the balance as the people weigh the grim price against the lack of benefits for them, and question the Duterte policy of appeasement toward China in the West Philippine Sea.