“More killings to come.”
Almost nine months since Rodrigo Duterte took office, the streets of Manila have become accustomed to the sight of body bags and pools of blood once Duterte’s Drug War began, leaving behind dead bodies scattered in its wake, many of which remain unidentified. These bodies have amounted to over 7,080 deaths from July 1, 2016 to March 26, 2017, as per Philippine National Police. This has resulted in an average of 36 people killed per day through legitimate police operations and vigilante killings in what has become an increasingly criticized drug war that’s taken center stage in local and international human rights scenes.
Cost of war
In the early days of Duterte’s administration, Filipinos would immediately go into a frenzy over the breaking news and trending stories on extrajudicial killings. Such a situation rarely exists now. As time has gone by, these stories have become part of the routine as many might say we Filipinos have been conditioned to be numb to Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
In fact, the international human rights watchdog organization Front Line Defenders stated in its Annual Report on Human Rights Defenders at Risk in 2016 that Duterte’s campaign has normalized the killings by creating “an environment where murder is being promoted as an acceptable method of dealing with certain problems.”
As threatening as it is now, writer Tony Katigbak translated the situation in words, “If the president’s mandate of shoot to kill is followed what we would end up with are even more vigilantes walking the streets with a convoluted sense of ‘wild wild west’ justice. This is not the way to make things safe again.”
Reportedly more than one million drug users and pushers have surrendered from July 1, 2016 to January 31, 2017 according to Malacañang. Meanwhile, the Department of Interior and Local Government revealed that the police have arrested 42,978 drug pushers and users, and killed 2,166 drug personalities and more than 3,000 suspects in police operations.
Despite these instances, the administration asserts that “success” may be very well used to describe Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, according to Communications Secretary Martin Andanar. “People feel safer in the streets and at night,” he said.
However, many Filipino ask: how many more lives do we have to lose to consider this campaign a “victory”?
Culling of the poor
On the brighter side, there have been thousands of drug pushers who have voluntarily surrendered to the police. However, the dark side quickly follows as this news has resulted in the never-ending problem of the prison system in the country—overcrowding—particularly in the Manila Police District (MPD) Station 3 in Sta. Cruz, Manila. Drug users who surrendered were locked up in small, single prison cells together—more or less 20 per cell—when in fact, only 2-4 inmates can accommodate a single cell, prompting the criticism of packing the inmates in cells like sardines.
Some communities like those in Olganpo are trying to deal with the situation by offering rehabilitation programs as well as providing coffins and other funeral services for the many poor who can not afford it in order to assuage the consequences of the drug war. This is more than others have received seeing as certain funeral businesses are on the rocks as they have to shoulder the expenses of burying the bodies of drug pushers if no one comes to claim them. As one funeral parlor owner said, “The only thing that’s increasing are the dead bodies, not the funeral business.”
Dubbed a war on the poor rather than on drugs, the execution of the drug war has been the hardest for the lowest sector of society that makes up majority of the population. “This is not a war on drugs, but a war on the poor. Often on the flimsiest of evidence, people accused of using or selling drugs are being killed for cash in an economy of murder,” said Tirana Hassan, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director.
However, it was not the numerous cases of killing unarmed people and fabricating police reports, according to Amnesty International, that caused the suspension of the drug war on January 30 of this year. Instead, it was the murder of Jee Ick-joo, a South Korean businessman who was the victim of a botched kidnap-for-ransom operation. After his kidnap and killing story surfaced, director-general of the National Police Ronald dela Rosa that the police were suspending the war on drugs and disbanding anti-drug units until they “cleansed” their ranks of “rogue” officers.
However, the drug war continued just a few months later on March 6 despite widespread opposition.
The ML resurgence
Looking back on the past, the country’s situation may very well give off a feeling of déjà vu, especially to Filipinos who survived former Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos’ reign.
Regarded highly by Duterte, Marcos, the Philippines’ well known dictator, ruled the country with a notably similar method—except for two main facts: currently, 1) martial law (ML) has not yet been enacted, and 2) drug criminals remain the main targets, rather than the majority.
Surpassing the number of casualties in Duterte’s drug war, a total of 3,257 people were killed during Marcos’ 10-year dictatorship while an estimated 34,000 were brutally tortured and 70,000 Filipinos were imprisoned for no concrete reason, as written in DLSU Professor Michael Chua’s book titled TORTYUR: Human Rights Violations during the Marcos Regime.
Adding more to the increasing connection between the well-known political figures, what may really be the reason behind Duterte’s go signal to bury Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani was because of Vicente’s, Duterte’s late father, unwavering loyalty to Marcos during the 1969 election. Duterte even admitted, “That is why when he won, my father was one of the Cabinet members of Marcos. So iyan [ang ano namin], I cannot really dissociate [myself].” With his relations to the Marcos’ comes the legitimate fear for his favorable outlook on Martial Law and the possibility that this war on drugs may extend to include other sectors of society soon enough. Despite the fact that Duterte reassured countless times that he will not declare ML, his constant request for emergency powers may actually mean the opposite. Putting an end to all controversies, Duterte announced that he would only declare ML if “except maybe an invasion from another country” at a command conference in Zamboanga City on December 29, 2016.
Cited in GMA News Online on December 22, 2016, aside from a plea for emergency powers, Duterte claimed that he should be granted sole power to declare ML if ever the need arises, especially when the problem of illegal drugs worsens, in his speech for a citizens’ drug watch group in Pampanga. He even mentioned that he wants to amend the 1987 Constitution to provide him access to easier declaration of ML.
Out of the three island groups in the country, Mindanao earned the title of the most violence prone region due to the number of bombings and violent attacks from rebel groups. Recently, a bombing of Marawi State University’s library and planting of IED in Zamboanga’s national high school, grenade attacks in Central Mindanao, and groups who engage in illegal drug businesses provoked Duterte to revive the idea of declaring ML in the region alone.
“Either tulungan niyo ako or I will declare martial law tomorrow for Mindanao because I do not want the trouble in Mindanao to spin out of control,” Duterte reminded Mindanao local officials on March 9, 2017. In case of ML declaration in the region, Duterte said that it may last for 20 days or one year since the government is restricted by law to effectively address the worsening situation in Mindanao.
He furthered that once he declare ML, it would be easy for him to solve other problems revolving in the region, such as extremism, terrorism, and criminality since military searches and arrests will be allowed due to suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.
“Martial law, there is no more court. I do not have to go to the court to apply for a search warrant and secure a warrant of arrest. I vow to solve every problem that f—- the island.”
Heat from abroad
Ahead of officially assuming office, Duterte promised that he would not stop until the last drug pusher was killed, warning that his term will surely be a bloody one. However, as many have predicted, Duterte’s oath to fully eradicate illegal drugs in the country in just a few months proved to be ambitious. Admitted by Duterte himself, he said that “maybe” he miscalculated everything. “How naïve of me rather. Kasi ‘yong sinasabi ko, I’ll finish it in six months, I was looking at the Philippines, ang akala ko ganoon lang,” he said in an interview with Global Media Arts News anchor Jessica Soho on December 29, 2016.
Another situation to look upon is the United Nation Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESCR)‘s possible intervention to stop Duterte’s anti-drug campaign––just days after Duterte’s announcement––which violates the human rights of drug users brutally killed in police operations. The UN CESCR asserted that the cases should be thoroughly investigated without sparing another life of a possible drug suspect that might perhaps be just another innocent person.
Duterte lashed back with an answer filled with offending comments and threats, saying that he plans to separate the nation from the UN after the “insults” UN made on his anti-drug campaign. Leaving a remark with his famous choice of words, “If you are that insulting, s– of a b—-, we [Philippines] should just leave. Take us out of your [UN] organization. You have done nothing anyway.”
Some who were affected most by his insensitive speeches were Jewish leaders when Duterte once compared his anti-drug campaign to the Holocaust, the World War II genocide that killed six million Jews. “Hitler massacred three million Jews… there’s three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them,” Duterte said. This statement triggered World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder, Anti-Defamation League communications director Todd Gutnick, and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of Simon Wiesenthal Center as Duterte cited the wrong number of people killed during Hitler’s reign, when actually over six million Jews, with the latter even demanding an apology from Duterte but to no avail.
Not only international groups have tried to question Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, but as well as the country who elected Donald Trump for president; the United States of America (USA). As an ally of our nation, the USA showed immediate concern over the victims of extrajudicial killings allegedly involved in illegal drugs—until Trump assumed office and praised Duterte’s actions as doing it the ‘right way.’
Meanwhile, during the Japan-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), journalists from different countries came to discuss various topics revolving around Asia, but ended up with the topic that shook the world almost upside down: Duterte’s anti-drug campaign. Many journalists showed apprehensiveness, especially at the number of victims that rose in just several months. Even Indonesia’s Tempo Magazine CEO Bambang Harymurti said that in their country, a lot of people are worried on how Duterte handles the illegal drug problems in the Philippines. “It might give some ideas to Indonesians because we do have this kind of illegal activities–extrajudicial killings under [Haji Muhammad] Suharto which was also very popular among the common people when they kill people considered thugs, and we [Indonesians] don’t want to go back to that situation,” Harymurti expressed.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Church reminded Duterte that “Thou shall not kill.” As the official of the Archdiocese of Manila put it, “Those people—drug users, pushers and dealers—can no longer change their ways because they are already dead.”
As there are still no official programs and groups who wish to further interrogate Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, protests from left to right filled the streets as soon as the latter made his announcement to fully wipe out illegal drug users in the country. Leading them were University of the Philippines’ law students in August last year who censured Duterte’s bloody war against illegal drugs.
A nation in turmoil and the road ahead
However, as for the Filipinos, a recent survey by the Social Weather Station (SWS) shows that 85 percent of Filipinos are ‘satisfied’ with Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in spite of the 78 percent who are filled with dread that they’ll end up as victims of the extrajudicial killing.
Furthermore, in an another SWS survey, a majority of 71 percent of Filipinos believe drug suspects should be given another chance to change their lives, while another 83 percentage of Filipinos oppose that ‘class discrimination’ occurring in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign as the poor sector of society is hit harder by the war than the more powerful sectors.
As the world turns to look back at all that has happened last year that took everyone by surprise, most Filipinos may all have the same somber question lurking in their minds: what happened to our country?
But as they try to find answers, another battle to fight emerges from the shadows. With the reincarnation of the death penalty bill in the court with only drug-related crimes punishable by death, the news slowly turns into a sure sign of propagating and normalizing death culture in the Philippines given all the countless deaths and killings that have happened over the past nine months. From the twenty-one crimes that were supposed to be punishable by death penalty, only drug-related crimes remain, which somehow—sadly—justifies the phenomenon that shook the Philippines at its core: extrajudicial killings.
Indeed, the beginning of an ending has arrived.
Graphic art by Camille Joy Gallardo