The body count from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” is growing by the day. While he’s not the first national leader to condone violence and extrajudicial killings in the name of controlling illicit drug use, Duterte would be wise to learn from Southeast Asian history on what works, and what doesn’t.
Duterte’s policy has already resulted in more than 3,000 casualties, leading to broad international condemnation.
The deaths have resulted in either police operations where suspects have resisted arrest or summary executions by unknown perpetrators. Drug pushers and users are voluntarily surrendering to the police in huge numbers, exacting a toll in the country’s already overcrowded jail system. Nor are there enough drug rehabilitation centres to absorb many of them.
Other countries have adopted similar policies in the past - only to see them fail.
Colombia’s drug war resulted in the deaths of powerful members of drug cartels, for instance, but also in skyrocketing levels of violence, marginalisation, and human rights violations.
Thailand’s drug war
The most salutary tale for Duterte comes from Thailand. The drug war waged in the early 2000s by former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra could hold important lessons for the Filipino government about the unforeseen political consequences of condoning violence in the name of controlling crime.
Launched in 2003, Thaksin’s war on drugs bears significant similarities to what’s happening in the Philippines. Like Duterte, Shinawatra was very popular, managing to lead a one-party administration in a country used to government by coalition. This strong electoral mandate allowed him to take on his country’s gargantuan and systemic drug problem.
As one of the world’s major transit points for narcotics, drug-use had been common in Thailand since the 1950s. But in the 1990s, the use of methamphetamines (known in Thai as ya ba) started to cause concern among Thai political elites.
Most methamphetamines were produced on the Thailand-Myanmar border by ethnic Burmese rebels, who used sales to finance their armed struggle. But the drug was largely consumed by the rural working class Thais, due to its affordable price.
A former police lieutenant colonel himself, Thaksin declared an all-out war against ya ba. Drug dealers were labelled enemies of the state, and after three months and 2,500 deaths, the prime minister proclaimed victory.
Thailand’s war on drugs was carried out through collaboration between local governors and police officers. Government officials compiled “blacklists” which led to arrests and, in many cases, extrajudicial killings. As the bodies piled up, the police claimed that most deaths resulted from rival drug cartels killing each other to avoid betrayal by their accomplices.
The pressure on the police to measure their success was paramount, and it was defined by the body count. This metric reinforced the existing hierarchy, already prone to abuse, corruption and even complicity in the drug trade.
Police targets normally consisted of the “small fish” within the drug network (low-level dealers, for instance, and hill tribe villagers). Rarely did the lists contain drug lords themselves but every death in the war counted as a step toward success.
According to an official investigation launched after the 2006 military coup that wrenched power from Thaksin, 1,400 people out of the 2,500 killed as part of the war on drugs had nothing to do with drugs. And profitable drug routes from Myanmar reportedly remained intact, protected by the Myanmar and Thai government bureaucracy and business elites.
Despite the violent and bloody crackdown, the Thai population largely endorsed Thaksin’s war. Prior to his downfall in 2006, the prime minister was admired by both his supporters and critics for his business-oriented efficiency, policy decisiveness and resilience in the face of harsh criticism.
The former prime minister successfully controlled the discourse of the war, even in the face of reports of human rights violations. He claimed the drug war was necessary, and that Thais should turn a blind eye to the inevitable “collateral damage” of his campaign. Public opinion supported the campaign; some surveys showed support of 97.4%.
Lessons for Duterte
Thailand’s experience shows that the real culprits at the top of the drug pyramid often escape extralegal approaches to eradicating drug problems with impunity. After thousands of deaths, Colombia and Mexico discovered the same truth decades ago.
Networks of illegal drug supply go beyond any one country’s sovereign borders. The Philippines is a producer, a transit point, and a consumer of narcotics. Each role requires specific policies that involve the entire state apparatus, as well as civil society.
The drug trade is a transnational threat; this means neighbouring states have to work together to fight. In this sense, Duterte’s plea for regional cooperation on illegal drugs is a step in the right direction and should be supported by other ASEAN countries.
Drugs and democracy
Political leaders who want to wage wars against illegal drugs also open the possibility of power abuse from the security sector. In places with rampant corruption, lack of police professionalism, a culture of impunity, and links between drug lords and political elites, governments are susceptible to declare “regimes of exception” where security forces are given extra-legal powers in order to succeed in their mission.
Duterte has already hinted at militarising the police to combat illegal drugs, a move that will erode the gains made from security sector reform and democratisation in the Philippines after 1986.
Duterte still has the chance to turn away from his current approach and form a more sensible policy that uses less force, involves the participation of local communities, and looks at the issue of illicit drugs in all its dimensions.
Illicit drug use is a health issue that requires targeted, non-criminal, interventions starting with the individual. It’s also a systemic problem that requires sociopolitical measures that address poverty, corruption and social exclusion.
Unlike Thaksin, Duterte can pivot away from his current approach toward a more comprehensive anti-drug framework. Thaksin’s drug war dealt a double whammy to Thailand’s democracy – the scorched earth policy not only undermined state accountability, but it was also used as ammunition by the elite opposition in the military coup that toppled him in 2006.
Critics of Duterte should not merely provide strong condemnation. Instead, they should understand the underlying political context of human rights in the Philippines and constructively argue for policy to turn away from lethal strategies. Stubborn opposition with the goal of destabilising a popular government will be met with an equally bitter reaction from the state.
The Philippines can avoid being dragged into a downward spiral of political polarisation, something Thailand is currently experiencing. If not, then the Philippines might also end up with a tragic democracy just like its neighbour to the west.