Menu Close
Residents of a Manila neighbourhood gather at the scene of the killing of an alleged drug dealer by police. EPA/Francis R. Malasig

Philippines cannot build a nation over the bodies of 100,000 dead in Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’

There are rare instances when there is value to a politician’s failure to deliver on a campaign promise. This is particularly true when the promise goes like this: I will kill 100,000 criminals if I become president. I will dump their corpses into Manila Bay for the fish to eat. Funeral parlours will be a booming industry. It will be bloody.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte claims to be a man who says what he thinks and means what he says. Since he was elected in May, more than 700 suspected criminals and drug pushers have been killed in police operations and summary executions. With the killings averaging at least ten per day, it is possible Duterte’s target of 100,000 bodies will be reached in his six-year term.

To understand Duterte’s rise to power, it is necessary to distinguish the empirical from the normative – the “what is” from “what should be”. Unfortunately, bridging the two is increasingly challenging at a time when the nation’s vision of an ideal society is far from settled.

‘Cardboard justice’ without due process

Rodrigo Duterte campaigned on a promise that drug dealers and criminals would be killed, and they have been. Reuters/Lean Daval Jr

Duterte won a landslide victory after what began as a tightly contested presidential race. He shifted the framing of the campaign from poverty (his opponents’ main issue) to a personal crusade against crime and illegal drugs.

While all presidential contenders promised to deliver inclusive growth, Duterte characterised the nation’s problem as something more basic: peace and order. The nation, he said, was on the brink of falling apart.

As president, Duterte now enjoys an unprecedented trust rating of 91%. A majority of Filipinos — 63% to be precise — believe he will fulfil “most if not all” of his promises.

Duterte’s support extends to the legislature. The co-equal branch of government, meant to serve as a check and balance to executive power, was quick to form a super majority to support the president’s legislative agenda. That left only seven opposition members in a 290-member House of Representatives.

Unsurprisingly, House Bill No. 1 seeks to reinstate the death penalty. Another priority bill aims to reduce the age of criminal liability to nine years old.

Why is this approach so popular?

It is not difficult to understand the sociological reasons behind the popularity of Duterte’s killing spree. For urban centres and mega-cities, crime and drugs are everyday issues that make life miserable for rich and poor communities alike.

In my fieldwork, my informants in slum communities have expressed relief when drug dealers have been gunned down. After all, they are the menaces who beat their wives, starve their children and bang on the doors of cowering neighbours while high on meth. They are the syndicates responsible for teenagers running red-eyed and for young mothers hauling cocaine in cheap suitcases to airports in China and Indonesia.

Upon hearing about the death of a drug pusher, an ordinary Filipino is afforded a sense of finality, if not retribution. The troublemaker is gone and will harm their families no more.

But why killings? Why can’t there be support for humane ways of being “tough” on crime?

Part of the reason has to do with a criminal justice system that has failed over the years. Arresting, prosecuting and imprisoning drug pushers is so slow, so bureaucratic and so prone to corruption that it has discredited the democratic virtue of due process.

What is the point of putting drug dealers behind bars if everyone knows the maximum-security prison has become a fiefdom run by convicted drug lords? In 2014, media reports revealed that prison cells had been converted to strip clubs, private gyms, recording studios and drug laboratories, with the occasional jacuzzi installed. Jail wardens were either too corrupt or too afraid to confront the felons.

For many, the assassination of drug criminals delivers what is now popularly called “cardboard justice”. Every day, broadsheets and primetime newscasts feature images of bloodied corpses covered by a cardboard sign that reads: “I am a drug pusher, do not follow in my footsteps”, or “I am a drug pusher, forgive me Lord.”

“We cannot build a nation over the dead bodies of our own citizens,” Duterte said in one of his speeches. But he went on to say that he had the resolve to “destroy the apparatus” of drug syndicates by targeting both big and small-time dealers. His police chief calls this Operation Plan Double Barrel:

One touch of the barrel, two triggers will be set off. There’s a barrel that will target from above, the high-value targets. And there’s a barrel that will target from below, the street-level personalities.

Critics must engage with ‘war on drugs’ support

Despite protests by rights activists and students, so-called ‘cardboard justice’ has popular support. EPA/Mark R. Cristino

To say that public support for these killings is merely based on fear and anger is mistaken. That overlooks the rationality that underpins the frustrated citizens’ support for Duterte’s anti-drug war. We need to engage with these reasons, not dismiss them, if the debate on policy is to move in a more deliberative direction.

Some criticise the notion of universal human rights. They see human rights as an argument put forward by Manila’s liberal intellectuals who are out of touch with the daily brutalities of crime and drugs.

For others, this is the Philippines’ way of “catching up” with more prosperous neighbours that have been ruled by strongmen whose legitimacy is based on delivering peace, order and economic growth. Singapore’s success story is very much part of this narrative.

Also, others believe sacrificing the lives of some is necessary for the lives of the majority. This argument finds voice even among Duterte’s progressive cabinet appointees, including the environmental justice advocate turned environment secretary, Gina Lopez. The former ashram yoga missionary justifies the war on drugs as precisely that:

You shoot, you kill, you want to win the war because you’re fighting for the life of your people.

Certainly, the differential valuation of lives is a common logic invoked in the public sphere. Lopez says:

I’m not making any judgement, but maybe the sacrifice of two or three can get rid of drugs, and these drug lords stop making money in the Philippines killing our youth.

The argument of retribution is also making a comeback. Though there is a lack of evidence for the death penalty as a deterrent of crime, ideas of retribution bring the nation back to debating what kind of society it wants to become.

Democracy requires effective opposition

What, then, does the future hold for Philippine democracy, where the public affirms, legitimises and even celebrates the spike in drug-related killings?

Here, it is important for the normative to speak to the empirical. I offer two conjectures, drawing lessons from the deliberative democratic tradition.

First, the Philippine “intelligentsia” – human rights advocates and citizens critical of the drug war – should reflect on how they can make a meaningful case for human rights. In divisive debates, it is crucial to deploy rhetoric that bridges rather than polarises existing discourses.

Saying “human rights are human rights” no longer suffices. We unfortunately no longer live (or have never lived) in a time when human rights can be a premise that requires no further justification. This is especially the case in the Philippines, where discourses of war, crisis and the fragmentation of the republic are being deployed.

Second, a new, vibrant and dynamic opposition must emerge to challenge the strong consensus on the war against drugs. Given that support for the president is overwhelming in both the public and empowered sphere, the Duterte regime is an “administration in need of an opposition”.

But an opposition is not simply something out there that can be found. It needs to emerge organically. Pockets of dissent are beginning to claim space. Student activists can be seen wearing cardboard signs similar to the ones pinned on slain suspects that declare “anyone can be a drug pusher”.

While such micro-acts of resistance still have little impact on the broader public sphere, these creative ways of disrupting societal consensus can puncture the fantasy of penal populism that sets apart the virtuous public from the degenerates who do not deserve due process.

True to his promise, the first months of the Duterte regime have been bloody. But it can also evolve to become a stage for thoughtful deliberation on the nation’s shared virtues and democratic ideals. This is urgent work, for the war against drugs can easily turn into a war against its critics.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,300 academics and researchers from 4,900 institutions.

Register now