by Jon Joaquin
One of the hardest questions I have had to answer during the Presidential campaign was why I joined the media team of then-candidate Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. Most of those who asked pointed out that while Duterte was indeed successful in cleaning up Davao City (where I have been living since 1990), it came at a high cost: the deaths of hundreds of alleged drug pushers.
The question was so hard that I actually failed to answer it at all (my apologies to my friends who asked me through Facebook). I tried to write a reply many times but always ended up scrapping the few sentences I had come up with.
The reality is that it is extremely difficult to take a stand on Duterte, and an over-thinker like me can get really conflicted when it comes to him. What my friends said was true: On the one hand Davao City is one of the most peaceful places in the country. I first got here in 1990 when Duterte had been mayor for only two years, and by then Davao was already clear of its reputation as the “killing field” of the Philippines. It took Duterte only two years to effect real change here.
On the other hand, achieving that change meant having to take a very hard stance against crime. I wasn’t there during the first two years, but from 1990 onwards a lot of work still needed to be done. The so-called Davao Death Squad (DDS) was an almost daily presence in the city, and suspected criminals — most of them drug pushers — fell one after the other. At one point — and I’m not kidding here — the number one cause of death in the city was summary killings.
These killings have been attributed to Duterte, and it did not help that his tough talk also included threats to kill criminals. But the thing is, no case has ever been filed against him; even Senator Leila de Lima, who conducted two probes on the summary killings when she was chair of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), last week admitted that she was not able to file charges against Duterte simply because she did not have any evidence against him.
So I guess that’s the safest way to answer the question. Simply put, there is no evidence that links Duterte directly to summary killings. Even the loudest critics become silent when you ask them why they don’t just go ahead and sue Duterte, or at least help the families of the victims to file charges against him. That being the case, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. I’m sure the irony is not lost on his critics, but really, Duterte also deserves due process.
The Associated Press (AP) had an interesting story on August 27, 2016 that shows another side of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, one that hardly ever gets reported on by other international media outfits. In a piece titled “Filipinos seen backing Duterte despite rising drug killings,” the AP says Duterte’s death threats against criminals, his promise to battle corruption, his anti-establishment rhetoric, and gutter humour “have enamoured Filipinos living on the margins of society.”
The AP interviewed Jayeel Cornelio, a doctor of sociology and director of Ateneo de Manila University’s Development Studies Program, who says he suspects only a few of Duterte’s supporters are disillusioned by the killings and his rhetoric because voters trust his campaign promise to crush drug criminals. They also find resonance in his cursing and no-holds-barred comments.
The AP also quotes Rex Alisoso, a 25-year-old cleaner in Manila, who says people have gotten used to the way Duterte talks and voted for him knowing his ways. “The killings are OK so there will be less criminals, drug pushers, and drug addicts in our society,” Alisoso says in the interview.
Kim Labasan, a Manila shopkeeper, says she supports the anti-drug war despite the rising death toll because she has personally seen the effects of drugs. Addicts in her hometown north of Manila have ended up with “poisoned brains” and even robbed her family’s home.
Back to the Ateneo de Manila’s Jayeel Cornelio: He says the death toll is not the clincher in turning public sentiment against Duterte, because a lot of people look at them as justified killings. According to the AP report, Cornelio says Dutere’s first year in office will be crucial since he promised quick action.
“I think the threshold has to do with the delivery of the promises,” he said. “Are changes going to happen sooner or later? If they don’t then, people will start getting disillusioned.”
Given the many changes that have happened in the Philippines over the past two months, the people are not about to get disillusioned.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the original author, and do not necessarily represent those of the Pilipino Express publishers.