DU30’s first 30
by Jon Malek
There were some surprising images circulating on Philippine news sites after President Rody Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA). Breaking bread with militants? Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (known as Bayan, an alliance of militant organizations) not burning an effigy of the President, and not holding an anti-government protest, but rather a “love fest?” As if this didn’t make my whole world topsy-turvy enough, photos of the Director General of the Philippine National Police, Ronald Dela Rosa, visiting and shaking hands with Renato Reyes Jr., the Secretary General of Bayan, were not nearly as unexpected as hearing that, after Bayan’s SONA rally, the president himself had merienda with militant leaders traditionally in opposition to the government.
This breaking of bread shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, though, considering that President Duterte met with jean-clad Bayan leaders (it is traditionally prohibited to wear blue jeans in Malacañang Palace) after taking his oath of office. A photo was taken of this meeting that I will never forget: President “Digong” raising his fist, apparently in solidarity, with militant leaders. The raised fist is a symbol of the left movement globally, of groups the world over fighting for the people and against government abuses that lead to suffering. Meeting with Bayan immediately after his oath of office and after his first SONA – in addition to the fact that he has appointed many left-leaning officials to government posts – indicates the different tune that DU-30 has taken up with his presidency.
I admit that I was not a Rody Duterte supporter, however hard it was to deny the certain appeal he had with people. During my most recent trip to the Philippines, less than two months before the 2016 election, I saw a much more excited political environment than I did when I visited in 2011. At the Charaptor restaurant along Seaside Boulevard in Manila, the TVs were not playing sports; they were showing the presidential debates, and I was surprised at the amount of people who had gathered to watch. This election grabbed a lot of attention, partly because of the figure of Duterte, a man who had become popular for his “cleaning up” of Davao City and his aversion to the establishment and status quo of the Philippine government. His calls for cleaning up crime and government corruption no doubt struck a chord with the masses of the Philippines, and unlike other politicians, he had his record in Davao to give him an air of legitimacy. However, there are a few things that make me nervous about the figure of Duterte.
In my discussions with friends and family about DU-30, it was often stated that he had cleaned up Davao City of crime – as if he would be able to do this with the rest of the Philippines. His claims to this end have been challenged multiple times, as well. Duterte’s rallying cry was that he would end crime within six months of taking office and he would order the killing of criminals. After his May 9th election, the deaths of suspected drug runners and drug lords spiked, although a large percentage of those killed have been drug pushers, often those living in poverty. And, let’s be clear, “suspected” is the key word here to describe these criminals who are never proven guilty; summary executions go against the basic human right to a trial. When the United Nations Human Rights Council issues a warning to Philippines about these killings (as well as those of journalists), the world should take notice.
There appears to be little sympathy for the victims of these killings from the general population, however, and it might be hard to argue for the rights of a criminal. Yet, there are a few issues that this brings up. The first is that in a democracy, the right to a trial is a basic tenet. There have been too many instances of police planting evidence on the dead bodies of suspected criminals to forego a judicial trial where one may answer for evidence presented against them. Duterte’s so-called “Death Squads” are thus an affront to democracy. Many complain that “due process” has failed in the past – but it is not the process that has failed, but corruption and inefficiencies.
Now, Duterte has said that his big problem is the people, the mass of Filipinos living in poverty, and that poverty and crime are related. But his thinking is backwards: crime does not create poverty. Drug runners, dealers, and other “low level” players are often forced by economic conditions or by strongmen to engage in crime to survive. If they had gainful employment and the sense of self-esteem that comes with a legitimate day’s work, the incentive of crime would be reduced. Cycles of crime are systemic. They require economic systems that cannot offer decent jobs to those who become involved in creating and selling drugs. They require families living below the poverty level who often turn to drugs as an escape from their harsh realities. This system is present in the Philippines, and is made worse by the fact that many police officers are involved in the drug trade. Indeed, one of Digong’s first official moves in his war against drugs was to suspend five PNP generals and accuse them of fostering drug lords, and he put the entire PNP force on notice that if they were involved with drugs, they would face the consequences. And, just before this went to press, I discovered that the Quezon City Police Department has sacked 88 police officers for involvement in drugs – 35 that were part of the District Anti-Illegal Drugs Division. That is how deep rooted the problem is. It is not just the drug runners or dealers because these players are of so little consequence ultimately. This is not a defense of criminals’ actions, but a plea to battle the true roots of such crimes
Before DU-30’s inauguration, a major drug-lord in Cebu was killed in a police operation, with one news outlet reporting that residents “wept in distress” because he had been such a big benefactor of the community. Of course, he would give out money and engage in charity to guarantee residents would turn a blind eye to his actions, but his role as a community benefactor indicates not only that the government couldn’t stop him, but also that local residents came to rely on him for support – suggesting they had lost faith in local government. Many things need to change, and this is going to have to be a top-down effort. The failed “war on the drugs” in the U.S. has largely demonstrated this.
Duterte appears to be a man of the people, and much of what he and his cabinet has done in his first thirty days in office has given me hope for his presidency. This extends to his cabinet, including Gina Lopez, the environment secretary who has wasted no time suspending mining licenses and ordering an audit of all mines in the Philippines, many foreign owned (including by Canada). But the Philippines faces an added challenge in its long struggle with drugs and crime. History has countless examples of what happens when laws and human rights (protected by law) are flouted in the name of fighting crime, and I don’t think I need to list examples. Countries that have low levels of drug-related crime have a few things in common, such as treating addicts as patients not criminals, and campaigns that target the root causes of crime. One can condemn the drug trade and insist on due process – maintaining this in tough times is what makes a nation great.
It is no easy task that DU-30 faces, but, as a man of the people, I hope that he realizes the roots of these problems and addresses them: improving the economy; implementing policies that do not benefit the wealthy, but the poor; revitalizing the Philippine economy and manufacturing industry, even if it will bring growing pains; eliminating corruption; and working with all levels of Philippine society to create a nation that works for everyone.
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program.