“That’s beautiful,” declared Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte earlier this month after one of the bloodiest days in his year-old war on drugs campaign. “If we can only kill 32 every day, then maybe we can reduce what ails this country.”
Recent weeks have seen a troubling spike in the number of suspected extrajudicial killings in his populist drive against illegal drugs. Within a span of days, as many as 91 suspected drug users were killed in Metro Manila and the neighboring Bulacan region.
True to his word, Duterte has sustained his self-claimed “unrelenting and unremitting” war against what he sees as the source of all that is wrong in his country. Yet the suspicious and brutal death of countless civilians is gradually galvanizing renewed opposition to Duterte’s take-no-prisoners presidency.
A growing number of Duterte’s supporters have expressed their disgust and dismay on social media, while even his most loyal supporters in the legislature have called for a thorough investigation, with some openly condemning the latest spate of killings.
The anti-crime campaign has become increasingly reckless. A month earlier, Duterte sought the reinstatement of senior police official, Marvin Marcos, who faced homicide charges after leading the suspected murder of a provincial mayor who was accused of drug trafficking and killed in a shoot-out.
Despite Duterte’s still strong popularity, particularly among the grass roots, dissent is rising against the best efforts of pro-government trolls and administration officials who have bid to intimidate Duterte’s critics into silence.
Commemorating the anniversary of the assassination of Ninoy Aquino which eventually brought down the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, protesters braved heavy rain to gather on August 21 at the People Power Monument in Manila. They marked the occasion by calling for an end to the drug war killings and accountability for the culprits.
The government has promised to investigate suspected extrajudicial killings, including the recent killing of a teenager, Kian Loyd Delos Santos, which has shocked a largely passive and acquiescent public. A CCTV footage caught policemen planting evidence on and setting up the teenager for a manufactured encounter before murdering him in cold blood in supposed self-defense.
Even Senator Richard Gordon, a fierce supporter of Duterte’s war on drugs, called on the president to “protect the people first before the police,” hold abusive law enforcers to account and stop condoning illegal use of violence.
Francis Escudero, a member of the president’s majority bloc in the Senate, warned abusive law enforcers that they would face accountability sooner than later since Duterte will not be in power forever.
“This is enough. This is so wrong. I cannot, in conscience, let this pass. The senators should have a united stand to stop this,” exclaimed Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a fierce critic of the president.
In a midnight press conference on August 21, Duterte admitted that the CCTV footage cast doubt on the policemen’s claim that they killed the teenager in supposed self-defense.
“I saw the tapes [on the] TV and I agree that there should be an investigation. Should the investigation point to liabilities, my warning to all is there will be a prosecution and they have to go to jail. That I can assure you,” Duterte promised, striking a markedly different tone.
Once again, the tough-talking president has had to re-examine his shock and awe approach to the drug scourge amid massive public outcry. This time, however, he may have hit a critical threshold, as the public begins to sour on his macabre rhetoric and cavalier approach to anti-drug operations.
During the latter months of his first year in office, there was a precipitous decline in the number of drug-related killings.
The kidnap and murder of South Korean businessmen, Jee Ick-joo, by members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) in January provoked a major backlash from the business community, international media, as well as leading politicians in Seoul, including then opposition leader and current President Moon Jae-in.
“An innocent Korean was killed in the Philippines again. It’s quite a shock that this time incumbent police officers were involved and the murder was committed within the police headquarters,” exclaimed Moon, criticizing the Filipino president for not holding his law enforcers to account.
“What’s more shocking is that President Duterte did not hold the police chief, who faces growing calls to resign from the Philippine people, responsible but rather participated in his birthday party,” he added.
After accusing Duterte of committing “diplomatic disrespect,” Moon called upon the Philippine government to “take responsible measures based on constitutionalism.”
Perturbed by a growing backlash among the business community, with South Korea among the Philippines’ key investors, Duterte decided to temporarily suspend his drug war.
Towards the end of his first year in office in June, the Filipino president was largely bogged down by the siege of Marawi, the Philippines’ largest Muslim-majority city, by Islamic-State affiliated groups and rising fears international terrorism was taking root in his home island of Mindanao, which he has placed under martial law.
While the drug war resumed, nominal new emphasis was placed on rehabilitation, public education as well as rules of engagement by law enforcers. But as soon as Duterte’s approval ratings surged at the break of his second year in office, Duterte switched back to a more brutal and careless approach.
Whether he genuinely reconsiders that approach will likely impact on stability and confidence in his government in the months ahead.