Philippines. Beyond the drugs war.

After he took office, the Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, an outsider in Filipino political history, set in motion at an extremely controversial war or drug traffickers operating in his country. The real reasons for this war. The unity of the country. Chinese interests in the Philippines.  

This war is causing widespread protests and controversy for the brutal way it is being conducted. Last September, Duterte declared the Philippines to be “a lawless country”, as he commenced the new anti-trafficking campaign and, at the same time, creating a motivation/justification for the modalities used in conducting the anti-terrorism and anti-drugs campaign. In this way, he avoided an unpopular declaration of martial law that would be harmful to the economy and the image of the country abroad.

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This brutal war led to Duterte being nicknamed The Punisher (a character in a well-known comic series). Without doubt, the numbers speak for themselves: 7,780 deaths during the Oplan Tokhang (anti-drugs campaign) of whom 2,555 were ‘suspected traffickers’, while 3,603 killings are being investigated and a further 922 cases are already closed. The official number to date is enormous: 43,593 field operations with 53,025 traffickers arrested, 7.1 million houses searched and 1.2 million people arrested. This aggressive method has had the undesired effect of bringing together police and officials corrupted by the drug lords or themselves outright powerful and active members of the drug-trafficking gangs, as has been happening for decades in Mexico where collusion with the cartels is widespread and is probably an insoluble problem.

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Nevertheless, until recently, this striking series of extrajudicial killings had not affected the politics of the President but then two new factors intervened: firstly, the energetic protests of the Catholic Church and, secondly, the killing of a South Korean businessman Jee Ickjoo, killed while he was in the offices of Manila Police headquarters. This killing has had dire consequences and has forced Duterte to make a clean sweep of the heads of the anti-drug department of the National Police and to dismantle its entire structure; at the same time, he started an anti-corruption campaign. He also requested a greater commitment on the part of the armed forces, believed to be much less corrupt than the police units; a situation that immediately reminds us of what has already happened in Mexico. Last December, two senators, Leila de Lima and Richard Gordon, aired the idea of possibly impeaching President Duterte due to his admission that he killed some suspected criminals when he was mayor of Davo and so a bad example for the forces of order; something quite difficult, however, since Duterte has allies in both houses of parliament.
This very recent partial political U-turn shows that Duterte is seeking to recover that approval he thought he would have had within recent months, after the start of this fierce war on drugs. The deployment in the field of the Philippine security forces is extremely large as it is still  deploying the same forces that it used for decades to combat the many revolts and coups d’état that have marked Philippine history since the war. Chief among these is the permanent front of the internal guerrilla war that holds some regions of the great archipelago in its grip.

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Since 1969, on the large island of Mindanao, the Moslem minority has been engaged in a guerrilla war that is still going on, despite agreements reached in the nineties that succeeded at least in isolating the most extreme nucleus made up of Abu Sayaff, a separatist group that strongly opposes the anti-terrorist units. During the time of Ferdinando Marcos, there were many groups that fought against him; one of these carried led a sort of communist revolt that broke out and was especially active on the island of Samar. Between 1986 and 1990, there were various coups d’état and, in September, 2013, even a separatist attempt at Zamboanga (put down with the use of aircraft and helicopters of the counter-insurgency department of the Philippine Air Force). Life has been marked by clashes, repression and the practically constant use of brute force; all this has created in the armed forces and the police a repressive mentality and the habit of immediately using arms on (almost) every occasion.

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But why such furious haste by Duterte to gain possible approval? Apart from the personal character of the president, his closest observers believe this predominantly aggressive approach has its own logic: firstly, it aims at gaining approval around Manila – he himself is from the south – where he was once mayor of Davao and, secondly, there is the historical problem of the Philippines: maintaining the unity of the country. Central power has never really been widely effective due to the large number of local clans and too many groups with interests that have always formed cartels in order to run the outlying regions in their own way. The Philippines are made up of as many as1461 islands and therefore, almost all the country is ‘eccentric’ from the point of view of the central power. On the international relations front, among the first to express severe criticism were the UN and the White House which adopted severe measures such as reducing aid to the anti-terrorism sector in retaliation for the way the anti-drug fight is being conducted. Peking skilfully made the most of this move, and last December offered a large quantity of military material consisting of 14 million dollars’ worth of light weapons and high-speed boats, as well as offering a long-term loan of 500 million dollars to be used for further purchases of military equipment. There has also been a recent announcement of (unprecedented) plans to collaborate with the Chinese coastguard in patrolling international waters.

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It is clear that the presidency of Duterte is very aggressive on various fronts. As soon as he took office, he said he wished to actuate political distancing from America, a historical ally, thus creating great embarrassment for the then outgoing Administration of Barack Obama. Afterwards, Duterte even threatened to change alliance, saying he was “ready to cut off relations with Washington and to open discussions on new relations with Peking.” In fact, one of the first measures he adopted was to expel the advisers and some members of the special US forces on the island of Mindanao, where they collaborate in hunting down the Abu Sayyaff group. Another move to increase internal approval by appealing to classical patriotism.

Marco Leofrigio


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