Is the de-escalation of Duterte’s drug war for real? The Philippines’ notoriously ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte won rare favorable international headlines last week. He said he would pull his National Police Force out of his brutal “War on Drugs.” But has he actually committed to quelling the violence? Or is he just paying lip service to those who oppose his regime?
Bleeding Hearts and Big Fish
Duterte’s drug war has now reached the point of mass murder. The police have murdered an estimated 8,000 since he took office last year.
His recent move to pull the police out of the conflict is in response to a renewed wave of public outrage. In August, the police killed an unarmed youth in a working-class Manila suburb.
Duterte announced that henceforth, narco-enforcement will be solely in the hands of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). And they will target only the “big fish.”
As he made the announcement, Duterte took a sneering pot-shot at the “bleeding hearts and media” and “stupid European Union guys” who “were all focused on how many deaths.”
He added: “I hope I will satisfy you.”
So far, the measure has garned a positive response in the country. Particularly by the country’s Commission on Human Rights (CHR). They have been a harsh critic of the administration, and their budget has just been slashed to practically nothing. It was an obvious punitive measure by Duterte.
Still, they applauded the announcement.
A Healthy Dose of Skepticism
The CHR has been receptive to Duterte’s announcement.
Amnesty International, however, was not so optimistic.
“President Duterte has pulled police off drug operations once before, in January this year, only to reinstate them a few weeks later,” said James Gomez, Southeast Asia director for the human rights organization.
“[T]his…may be nothing but a short-term PR move in response to growing public outrage about the drug war’s many victims, which are overwhelmingly poor and include children,” he continued.
Gomez is right.
Back in January, there was a similar to-do. An investigation implicated police agents in the murder of a foreign businessman. Duterte similarly said he would disband and re-organize the National Police narco units.
And shortly after that January announcement, Duterte broached sending the army in to enforce the drug laws. We’ve seen this before in Mexico and Columbia. Both have had spectacularly disastrous results.
Final Hit: How Real Is Duterte’s Drug War De-Escalation?
Duterte’s office, of course, responded contemptuously to Amnesty’s concern. The president’s mouthpiece Ernesto Abella accused Amnesty International of demonizing the PDEA.
“While Amnesty International is known to be disparaging of the frontline role of the PNP [Philippine National Police] in the anti-illegal drug campaign, now it sees the relief of the agency as a mere public relations stunt,” he said.
He added that the government will continue its drive to make the Philippines a “crime, corruption and illegal drug-free nation.”
And, right on cue, there has already been talk of sending in the army to replace the police.
On Sunday, armed forces chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año said he was ready to provide army troops for drug enforcement, under terms of a memorandum of understanding signed with the PDEA after Duterte’s January statement.
“In line with the February 2017 MOA, the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] has been a significant force provider to the anti-illegal drug operations, especially in conflict-affected areas, particularly where conditions for insurgency, secessionism and terrorism persist,” Año said.
This is an obvious reference to the southern island of Mindanao, both a top cannabis production zone and a hotbed of Islamist insurgency.
We hate to say it, but there is a distinct whiff of deja vu here. Let’s hope that indeed Duterte makes good on his move to lift the pressure on the drug war this time. But this is no time to be lifting the pressure on Duterte. He has to know the world will be watching closely.