The world is getting one thing wrong about Duterte's war on drugs

In the past few weeks, the world has been noticing the rising death toll in Rodrigo Duterte's campaign against illegal drugs.

A few months ago, his victory was treated with a token mention - a few details of who he is, of what he's done, of what he vowed to do, mostly of the fact that his nickname is "the Punisher". There were, perhaps, some mentions of how similar he is to Donald Trump, at least in their rhetoric - perhaps a subtle caution to the Americans watching. "Do you really want this to happen here?"

Well, the wave of populism has been unstoppable, to the dread of those living in countries with the belief that respect for the law will always prevail. Of course, there are the Americans, dreading the possibility of Donald Trump undoing progress made in the social front in the past few years. In Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment has led to the rise of far-right groups such as the Front National in France, and has arguably contributed to the United Kingdom voting, by a slim margin, to leave the European Union; on the flip side, left-wing populist groups like Syriza in Greece have emerged in response to a feeling of being left behind by those outside of the upper classes.

Understandably, the response is one of fear, but not always one of what might be lost or what might be gained. Those conversations have been relegated to the sidelines while people fear of being seen as backward, of losing their place of respect and prominence in the world.

So, with the increased coverage of Duterte's so-called war on drugs, you get a more explicit hint of caution. Yes, the figures are undeniable now. Over 5,600 have been killed in the past six months, the perpetrators remaining unknown. Are they vigilantes? Are they criminals fighting amongst each other? Are they off-duty police? On-duty police? Save for a few cases, nobody knows for sure, but the president's many pronouncements - his admitting he'll happily slaughter three (or four) million drug addicts, his promise to protect policemen "just doing their jobs" - definitely contribute to this atmosphere.

The stories have been dramatic, certainly: how every night there are people being shot point blank; how the remains of a purported drug pusher (or user) is thrown in the streets, faces wrapped in masking tape, a cardboard sign issuing a threat to an unsuspecting and unrepentant population; how innocent people are being killed, and dismissed by the president as just "collateral damage"; how those who voluntarily surrendered, or perhaps rounded up, through Oplan Tokhang find themselves with no clear idea of where to go next, with some stuck in crowded jails, and authorities realizing they're ill-equipped to deal with the deluge of those seeking rehabilitation.

Those facts are true, but these are presented with a less subtle sheen of caution now.

Do you really want this to happen here?

Another tidbit that's often mentioned is how there's wide support for Duterte's campaign against drugs. There's talk of the president getting rock star-like reception in other countries, in his speaking tour of sorts, him saying the same things, over and over again, to an audience of adoring Filipinos. Just yesterday, he was in Singapore, where 8,000 Filipinos filled a convention center there to hear him talk, powered by a fervent belief that he will take the Philippines something to what Singapore is now: orderly, progressive, and ultimately, safe.

True enough, Duterte won most of the votes back in May, getting the highest number of votes of any presidential candidate since democracy was restored in 1986. (His 16.6 million votes, however, only comprised 39% of the vote; in comparison, Noynoy Aquino's 15.2 million votes in 2010 was 42% of the total.) But this is buoyed by the a perception that he can get things done, his long stint as mayor of Davao City often cited as an example.

Politics in the Philippines, after all, has always been populist. Save for some differences and variations, all five major candidates in May's elections ran with the same set of promises. There were promises of economic growth and improved peace and order. There was talk of improving traffic in Metro Manila and building more hospitals, schools and roads. Unusually there were vows of reassessing the relationship between national and local governments, running from Mar Roxas' review to Duterte's overhaul towards federalism. But, ultimately, they are all the same, with the noisiest parts of their platforms designed to appeal to as many voters as possible.

Duterte has given much screen time to his hatred of drugs during his campaign, blaming anybody who's used illegal substances as the reason for lawlessness and lack of progress in the country. Some have latched on to that. Others have latched on to his track record - supposedly stellar, but ultimately boosted by marketing, thanks to a lack of objective statements on what really is happening in Davao, either because those talking are clearly on one side or another, or because nobody in Manila just really cares to look.

However, it's also safe to say that others voted for Duterte not because they truly, genuinely support him, but because they'd rather have a man who they think will actually get things done. Anyone rather than, say, Roxas, who'll just continue what Aquino did. And what did Aquino do? Nothing, they say. Just play video games with his nephew, look for a girlfriend, and lie around. That lazy ass egg yolk - who wants more of that?

It is, of course, wrong to say that Noynoy did nothing. But, yes, it is also wrong to say that Noynoy did a lot of things. Most of the achievements his administration often trotted out is really in part to increased confidence, and the private sector doing their thing. His administration was afraid to spend money, at least in its first half - fearful, perhaps, of allegations of corruption that dogged his much-vilified predecessor. When they realized that sentiments don't jumpstart the economy - at least not singlehandedly - their methods have attracted attention for the wrong reasons. Still, for a significant chunk of Filipinos, Aquino's six years in office has been stagnant for them (but not for those in the loop), so Digong is the way to go.

Duterte's approval ratings have been high so far, but it's not entirely because of his campaign against drugs. It's still those sentiments that he can get things done, unlike his predecessor, that power those ratings. His team got off to a running start, attempting to quickly address issues such as traffic and corruption, although the results leave much to be desired. (For instance, the government has hinged their entire plan to combat traffic on emergency powers, and you know how that puts jitters in the Filipino psyche.) There has been at least one opinion poll looking specifically at the anti-drug campaign, and while 84% of those surveyed by Social Weather Stations were satisfied, 71% believed it is important that suspects should be caught alive.

And there are definitely some qualms over how this so-called war on drugs is being conducted. As the death toll rises, the questions are becoming more pertinent. Why do so many have to die? Why was the campaign conducted without a comprehensive plan? Where does Duterte's "there are four million drug addicts in the country I love" statistic come from? Why does he insist that families are irreversibly broken the moment one member uses an illegal substance? Why does the answer have to be elimination and not rehabilitation? Most importantly, why are we just going after the pawns and not the bishops, knights, queens and kings?

However, the extremely polarized state of discourse in the Philippines today mean there are only a few people, on both sides, who are engaged in a word war that is fueled by confirmation bias more than anything. The majority - regardless of who they voted for - are forced to keep their head down and shut up. One, they don't want to be tangled up in an argument when there are more pressing things to deal with. Two, they have just given up on it altogether, because nothing will change anyway. Three, they have decided not to bother. And why would they? "As long as it's not me."

This is the "popular" war on drugs that Duterte is waging: bodies piling up every day, a rock star reception wherever the president goes, and a lonely opposition.

This is what the world is getting wrong about this so-called war.

But why would they get it right? Yes, the statistics are appalling, but as long as it's not them, right? In a world where populist movements are taking over supposedly dignified and respectable countries - where issues and facts are tossed aside and people are voted not on their abilities but on their pronouncements - the Philippines is just a cautionary tale. The images are compelling. The stories are dramatic. But more importantly, we're just an example of what they cannot be, what they should not be, what they must not be - not under Trump, not under May, not possibly under Le Pen. No. We can remain dignified - not unlike the Philippines, with those backward people cheering for a man who openly admits to murder.

However, it has to be said. Here, in the Philippines, slowly, hopefully steadily, people are asking questions about Duterte's campaign against drugs. We don't know where it will end up, but people are asking. For every one person who openly extols that criminals do not deserve human rights, there is one who wonders if all these deaths are worth it. The president and his acolytes may say Philippine streets are already as safe as Singapore's, but people are still afraid of being shot down - whether they are still doing drugs, have given up on it, or have not touched it entirely. Perhaps, sooner or later, Duterte's claims that critics of his campaign are out-of-touch people who are not Filipinos and do not really love the country they are born into will lose its bite, its luster, its power.

The war on drugs is not as popular as they say. And the next time someone claims it is, always remember: not me. Not them. Not all of us.

And your responses...

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