How Duterte’s war on drugs has pushed the Philip­pines’ most vul­ner­a­ble to the mar­gins

Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s bloody crack­down on drugs is push­ing the coun­try’s most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple even fur­ther towards the mar­gins

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - OPIN­ION BY KHALID TINASTI


Philip­pines' ex­trem­ist re­sponse to drugs marks a re­turn of ‘ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism' in the po­lit­i­cal space af­ter decades of social mi­nori­ties claim­ing their fun­da­men­tal rights and ben­e­fit­ing from small but no­tice­able progress in the public de­bate.

This trend of ma­jor­ity rule is vis­i­ble even in es­tab­lished democ­ra­cies, where in­creas­ing parts of the elec­toral body cast their votes in favour of pop­ulist move­ments. They thereby ex­plic­itly or im­plic­itly sup­port the idea of an ‘il­lib­eral' democ­racy or a hy­brid regime that pro­vides a sense of safety and sta­bil­ity, even if it im­plies a de­crease in per­sonal free­doms and the elec­tion of fig­ures lean­ing towards au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. And sim­i­larly to the Philip­pines, but to a lesser ex­tent, pol­i­cy­mak­ers in other parts of the world use crack­downs on peo­ple who use drugs as a tool to trigger po­lit­i­cal emo­tions in their con­stituen­cies and to please the ma­jor­ity over the rights of vul­ner­a­ble mi­nori­ties.

In the past decade, both young and es­tab­lished democ­ra­cies the world over have ex­pe­ri­enced ‘demo­cratic re­ces­sion', which man­i­fests in restric­tions of per­sonal free­doms, demo­cratic break­downs, instability of demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions or the rise of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism. In South­east Asia, this trend can be ob­served with the 2014 military coup in Thai­land, the sur­vival over three decades of the hy­brid regime in Cam­bo­dia, the semi-military govern­ment in Myan­mar and the elec­tion of Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte in the Philip­pines, which marks the reliance of a po­lit­i­cal regime on the ‘war on drugs' to con­done and ad­vance its own au­thor­i­tar­ian ten­den­cies.

De­spite its neg­a­tive im­pact on the demo­cratic rule, Duterte's war on drugs con­tin­ues to ben­e­fit from pop­u­lar sup­port

As an emerg­ing econ­omy, the Philip­pines shows a rare con­cen­tra­tion of con­tem­po­rary social, po­lit­i­cal, en­vi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic chal­lenges. The coun­try is ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an ex­plod­ing de­mog­ra­phy, an in­crease of al­ready large eco­nomic in­equal­i­ties, in­equitable ac­cess to state-spon­sored health and social ser­vices, as well as in­ter­nally dis­placed pop­u­la­tions due to cli­mate dis­as­ters or re­li­gious and ethnic con­flicts. Its po­lit­i­cal struc­tures, with re­gions that are un­der­funded by the cen­tral govern­ment and with frag­ile or cor­rup­tion-sen­si­tive in­sti­tu­tions, are strug­gling to con­trol the in­creas­ing preva­lence of metham­phetamine use and un­der­mine the or­gan­ised crime-con­trolled il­le­gal mar­ket of drugs.

But do these con­sti­tute valid rea­sons to be even harsher on drugs? Wor­ry­ingly, ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings, the de­sire to rein­tro­duce the death penalty for drug-re­lated of­fences and the de­crease of the crim­i­nal li­a­bil­ity age to nine years old, have all cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion in which the il­le­gal mar­ket con­tin­ues to flour­ish, but func­tions un­der more dif­fi­cult con­straints – ex­pos­ing vul­ner­a­ble and im­pov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties to more violence. Such a sit­u­a­tion re­sults in these pop­u­la­tions de­fy­ing their elected rep­re­sen­ta­tives and the state, and in it­self in­creases the demo­cratic re­ces­sion in the coun­try.

Yet de­spite its neg­a­tive im­pact on demo­cratic rule, Duterte's war on drugs con­tin­ues to ben­e­fit from pop­u­lar sup­port. This can be ex­plained in part by the use of po­lit­i­cal emo­tion, play­ing on the fear of in­se­cu­rity re­lated to the violence gen­er­ated by the il­le­gal mar­ket of drugs, the anger of cit­i­zens at the govern­ment's fail­ure to pro­vide safe and in­clu­sive cities, and the hope that a harsher re­sponse to drugs will ul­ti­mately eliminate the drug mar­ket. The po­lit­i­cal dis­course of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, con­don­ing and pro­mot­ing ex­tra­ju­di­cial pun­ish­ments for peo­ple sus­pected to be us­ing or sell­ing drugs, re­mains eas­ier to con­vey to the elec­torate than a sophisticated, ev­i­dence-based and nu­anced po­si­tion to re­duce the harms of drugs with­out con­demn­ing those who use them. This has been show­cased through the raw lan­guage used by Duterte on drugs and his calls to “kill crim­i­nals”, and how well the pop­u­la­tion re­ceived it.

There's a right­ful global out­cry over the ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings and other hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions in the Philip­pines un­der the guise of a war on drugs, but it re­mains nec­es­sary to con­sider this war as an im­pulse that threat­ens democ­racy it­self. The use of ma­jori­tar­ian ap­proaches leads to na­tion­al­ism, which threat­ens the rights of vul­ner­a­ble and tar­geted mi­nori­ties, such as peo­ple who use drugs.

More wor­ry­ingly, it is dif­fi­cult to imag­ine brighter per­spec­tives as we wit­ness in the Philip­pines and else­where the con­junc­tion of the strong­man rule, ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism and the im­pact of po­lit­i­cal emo­tions.

Men sleep on the steps of a stair­case in Que­zon City Jail, one of the Philip­pines' most crowded pris­ons. There are 3,800 in­mates at the jail, which has a ca­pac­ity of 800, and con­di­tions are get­ting worse as po­lice wage Duterte's war on drugs

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