The Philip­pines' Du te rte is prod­uct of a vi­o­lent para­dox, not its cause

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - FABIO SCARPELLO news­room@mm­times.com

PHILIP­PINES Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs has racked up more than 2000 deaths in two months, as well as wide­spread shock and con­dem­na­tion world­wide. But the out­rage is less preva­lent in the Philip­pines, where the purge is con­doned, if not tac­itly sup­ported, by most so­ci­etal and po­lit­i­cal groups.

A wide­spread apa­thy drowns out the dis­ap­provals from seg­ments of the Filipino lib­eral media, civil so­ci­ety and Catholic Church. This apa­thy be­wil­ders many in the West but needs to be un­der­stood in the para­dox­i­cal re­la­tion­ship Filipinos have de­vel­oped with vi­o­lence.

Vi­o­lence per­me­ates pol­i­tics in the Philip­pines, and this goes be­yond the rip­ple ef­fects of Fer­di­nand Mar­cos’ dic­ta­tor­ship. Vi­o­lence re­mains an in­te­gral part of how pol­i­tics is con­tested, es­pe­cially in the prov­inces of the coun­try.

The 2009 Maguin­danao mas­sacre, in which a ri­val po­lit­i­cal fac­tion killed 58 peo­ple, was the most bru­tal man­i­fes­ta­tion of po­lit­i­cal vi­o­lence to date, but only a symp­tom of a larger malaise.

One of the root causes is the pri­vate armies that most re­gional politi­cians have. Be­yond rhetor­i­cal calls to get rid of them, th­ese armies have been in­sti­tu­tion­alised through the mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial re­la­tions that bind dy­nas­tic fam­i­lies con­test­ing for po­lit­i­cal power in Manila and their al­lies in the prov­inces.

The vi­o­lence that en­sues has been nor­malised in the psy­che of the coun­try and its peo­ple. At least 50 peo­ple, or an av­er­age of nearly one per­son ev­ery two days, were killed in the lead-up to May’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. Most Filipinos did not bat an eye.

Vi­o­lence is ram­pant in the Philip­pines. It is pal­pa­ble when walk­ing in some neigh­bour­hoods of Manila. It is ubiq­ui­tous in some parts of the coun­try where an Is­lamic and a Maoist in­sur­gency have been sim­mer­ing for over three decades. And it is tan­gi­ble in the easy ac­cess to weapons through­out the ar­chi­pel­ago.

When in the Mus­lim-Chris­tian di­vided city of Zam­boanga, in the south­ern­most part of the ar­chi­pel­ago, a few years back, wit­ness­ing church-go­ers ca­su­ally put away their guns be­fore serv­ing cof­fee in their house left me a lit­tle more than un­easy. “Every­one has a weapon here; it is nor­mal,” was their an­swer to my in­quis­i­tive look.

Vi­o­lence also struc­tures so­ci­ety. Poverty is deep-rooted in a sys­tem that sees ex­treme wealth and poverty rub­bing shoul­ders. The pro-mar­ket poli­cies of for­mer Pres­i­dent Benigno Aquino im­proved macroe­co­nomic in­di­ca­tors but ben­e­fited the elite.

Dur­ing his six-year term, the net worth of the top 40 fam­i­lies in the coun­try tripled while the per­cent­age of peo­ple liv­ing below the poverty line did not move from about 26 per­cent.

More­over, while the Philip­pines has a set of laws that make it among the most gen­der-fair in the world, do­mes­tic vi­o­lence re­mains per­va­sive in the coun­try and hushed un­der the man­tle of machismo be­liefs and the in­dif­fer­ence of the po­lice. The se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus is also trig­ger-happy, cor­rupt, only partly ac­count­able and eas­ily politi­cised.

It is worth re­mem­ber­ing that the cur­rent “war on drugs” is not an iso­lated case of state-sanc­tioned ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings. In the early 2000s for­mer Pres­i­dent Glo­ria Ma­ca­pa­gal Ar­royo au­tho­rised the mil­i­tary, and its prox­ies, to elim­i­nate the sup­port base of the Na­tional Demo­cratic Front, the le­gal um­brella or­gan­i­sa­tion for the Maoist in­sur­gency. At least 1200 left-wing sym­pa­this­ers, in­clud­ing ac­tivists and jour­nal­ists, were killed. The world rightly con­demned the killings. Mean­while, most Filipinos went on with their lives.

Of course, Filipinos do not like vi­o­lence. In­deed, they are ex­tremely tired of it. But para­dox­i­cally, the way in which vi­o­lence has his­tor­i­cally been in­grained in the crevices of Filipino so­ci­ety means that they are prone to ac­cept vi­o­lent means to con­tain vi­o­lence. Mr Duterte, as ob­nox­ious and vul­gar as he may be per­ceived in the West, is the prod­uct of such a para­dox – but he is not its cause.

Mr Duterte has been re­mark­ably con­sis­tent with his elec­toral prom­ises, and that is why he cur­rently en­joys huge lev­els of pop­u­lar sup­port. A re­cent sur­vey in the Philip­pines gave him a sup­port rate greater than 90pc. This Kim Jong-un-es­que ap­proval equals a green light for more killings.

And the sup­port base for Mr Duterte seems to span across the class spec­trum. Many among welle­d­u­cated, mid­dle-class Filipinos tol­er­ate Mr Duterte’s ap­proach, al­though they are coy to be seen to do so.

Two of them have sheep­ishly told this writer that for­mer lead­ers, in­clud­ing for­mer pres­i­dents Aquino and Ar­royo, had promised to cur­tail the ev­ery­day vi­o­lence that blights the coun­try, but had achieved lit­tle. Mr Duterte’s ap­proach, they whis­per, may just pro­duce the jolt the coun­try needs.

Their logic em­bod­ies how the para­dox per­pet­u­ates it­self and feeds Mr Duterte. We may sneer at Filipinos, but we also need to un­der­stand them and their cir­cum­stances.

Fabio Scarpello is a re­search fel­low at the Asia Re­search Cen­tre, Mur­doch Univer­sity. This ar­ti­cle is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween and New Man­dala, a spe­cial­ist web­site on South­east Asia’s pol­i­tics and so­ci­eties based at the ANU Co­ral Bell School of Asia Pa­cific Af­fairs.

Photo: EPA

A small fig­ure de­pict­ing Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte as the char­ac­ter “Pu­n­isher” is on dis­play along with other cre­ations dur­ing the 2016 Asia Pop Comic Con in Pasay City, Manila, on Au­gust 28.

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