SEVEN months into a brutal war against drugs that has left many thousands of poor Filipinos dead, why did it take the murder of a single South Korean businessman to halt the killings?
Jee Ick-joo died a terrible death and his family was made to suffer most cruelly. Under the pretense of a drug raid, police abducted Jee, strangled him, cremated his body, and then, reportedly, flushed the remains down the toilet. The perpetrators then went on to extort money from the victim’s wife without telling her that her husband was already dead.
It took about three months before this horrible crime became public knowledge, but when it did the official response was swift. In the last week or so, President Duterte issued a full-throated apology to the South Korean people, launched an investigation into the murder, ordered the dismantling of anti-drugs police operations, and vowed to clean up the national police force, which he described as “corrupt to the core”.
His reaction to the killing of the South Korean—aghast, aggressive, pious—was politically shrewd. The condemnation, pledges to reform the police, expressions of regret (even the bull-necked Philippine National Police Chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa made a great show of bowing his head, the only gesture of contrition it seems he has been able to muster), averts any possible crisis in credibility. Moreover, putting the brakes on the killing frenzy gives the impression that the Duterte administration has never strayed from the path of just governance and respect for the rule of law and due process. Really, one would be very naive, if not delusional in the extreme, to think that were true. The much-trumpeted suspension of the war on drugs may well be temporary, resuming once all the fuss blows over. In the same breath, Duterte has said that he would continue, or more precisely “extend” it, to the last day of his term. But, hand on heart now, did anyone really believe he could rid the country of drugs in six months?
Far from reassuring, Duterte’s reaction is deeply troubling because it is so clearly disproportionate to the carnage that has been allowed to occur, and even encouraged, since he took office in late June last year. The chilling message is that the married, Korean expat Jee Ick-joo, portrayed as bespectacled, decent—the phrase “upright” has been used—is not scum of the earth, unlike the two-bit addicts and pushers belonging to the expendable hordes of impoverished and desperate, who deserve to be treated with callousness and indifference.
It is a shameful fact that there have been few denunciations. In bold contrast to the spontaneous combustion of vigorous and vocal demonstrations against the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani late last year, there has been precious little protest against extra-judicial killings, now numbering over 7,000—more than twice as many, and in just six months, as happened over a decade or more under Marcos. Those who have criticized or questioned Duterte, both internationally and at home, who have included various Western leaders, the United Nations, Amnesty International, a few Philippine human rights groups, and notably one or two women senators, have been cussed, publicly derided and calumniously attacked, their personal and professional reputations assailed.
At the same time, in the face of escalating violence and multiplying corpses—including those of children—swathes of the country’s elite, middle classes, and social media communities, who form the backbone of ferocious support for Duterte, have cheered on the crackdown and bolstered his popularity. It seems we have reached the stage in our political evolution where we have grown into true suckers for an illiberal populist strongman, a bully-in-chief who will rule without a tincture of conscience or remorse.
From the outset, Duterte embarked on a strategy of deception, demonization and fear. First, he massively exaggerated the country’s drug and crime problem, effectively painting a nightmare scenario in which venal drug lords, criminals, small-time pushers, crazed addicts, and degenerates menace respectable Philippine society. Second, he gave free rein not just to law enforcement agencies, but egged on anyone who could wield a gun, to kill these purported dregs of society. “Shoot him. I’ll give you a medal,” he encouraged. Third, in this manufactured state of siege, he contemptuously dismissed human rights. “I don’t care about human rights,” he said just two months into his presidency, and threatened to impose martial law should he be obstructed. Fourth, he reinforced the walls of impunity, swearing to protect police from prosecution. Fifth, he stripped his targets of their humanity. No longer were they people—fathers, husbands, lovers, brothers—they were subhuman, judged as an obscenity and slated for eradication. “Crimes against humanity? In the first place, I’d like to be frank with you: are they humans? What is your definition of a human being?” he asks. It is a pitiless depiction that has been echoed by too many of the country’s high-ranking officials, most recently by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II. Sixth, it is anyone’s guess whose idea it is to tape and tie the bodies and dump them invisible, public places, but the horrifying, jarring spectacle of a dead body so absolutely dishonored and disrespected certainly does the trick of instilling fear.
Astonishingly, shudderingly then, Duterte’s brand of strongman leadership, his dark, dystopian vision of Philippine society, underwritten by prejudice and fear, his glacial ruthlessness and gratuitous cruelty, succeeds because it plays to the gallery inhabited by those who are marginally successful, who want their leader, above all, to make them feel safe. Duterte is getting away with his war on the poor because he has made so many in some way complicit.