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Saturday 26 May 2018

Filipinos still back president despite rise in drug killings

Rodrigo Duterte unleashed a massive anti-drug crackdown after taking office barely two months ago (AP)
Rodrigo Duterte unleashed a massive anti-drug crackdown after taking office barely two months ago (AP)

On the day he was sworn into office, Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte went to a Manila slum and exhorted residents who knew any drug addicts to "go ahead and kill them yourself as getting their parents to do it would be too painful".

Two months later, nearly 2,000 suspected drug pushers and users are dead and morgues continue to fill up. But faced with criticism of his actions by rights activists, international bodies and outspoken Filipinos, Mr Duterte has stuck to his guns and threatened to declare martial law if the Supreme Court meddles in his work.

According to a survey early last month, he has the support of nearly 91% of Filipinos.

National police chief Ronald dela Rosa told a Senate hearing this week that police have recorded more than 1,900 dead, including 756 suspected drug dealers and users who were gunned down after they resisted arrest. More than 1,000 other deaths are under investigation, and some of them may not be drug-related, he said.

Jayeel Cornelio, a doctor of sociology and director of Ateneo de Manila University's development studies programme, said he suspects only a few of Mr Duterte's supporters are disillusioned by the killings and his rhetoric because voters trust his campaign promise to crush drug criminals. They also find resonance in his cursing and no-holds-barred comments.

Mr Duterte's death threats against criminals, his promise to battle corruption, his anti-establishment rhetoric and gutter humour have enamoured Filipinos living on the margins of society. He overwhelmingly won the election, mirroring public exasperation over the social ills he condemns.

Economic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia has said the killings "may be a necessary evil in the pursuit of a greater good", a sentiment echoed by a deluge of comments by Duterte supporters on social media deriding his critics and defending the brutal war on drugs.

"The killings are okay so there will be less criminals, drug pushers and drug addicts in our society," said Rex Alisoso, a 25-year-old cleaner in Manila. He said people have got used to the way Mr Duterte talks and voted for him knowing his reputation.

Kim Labasan, a Manila shopkeeper, said she does not like Mr Duterte's constant swearing, his "stepping on too many toes", and his decision to allow late dictator Ferdinand Marcos to be buried in the Heroes' Cemetery.

But she supports the anti-drug war despite the rising death toll because, she said, she has personally seen the effects of drugs. Addicts in her town north of Manila have ended up with "poisoned brains" and even robbed her family's home.

Mr Cornelio said: "A battle of moralities is being waged right now by this administration - before, if you were a human rights advocate you are a hero of the country, now you are seen as someone who can destroy the country."

He said Mr Duterte fosters "penal populism" - identifying a particular enemy, a criminal, and then hunting him down to death. Because the results are visible, tangible and people feel it, "it becomes more important than many other things to the ordinary person".

Mr Duterte has said drugs are destroying the country. In his State of the Nation address last month, he said "human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country".

Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, said Mr Duterte "is stream-rolling the rule of law and its advocates both at home and abroad".

The killings suggest his aggressive rhetoric advocating extra-judicial solutions to criminality has found a receptive audience, he said.

Ferdie Monasterio, director of a travel-sharing company who does not support the president, said: "His supporters are cheering him on, but wait till one of them is killed. He is no different from Marcos and it looks like he wants to establish a dictatorship."

Mr Cornelio added that the death toll is not the clincher in turning public sentiment against Mr Duterte, because a lot of people look at them as justified killings. He said Mr Duterte's first year in office will be crucial since he promised quick action.

"I think the threshold has to do with the delivery of the promises," he said. "Are changes going to happen sooner or later? If they don't then, people will start getting disillusioned."


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