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Why do Filipinos support the drug war?

Sep 21. 2017
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By Joel Ruiz Butuyan 
The Philippine Daily Inquirer 
Asia News Network

It puzzles and shocks critics of President Rodrigo Duterte. With corpses piling up in his bloody war on drugs – more than 13,000 at the last count – Duterte still earned high trust ratings in four-quarter surveys during the first year of his presidency.

In the year up to June, Social Weather Stations public surveys gave Duterte trust ratings of 84 per cent in June 2016, 83 per cent in September 2016, 81 per cent in December 2016, 80 per cent in March, and 78 per cent in June.

These ratings coincide with the period when thousands were being killed in police and masked-vigilante operations. The killings have been rife with reports of mistaken identities, “collateral damage”, and arrests of eyewitnesses under trumped-up charges to silence them.

Since the last survey in June, however, three teenaged boys have been killed in outrageous circumstances. The deaths of Kian Loyd delos Santos, 17, Carl Angelo Arnaiz, 19, and 14-year-old Reynaldo de Guzman have drawn strong condemnation even from Duterte’s supporters.

The despicable manner in which the three boys died must have dented the president’s trust rating, though the extent of the damage won’t be known until the next survey. Yet Duterte continues to enjoy substantial backing, with die-hard supporters still zealously defending him.

Why is public trust in him still so high despite the increasing number of unlawful killings and terrible abuses by policemen?

The most plausible answer comes from my colleague at the Centre for International Law (Centrelaw), Cristina Antonio. Centrelaw represents a number of families of victims of extrajudicial killing in the current war on drugs.

It filed the first legal challenge against “Operation Tokhang”, and managed to obtain a writ that gives protection to the families of four men who were killed by policemen in Quezon City, and the lone survivor, Efren Morillo.

Antonio has personally interacted with many victims’ families. She observes that in urban poor communities which experience unlawful killings, the people put the blame entirely on abusive policemen. The assignment of liability does not reach the president. For them, unlawful killings happen because crooked policemen violate Duterte’s orders. 

Many residents of these communities are supportive of the war on drugs because they say many of those killed are drug couriers and addicts notorious for having paralysed their neighbourhoods with fear. I have heard of urban poor people applauding the killing of drug pushers who had been openly plying their trade since the Marcos era.

It is not unreasonable to estimate that nine out of every 10 people killed by the police and masked vigilantes are genuine drug criminals who have long destroyed peace and order in local communities. The feeling of relief brought about by the killings of these people outweighs the fear engendered by the few killings of innocent civilians.

For Duterte’s critics, it is not enough to persistently argue that the killings are unlawful and inhuman. Calling his supporters nasty names does not win converts but instead hardens hostility. And it does not help that many of these critics live isolated from the crisis in gated communities. 

For opponents of the violent war on drugs, wholesale condemnation does not sway support away from Duterte. It is interpreted as a denial of the benefits of peace that the campaign has brought to drug-infested communities.

The campaign to stop the unlawful killings must acknowledge the need for a drug campaign, but insist on the necessity of detailed solutions and specific proposals that will prevent rogue policemen from becoming rampaging murderers.

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