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Duterte is a disaster

Image credit: Prachatai (Flickr: Creative Commons)

An oft-cited poll conducted in early July found that 91% of the Filipino population trust President Rodrigo Duterte. The public mood in the Philippines is likely to sour before long.

Duterte’s lack of discipline is damaging to the Philippines’ foreign policy interests and to regional cooperation. He is a threat to the rule of law in the Philippines. And his war on drugs is drawing attention away from larger problems facing the country, where 12 million people live in extreme poverty.

In case you missed it: on Monday morning, responding to a journalist’s question about his upcoming meeting with Barack Obama, who had signalled his intention to raise the issue of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, Duterte called the US President a ‘son of a whore’; ‘Who is he to confront me?’ Obama immediately cancelled the scheduled meeting and by Monday night Duterte had apparently figured out the answer: ‘I do not want to quarrel [with] the most powerful president of any country on the planet’. The next day Duterte released a statement regretting if his words ‘came across as a personal attack’.

The result of this embarrassing episode was the missed opportunity to discuss at the highest level, among other issues, Philippine-US cooperation in the South China Sea where the Philippines has territorial disputes with China. While the damage to the Philippine-US relationship may only be temporary, it comes at a time when China is busy establishing facts on the ground by building artificial islands and military infrastructure in the South China Sea, and as some Filipino officials worry that China is preparing to construct an artificial island on the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

Visible fissures in Philippine-US relations ‘could make Beijing less likely to negotiate’. Beijing has already refused to negotiate bilaterally to resolve the disputes unless Manila agrees not to mention the recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in favour of the Philippines. If Duterte has a South China Sea strategy, it’s not working.

Of much greater concern are Duterte’s domestic policies. Following his inauguration, Duterte instructed Filipino citizens to ‘go ahead and kill’ any drug addicts they knew. Since 1 July anti-illegal drug operations by police have killed 1,033 people, while another 1,894 deaths are ‘unexplained’. The impunity accorded to the killers is not only an egregious violation of human rights, but also gives cover to murders ‘linked to local politics, crime and rivalries’, which need not be investigated further so long as the dumped bodies carry signs indicating the victims were drug dealers.

Some commentators gloss over this unpleasantness by arguing that Filipino politics needed a shake up, and point to Duterte’s record of success in combating crime while mayor of the city of Davao. Richard Heydarian, who as an academic should know better, repeats Duterte’s claim to have transformed Davao into one of the safest cities in the world. This is a complete fabrication. From 2010 to 2015, Davao had the most murders and second most reported rapes of any city in the country. Following the references, the ‘evidence’ for Duterte’s claim comes from an obscure website,, which collects user opinions on crime in various cities. This would be laughable were it not currently being used to justify murder.

As Thailand learned a decade earlier, compared with treatment programs, draconian ‘wars on drugs’ are ineffective. Moreover, relative to other countries the Philippines does not have a particularly bad drug problem. The prevalence of amphetamine use in the Philippines—by far the most popular illegal drug in the country—is 2.35 per cent, while in the US, for example, it is 2.20 per cent.

The Philippines has much larger problems. According to the World Health Organization, despite strong economic growth half of the population still lives on less than two dollars per day. Thirty per cent of children under five are stunted. Yet Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign is siphoning off resources from these crucial areas. To pay for spending increases in the police and army, Duterte has decided to cut P31 billion, or around 25 per cent, from the health budget and to make other large cuts to agriculture, labour and employment, and foreign affairs.

Duterte has already damaged the Philippine-US relationship and undermined the rule of law in his country. His lack of attention to the Philippines’ development challenges is worrying. Presidents in the Philippines are elected for terms of six years; Duterte’s popularity will plummet well before his ends. What then?

Cameron Steer holds a Bachelor of Science and a Master of International Relations from the University of Melbourne.

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