The Philippines and Rodrigo Duterte

by Colin Pummel

On the thirtieth of June, 2016, a new world leader assumed power in the Philippines after running a campaign filled with bold promises of change and an aggressive stance against the rampant drug trade in the Philippines. While many politicians (particularly in the United States) run campaigns based on empty promises of change that in reality they could never enact, Rodrigo Duterte has followed through on his assurances with death squads and hit men. In a move similar to those seen in the United States during the Cold War, Duterte has taken a McCarthyist approach to addressing government corruption, publicly naming government officials suspected of engaging in the drug trade.[1] However, despite the dramatic and violent new policies of this president, some people in the Philippines argue that this aggression is exactly what the country needs to bring it back from its position as a major drug capital of the world.

Since Duterte took power, there have been rumors of government-approved vigilantism and government forces carrying out targeted assassinations. Last month, during a Philippine Senate hearing, a man named Edgar Matobato testified that he had been part of a death squad operating in the city of Davao under Duterte’s orders when the president was merely the mayor of that city. “Our job was to kill criminals like drug pushers, rapists, snatchers…these are the kind we killed every day,” Matobato said during the hearing.[2] While Matobato’s testimony indicates that Duterte has a history of anti-criminal violence, it has only increased after he became president. When he controlled Davao City, Duterte claimed that he was behind the deaths of approximately one thousand seven hundred people; after he took office as president, there have been three thousand six hundred hits connected to Duterte’s anti-crime campaign.[3]

Opposition to these policies of President Duterte have led to international division between the Philippines and the United States, who have traditionally been allies. Duterte’s well-publicized remarks against President Obama in early September were only a precursor to the growing tensions, which could culminate in a formal break in alliance. According to one analyst, “[Duterte] was seeking to break the Philippines out of the United States’ orbit and signal to China that he is ready to negotiate closer ties.”[4] This shift is occurring simultaneously with a downturn in the Philippines’ economy, seeing a four percent reduction in the nation’s stock market since July alone. Some, both in the United States and in the Philippines, blame Duterte’s policies for this fall, but experts claim he had no direct influence on the economy.[5]

Whether or not Duterte’s policies are effective in achieving his goal of cleaning up the Philippines, many Filipino people view his presidency with a certain amount of trepidation. Pacific Union College has a fairly significant student body from the Philippines or of Filipino descent, and some have expressed their views on Duterte, ranging from fear over family members who occasionally take less significant drugs like marijuana that have not yet been targeted by the death squads, to a sort of necessity–that these harsh tactics are what the nation needs. In any case, if these trends continue it seems very likely that the Philippines will begin to appear in world affairs far more frequently over the term of Duterte’s presidency than it has in the recent past.

[1] Enrico dela Cruz and Manuel Mogato, “Philippines President Duterte Steps Up Name-and-Shame Anti-Drugs Campaign,” Reuters (August 7, 2016): Accessed October 9, 2016.

[2] Jim Gomez and Teresa Cerojano, “Witness Says Philippine President Ordered Killings,” Associated Press (September 15, 2016): Accessed October 9, 2016.

[3] Andrew R. C. Marshall and John Chalmers, “Special Report: In Duterte’s War on Drugs, Local Residents Help Draw Up Hit Lists,” Reuters (October 7, 2016): Accessed October 10, 2016.

[4] Richard C. Paddock, “Behind Duterte’s Bluster, a Philippine Shift Away from the U.S.,” The New York Times (October 9, 2016): Accessed October 10, 2016.

[5] Vidya Ranganathan, “It’s the Economy: Duterte Not Main Cause of Philippines Market Selloff,” Reuters (October 4, 2016): Accessed October 10, 2016.

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