While most of the Western world agonizes over the presidency of Donald Trump (and rightfully so), in southeastern Asia a highly controversial president nicknamed “Trump of the East” has been waging a deadly war on drugs since July. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who won this year’s presidential race in May by over six million votes, was known for his violent and outrageous comments during his campaign. Not only did he joke about the gang rape of an Australian lay minister, but he also promised that, if he was elected, so many dead bodies would be dumped into Manila Bay that the fish would grow fat. Previously known for his term as Mayor of Davao City in the Mindanao region of the Philippines, during which he transformed the notoriously dangerous city into the world’s 5th safest with an iron fist policy, Duterte carried a reputation for effective leadership that none of the other candidates measured up to. With the Filipino public exasperated by previous governments and desperate for a president that would take real action, the people were willing to support him despite his unorthodoxy.
The Philippines has a long history of poverty, drug smuggling and political corruption that, combined, have led to its widespread drug problems. Methamphetamine hydrochloride, known as crystal meth or shabu, is the southeast Asian nation’s most abused illegal drug, followed by marijuana; along with cocaine, ephedrine and ecstasy, it constitutes the majority of drug seizures. The legal penalty for discovery of shabu possession is life imprisonment to death; however, this has failed to deter its use and export: an estimated 10 percent of the population are users and the Philippines contributes to a significant percentage of global shabu production. About 20 percent of Filipino barangays (districts) are affected by drug-related crimes, with numbers rising to 92 percent in metro Manila where poverty is most concentrated.
In the months since his inauguration, Duterte has certainly taken action: between July 1 and September 5, at least 2,500 individuals were killed as part of his merciless and unlawful anti-drug campaign—this is equivalent to around 38 people each day. Even now, drug users turn themselves in and are found dead a few days later, and police raids regularly result in fatal shootings. Duterte has promised the police protection from any consequences of participating in extrajudicial killings, and has also offered security officials bounties for drug dealers’ bodies. Even ordinary citizens have been urged to help murder drug addicts, should they own guns. It is not uncommon to find the dead lying in the streets, signs proclaiming them “drug pushers” and condemning them to death propped up against their bodies. Any innocents and children killed, Duterte excuses as “collateral damage” of the automatic weapons used by police; he has repeatedly shown contempt and utter disregard for concerns raised by international human rights organizations like the UN in his determination to cleanse his country of drug addicts.
It’s not as if the use of violence as a method to encourage drug users to turn themselves in is doing wonders for the nation, either. With only 44 operating rehabilitation centers available and approximately 700,000 users having turned themselves in during the summer alone, jails are woefully overcrowded and the system is overwhelmed. Adding to the problem, a severe shortage of qualified doctors and drug counselors means that, in reality, very few rehabilitation and recovery resources are available to drug addicts prompted to seek help by the nation’s new policies. What’s a crystal meth addict to do? Turn yourself in and end up dead or in a jail cell filled to 500%; don’t turn yourself in and get caught off guard by a raid that, in all likelihood, will ensure you don’t live to see the next day anyway. Even those who genuinely want to enter rehab and recover from their addictions have little to no opportunity to, in the Philippines’ overloaded system.
The issue president Rodrigo Duterte is going head-to-head with is a legitimate and valid one that, unaddressed, will continue to undermine Filipino citizens’ safety and health—but is the steep toll on life of Duterte’s strategy really worth it? There has got to be a better solution to the Philippines’ drug problem than cutting down human beings in their own homes with a spray of bullets, than eliminating mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. Duterte has shown zero regard for the human life in his quest for a drug-free Philippines, raising the question- is he really looking out for the children and future of Philippines, as he claims?
This article was written by Jade Carraway, a writer for dusk magazine.