Blundering along

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Like the American invasion and conquest of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, the Duterte watch has been as bloody and as blundering. 

The four-day shutdown of the gaming operations of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) was the more recent example of regime incapacity to address the country’s many problems.  Its policy of unrestricted rice imports, which is further impoverishing farmers, is another. And there’s also the influx of vast numbers of Chinese nationals among whom there’s likely to be military personnel that’s creating a national security problem for the country. The Duterte administration has in fact more than once created more problems rather than solved a pre-existing one.

Apparently, neither Mr. Duterte nor his closest advisers were unaware, or simply didn’t care, that the closing of PCSO’s lotto and other outlets would affect the livelihoods of the over 300,000 men and women who operate them and other games in various capacities all over the country, and that, in any case, they have little or nothing to do with the corruption Mr. Duterte said afflicts the agency. 

PCSO is one of those government units to head which Mr. Duterte had earlier appointed the usual military retiree. The same appointee had resigned, citing widespread corruption in the agency for his reason in doing so. Allegations of corruption have hounded PCSO for years, but it stands to reason that that problem is most likely to be most pronounced at the highest levels of its bureaucracy rather than at the outlets’ and even the players’ level, as Mr. Duterte alleged when he summarily ordered their closure.

But despite its near disastrous impact on over a quarter of a million Filipinos, the PCSO blunder was nothing compared to the cost in real lives of Mr. Duterte’s bumbling and brutal  “war on drugs.”

If both local and international human rights defenders are correct, its mindless implementation has cost the country over 30,000 dead including women, minors and children as young as three years old. Those deaths have also made widows and orphans of thousands in the country’s poorest communities who have been arbitrarily deprived of their families’ breadwinners. But despite this unprecedented cost in Filipino lives, rather than abate, the drug problem has become even worse.


Not that Mr. Duterte did not have prior warning that the “kill them all” approach has never worked. It didn’t work in Thailand, and it hasn’t worked anywhere else. But despite that record of failure elsewhere, and the futility of that approach to the Philippine drug problem, Mr. Duterte’s police minions are still swelling the already huge numbers of suspected drug addicts and pushers killed, while failing to stop the flow of billions of pesos worth of drugs into the Philippines. The same approach has also created a brewing humanitarian crisis that’s adding to the poverty of thousands of families and forcing them to resort to petty crimes and other desperate means in order to survive. Research has established, for example, that in their desperation some of the widows of those killed in the “drug war” have resorted to prostitution.

But rather than review its “kill, kill, kill” approach to the drug problem, there is mounting evidence that it is being replicated in Mr. Duterte’s all-out war against the New People’s Army (NPA)  and the political party that commands it, the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).

But it’s not the NPA alone that the police and military are targeting but also the  farmers, workers, and lawyers organizations as well as human rights defenders and political and social activists groups that the regime claims to be CPP  “fronts.” 

Because the members of those organizations are unarmed and above-ground, they are easier targets for either assassination or the filing of all sorts of criminal charges. The NPA is not directly affected because it is armed and a clandestine organization. But the idea is to deny it the political and other support the regime claims are provided by the legal organizations it has been targeting. It is essentially the same tactic the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) used in Vietnam in the 1970s under the aegis of its “Phoenix Program.” By assassinating civilian non-combatants thought to be supportive of the Vietnamese National Liberation Front, the Program was a form of terrorism and came close to committing genocide.

That tactic’s failure — the Americans and their Vietnamese collaborators lost the war in 1975 — validates the argument that repression, state terrorism and murder, when used against social movements with legitimate aims, inevitably fail, or if they succeed at all do so only for a time. It failed in South Africa as it did in Vietnam. It failed in Chile — and it failed in the Philippines some forty years ago, when, despite the extrajudicial killings, the arbitrary arrests and detention, the torture and terrorism of the Marcos kleptocracy, the NPA not only survived but even grew in number, strength and influence.

The lesson from that period as well as from the experience of other countries apparently escapes the Duterte regime and its military and police minions.  Against all reason have they made Negros Oriental province a laboratory in which to test the effectiveness of the “kill, kill, kill” approach to the so-called insurgency by encouraging if not carrying out the killing of progressive lawyers, human rights defenders, farmers and workers.

Apparently, however, it isn’t working as they thought it would. In apparent desperation, Mr. Duterte has announced that he will arm firemen, whom he has ordered to “kill the enemy.” As usual, however, that obvious attempt to augment the already huge numbers of police and military personnel in Negros is likely to be another regime blunder.

Part of its costs will be the further surge in human rights violations, given the expected absence of any orientation on it for firemen, since, as Mr. Duterte has often declared, he doesn’t care for human rights. Beyond that, however, is the distinct possibility that the guns of insufficiently trained firemen will fall into the hands of the NPA, as, indeed, even those of trained police and military personnel have added to the NPA arsenal in the course of its tactical offensives, ambushes and raids on police stations and military detachments.

Mr. Duterte had the opportunity to be the greatest President this country has ever had when, early in his term, he seemed to have been truly committed to seeing peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines — the umbrella organization of the CPP, NPA and other revolutionary groups — to their logical conclusion: that of arriving at an agreement to implement the social and economic reforms that would address the poverty, inequality and social injustice that for 300 years has driven Filipino  rebellions and the demand for change and even revolution.

Not only has Mr. Duterte squandered that opportunity by canceling the talks at their most crucial stage. He is right now also committing the very same monumental blunder every administration in this country has made since 1946:  the stubborn and counterproductive adherence to the use of violence to address rebellions and  “insurgency,” and with it, the refusal to put in place the reforms that can finally bring peace to this sorry land. Contrary to his and his trolls’, admirers’ and supporters’ claims, Mr. Duterte is no better than his predecessors, and far worse in his enshrinement of killing as official policy.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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