President Rodrigo Duterte interacts with supporters before the start of ‘Convergence of Nanay Volunteers as Community Drugwatch’ held at the Parade Grounds in Clarkfield, Angeles City, Pampanga on December 22, 2016. (Karl Norman Alonzo/Presidential Photo)

Eigth out of ten Filipinos, a December 17 Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey has found, fear that they or someone they know could be a victim of extrajudicial killings or EJKs.

As Senator Grace Poe has observed, the fear is understandable in view of the epidemic of killings in the course of the Duterte anti-illegal drug campaign. The police killing spree has claimed not only the lives of drug pushers and users; it has also victimized both those individuals who have nothing to do with the drug trade as well as drug addicts driven to the habit by poverty and desperation.

President Rodrigo Duterte has so empowered the police and exempted them from accountability that they now have the power to decide who are involved in illegal drugs and to act as judge, jury and executioner. Duterte’s pledge to protect policemen accused of criminal acts such as EJKs in the course of the anti-illegal drugs “war” not only reinforces the already pervasive culture of impunity in a country where the perpetrators of various forms of wrongdoing, whether plunder, tyranny or murder, have handily escaped punishment. The Duterte pledge also implies that he would interfere with the judicial process to see to it that those so accused, even if tried and convicted, are not imprisoned.

Fear of being victimized by a police force with unchecked powers has spread not only in poor communities but even in middle class enclaves, where the police compel people to attend drug seminars, non-attendance to which they interpret as a sign of non-cooperation, drug addiction, and even involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Duterte’s drug “war” has not only put many Filipinos in fear of their lives and in actual danger; his repeated pledge to protect the police and to even kill as many as three million drug pushers and users has also ushered in a period of growing lawlessness among the members of the very institution charged with enforcing the law, to the defense of which Duterte’s oath of office binds him.

The human rights crisis the killings in the anti-drug campaign has generated is real enough. But it is also emerging as the most credible excuse for any attempt to unseat Duterte by those groups, individuals and political forces that cannot abide the Duterte regime for other reasons.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokespersons and even former Chief of Staff Ricardo Visaya have denied it. Apparently, however, both President Rodrigo Duterte and Cabinet Secretary Leoncio “Jun” Evasco, who’s been described as his most trusted adviser, believe that a coup attempt against the Duterte administration is either likely or already in motion.

Duterte has so far visited 14 military bases all over the Philippines to assure himself of the soldiery’s loyalty. During those trips he has outrightly told officers and enlisted men that there’s no need to overthrow him because he’ll willingly step down, even as he promised them pay increases and additional benefits. His appointment as AFP chief of staff of someone accused of human rights violations also seems to have been driven by an attempt to curry favor from the AFP wing of right-wing extremists.

In recognition of their “good work,” Duterte has also showered high-ranking police officials with P100,000 to P400,000 bonuses. While the “good work” justification is obviously in reference to the police’s central role in the Duterte “war” on drugs, it’s also one way to assure police loyalty in case the usual suspects do launch an attempt to extra-Constitutionally remove Duterte from office.

These suspects include retired police and military generals as well as those still in the active service who resent Duterte’s resumption of peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), his appointment to the Cabinet and other posts of NDFP nominees, and his release of NDFP peace talks consultants who were in government custody. Also in the same company are such anti-communist and pro-US ideologues as former National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzalez and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV. In what sounded like a wish as well as an observation, the latter very early warned that Duterte’s opening to the Left is likely to provoke coup attempts more serious than those that occurred during the Corazon Aquino and Gloria Arroyo regimes.

An alliance of like-minded, home-grown groups and individuals united by common interests is likely to be involved in any coup attempt. But foreign support for, even instigation of, the formation of such a coalition of convenience is more than probable, not only because these groups exaggerate the extent of Left influence over Duterte and the latter’s allegedly “socialist” tendencies, but also because they cannot abide the realization of his threat to reduce if not altogether abandon the country’s political, economic and military dependence on the United States and to seek alliances elsewhere, particularly US rivals China and Russia.

Although Duterte has blown hot and cold over his “separation” from the United States and even his pledge to pursue an independent foreign policy, his recent threat to terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), if carried out, would be contrary to US strategic interests.

Although Barack Obama gave it a name, rather than a policy that will end once Obama yields the US presidency to Donald Trump in January, 2017, the “pivot to Asia” is a strategic US shift to contain Russian influence and China’s ascendancy in the region. Duterte and company apparently believe that his statements on US-Philippine relations and on his claimed preference for Chinese and Russian support, once enforced as policy, are enough to provoke US backing for his overthrow.

Fear of that possibility moves the organizing efforts of Cabinet Secretary Evasco, who has been recruiting Duterte partisans all over the country for his Kilusang Pagbabago (KP — literally, movement for change). An Evasco ploy to help protect Duterte from being removed from office, the KP can also be a regime instrument to keep him in power in the tradition of the “brown shirts” of Adolf Hitler — for whom, probably not coincidentally, Duterte has expressed admiration. Right-wing fears that the KP could be another left-wing formation seem misplaced at this point, its members’ loyalty being solely to the person of Duterte and not to any ideology.

A successful coup d’etat at this time will restore authoritarian rule and expose the country’s citizens, notably political activists, human rights defenders and those individuals who have been openly identified with the NDFP and the Communist Party of the Philippines to political violence even more brutal than during the Marcos dictatorship. That disaster would be instigated by both internal and external forces opposed to what they perceive to be a threat to their political and economic interests. In the same manner that Marcos masked his vast appetite for pelf and power in reformist terms, the plotters would initially cite the need to stop the killings to justify their putsch.

To head off such a threat Duterte could suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus as the prelude to eventually placing the country under martial law. To succeed, the regime will need the active collaboration of the military as well as that of the United States, whose connivance and support were crucial to the survival of the Marcos terror regime. What is likely to emerge, despite Duterte’s reputation as an anti-American and his claims at being a leftist, would be a dictatorship functioning in behalf of elite and foreign interests.

Either possibility will further impede the already glacial progress of the country towards authentic democracy, even as the war on drugs has already severely damaged respect for human rights, due process and the rule of law. For the worst resurgence of the authoritarian threat since the Marcos regime, 16 million Filipinos should blame themselves and their May 9, 2016 electoral choice, whose reckless statements demonstrate only too well that his understanding of the forces in contention in Philippine society is, at best, limited.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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