Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte salutes one of the awardees during his visit to Camp Juan Ponce Sumuroy in Catarman, Northern Samar on October 2, 2018. (Robinson Niñal Jr./Presidential Photo)

The US-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) is correct: the Philippines is indeed “a war zone in disguise,” and is among the world’s deadliest countries for civilians.

But it is not only due to the Duterte regime’s murderous campaign against suspected drug users and small-time pushers that at the same time coddles drug lords and smugglers and their accomplices in government, which its bureaucrats, including President Rodrigo Duterte himself and the complicit media, refer to as a “war.”

It is also because every Philippine government has waged a war of attrition against its own citizens. And the current administration has ramped up that war to a level reminiscent of the human rights violations and extrajudicial killings during Ferdinand Marcos’ equally brutal dictatorship.

ACLED based its conclusion on the number of civilians killed in the “war on drugs,” in the last two years of which, human rights groups say, some 25,000 men, women, and even minors and children have been killed without due process and on the specious claim that they resisted arrest and fought back. The report noted that more civilians were killed in the Philippines last year than in the failed states of Iraq, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In 2018 the Philippine National Police (PNP) admitted only to 4,540 deaths during its “anti-drug” operations since 2016, and claimed that some 23,000 possibly drug-related deaths are still under investigation. But even 4,540 in two years is still a high enough number of deaths to raise questions about the sanity of the campaign and on the state of police compliance with such Constitutional provisions as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial as well as their respect for the fundamental human right to life.

In response to ACLED, Duterte spokesperson Salvador Panelo described its report as ignorant and biased, and used the occasion to once more assail Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as Rappler, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the New York Times and Reuters news agency as “hopelessly and blindly critical of the Duterte administration.”

Panelo at the same time claimed that the regime he serves holds the police accountable for their actions and that — despite his frequent assurances that he would protect them from allegations of human rights violations and from imprisonment — Mr. Duterte has “zero tolerance for errant law enforcers.”

He also recalled the case of the police officers convicted of the murder of 17-year-old teen-ager Kian de Los Santos to prove his point — without mentioning, however, that it is only one case among thousands that include the killing of dozens of minors including a four-year old that have not been similarly resolved.

The fact that police operations have claimed the lives of residents of the poorest communities accused of either using or selling illegal drugs has led both local and foreign observers to the conclusion that what’s being waged is not so much a war against drugs, but just another front in the war that every administration since 1946 has waged against the poor and their defenders and advocates.

It is in its failure to see the “war on drugs” as part of that greater and equally deadly war that ACLED errs. That war — the extension of the Spanish and US wars of conquest and colonization — has many faces and many fronts.

There is the war against truth that both the present regime and its predecessors have been waging to prevent citizen understanding of the reasons for the poverty of millions of Filipinos. It has been and is being fought over government media and through both the old media of print and broadcasting and the new media resident in the Internet and other computer-based communication systems.

In the Philippine countryside not only truth but also its messengers are among the casualties of the same war. Journalists and media workers are still being murdered at the instigation of local government officials who use as killers their police, military and other accomplices to prevent public exposure of their corruption and other crimes.

The war against truth and an informed citizenry has so far claimed 158 lives since 1986. Only a handful of those murders have been resolved, and only partially: no masterminds have been convicted. In hundreds of other instances, journalists have also been harassed, threatened, barred from coverage and even arrested and charged with libel and patently absurd offenses.

There is as well the war against human rights defenders, environmentalists, critical nuns and priests, workers and farmers and their leaders, progressive lawyers, Lumad, Moro people, upright judges and even reformist local officials. The casualties in this war run into the thousands, and, as in the other fronts of the war against the poor, the attacks are continuing.

But that war is assuming a different and potentially even more virulent phase during the Duterte regime. Past administrations such as that of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s tried it as well, but managed to go only so far. Today, the regime’s obsession with identifying protest, journalists’, workers’, farmers’, students’ and teachers’ groups, NGOs, and party list organizations among others as “fronts” of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and even as recruiters for the New People’s Army (NPA) is threatening to push the already high number of casualties of the war against the poor to record highs, as the police and military focus on compiling registries of the members of these formations.

No one has asked why the police are attempting to gather information on the memberships of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers (ACT), unions, journalists’ groups and other civil society organizations.

Although the PNP has admitted that it is in furtherance of the so-called anti-insurgency campaign, the precise reasons for it have so far not been divulged. The disturbing possibility is that it and such other tactics as identifying the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) with the “insurgency” is a prelude to either widespread arrests under a reestablished martial law regime, or the implementation of the “Suharto model” of mass murders for which Mr. Duterte has expressed his preference as a means of crushing the “insurgency.”

(In 1965, the Indonesian generals launched a US-supported coup d’etat against then President Sukarno, killed millions of registered members of the legal communist and nationalist parties, as well as ethnic Chinese, atheists, and non-believers in Islam. Army general Suharto eventually became president and ruled Indonesia for 30 years.)

The Philippine “insurgency,” like its antecedents (the Diego Silang Uprising, the Philippine Revolution of 1896, the Huk Rebellion, etc.), is in the first place rooted in poverty. But it is also among the results of mass frustration and disillusionment over the use of lawless State violence against the efforts of various groups to find the solutions for it. Instead of acknowledging the value of the work the organizations of farmers, workers, students, teachers, women, environmentalists and other sectoral groups and the thousands of NGOs in this country are doing, the Duterte regime disparages them for addressing the problems of Philippine society and providing the services the government won’t provide.

Their existence is in fact indicative of civic concern over the decades-long failure of government to address those problems. And yet only with total war against them, and by extension, the Filipino people themselves — have Philippine administrations, including the present one, responded. No matter how much they may deny its reality and protest their accountability for it, it is they who have made the Philippines as dangerous a place as the other war zones in the rest of the planet.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo 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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