The Philippines' notoriously ultra-hardline President Rodrigo Duterte won rare favorable international headlines Oct. 12, when he said he would pull his National Police force out of his brutal "war on drugs," which has now reached the point of mass murder, with an estimated 8,000 slain since he took office last year. The move came in response to a wave of public outrage after the police slaying of an unarmed youth in the working-class Manila suburb of Caloocan City in August.
Duterte announced that henceforth, narco-enforcement will be solely in the hands of the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA), and will target only the "big fish." In making the announcement, Duterte took a sneering pot-shot at the "bleeding hearts and media" and "stupid European Union guys" who "were all focused on how many deaths." He added: "I hope I will satisfy you."
Even the country's Commission on Human Rights (CHR)—a harsh critic of the administration whose budget had just been slashed to practically nothing in an obvious punitive measure by Duterte—applauded the announcement. CHR representative Jacqueline Ann C. de Guia said: "We are hopeful that professionalism will govern PDEA in implementing the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act and that the campaign against drugs will be carried out with strict adherence to the rule of law."
Amnesty International, however, was not so optimistic. "President Duterte has pulled police off drug operations once before, in January this year, only to reinstate them a few weeks later," said James Gomez, Southeast Asia director for the UK-based human rights organization. "We are concerned that this too may be nothing but a short-term PR move in response to growing public outrage about the drug war's many victims, which are overwhelmingly poor, and include children."
And Gomez is right. Back in January, after a similar to-do when police agents were implicated in the murder of a foreign businessman, Duterte similarly said he would disband and re-organize the National Police narco units. Nothing changed. And shortly after that January announcement, Duterte broached sending the army in to enforce the drug laws—a move which has had spectacularly disastrous results in Mexico and Colombia.
Duterte's office, of course, responded contemptuously to Amnesty's concern. The PDEA "is now being demonized by Amnesty International," said presidential mouthpiece Ernesto Abella. "While Amnesty International is known to be disparaging of the frontline role of the PNP [Philippine National Police] in the anti-illegal drug campaign, now it sees the relief of the agency as a mere public relations stunt. PDEA is the new object of AI's and similar groups' ire and vilification." And, significantly, he added that the government will continue its drive to make the Philippines a "crime, corruption and illegal drug-free nation."
And, right on cue, there has already been talk of sending in the army to replace the police—as back in January. On Oct. 15, armed forces chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año said he was ready to provide army troops for drug enforcement, under terms of a "memorandum of agreement" signed with the PDEA after Duterte's January statement. "In line with the February 2017 MOA, the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] has been a significant force provider to the anti-illegal drug operations, especially in conflict-affected areas, particularly where conditions for insurgency, secessionism and terrorism persist," Año said.
This is an obvious reference to the southern island of Mindanao, both a top cannabis production zone and a hotbed of Islamist insurgency.
We hate to say it, but there is a distinct whiff of deja vu here. Let's hope that indeed Durete's drug war pressure is to be lifted this time. But this is no time to be lifting the pressure on Duterte. He has to know the world will be watching closely.