As Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential term—and his infamous War on Drugs campaign—hits its one-year benchmark, Sanho Tree, the director of the IPS’ Drug Policy Project, spoke with Rising Up With Sonali.
Duterte was propelled to the Philippine presidency on promises to crack down on drug use. But the drug problem in the Philippines “wasn’t that much worse than other countries in the region,” Tree said, and while there was a lot of crime, that’s a symptom of a larger societal problem.
“Drugs are a convenient scapegoat,” he said.
Duterte’s frequent television appearances have been punctuated with a call to eradicate drugs and drug users from society, encouraging extrajudicial killings. Since his reign,anywhere from 7,000 to 9,000 people have been killed extrajudicially.
Tree points out that “it’s overwhelmingly poor people living in the slums who are being killed in this way,” a reality that’s affecting Duterte’s approval rating amongst this demographic. They’ve realized that they’re the ones being targeted, Tree said.
“When you have a culture that allows extrajudicial killings, people will game the system,” Tree said, explaining that many vigilantes are taking advantage of the situation to settle scores with rival gangs, or even get revenge on a high school bully.
Though the bloody campaign has been met with international outcry, the Trump administration has been rather laudatory. To quote Donald Trump: ‘You’re doing it the right way.’
“Either Trump is just criminally negligent about what’s going on, or he really does endorse this,” Tree said. “President Duterte was very crafty when Trump got elected,” he went on, pointing out that Jose E. B. Antonio, the developer of a Trump property in Manila, was appointed as a special envoy to the United States.
“There’s extreme conflict of interest here”— the development project is valued at $140 million — “Trump is very much involved in that and so he tends to look the other way.”
As Duterte’s campaign continues, Tree points to a number of groups within the Philippines increasingly mobilizing against the drug war. “But they’re under tremendous pressure. This is a very terrifying situation to be in,” Tree said.
Many leftists inside Duterte’s coalition cabinet are calling for a complete break with the president. “But they need a lot of help,” Tree said.
And the answers to illicit drug use aren’t easy. Tree suggests looking at the root causes behind the issue. “I call it the PDA problem. Poverty. Despair. Alienation.” Tree said. “We need to deal with why people are choosing to use drugs rather than punish them.”