Rodrigo Duterte is not to blame for the thousands of Filipinos killed during the 15 months of his presidency. That’s what his supporters claim. His popularity is pitched as proof of his mandate, and his iconoclasm is cast as an effective antidote to a dilapidated democracy that has always thrived on inequality.
Many of the president’s actions, however, remain indefensible. But he is not the only one to blame.
Mr. Duterte’s allies in the government, his die-hard supporters and well-rewarded propagandists — the cogs in his political machinery — have been revved up to great momentum. Their drive to quash opposition has been taken up with a righteous zeal that may outpace even the president.
The recent murder of 17-year-old Kian Delos Santos fits a pattern we’ve seen repeatedly for more than a year. Closed-circuit television footage, witnesses and an autopsy all testify to police culpability. Yet in the days following the public release of this evidence, Mr. Duterte’s most vocal supporters joined the police in casting the victim as a drug runner and his father and uncle as dealers. Even the secretary of justice stonewalled against calls for investigation, wielding the usual excuses that the killing was “collateral damage” and “isolated” while blaming the media for “blowing it out of proportion.”
Public attention soon shifted to a Senate investigation into how more than a ton of crystal meth, worth more than $125 million, was fast-tracked through Philippine customs in a shipment from China. One witness provided text messages that seemed to link members of the president’s family to the operation. He later retracted his testimony and apologized to the Dutertes, but only after, as one senator noted, his protective custody was withdrawn.
When the president’s son finally testified in a hearing, senators faithful to the president did not so much question him as try to shut down the interrogations by their colleagues from the opposition. Newspapers and social media circles loyal to the administration continue to castigate the opposition for alleged corruption and plotting to overthrow the government.
This is unsurprising. Various political players with their own agendas have found it expedient to remove any obstacles to Mr. Duterte’s rule.
The media have long been accused of bias in their coverage against the drug war, and some news organizations have already been taken over or threatened with closure. The head of the government’s Dangerous Drugs Board, whose estimate of drug addicts in the Philippines totaled fewer than half of what Mr. Duterte claims in speeches, was replaced. The vice president, who is from the political party of the previous administration, faces an electoral recount.
The pro-Duterte legislature has moved to impeach the chairman of the Commission on Elections, alleging ill-gotten wealth. A citizens’ group called the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption is filing impeachment motions against the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the ombudsman — both are officials who assert independence from the executive branch. And Congress voted last week to allocate an annual budget of only about $19.50 to the Commission on Human Rights, which has been outspoken against police abuse.
Most recently, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre was inadvertently photographed in the Senate sending a text message about filing cases against Senator Risa Hontiveros, who had spoken up against the killings. Ms. Hontiveros had backed investigations into the drug war, telling the president that his words “have the effect and weight of policy.”
It’s hard to disagree with her, given Mr. Duterte’s words threatening anyone who stands in his way and given his administration’s policies.
The president has constantly promised to pardon the police, and officers involved in executions of untried drug lords have received commendations and promotions. Just before the recent murders of three teenage boys, including Kian, Mr. Duterte was clear with his praise. “Those killed earlier in Bulacan — 32 — in a massive raid: That’s beautiful. We could kill another 32 every day, then maybe we could reduce what ails this country.”
Later that night, Kian was murdered, one of more than 80 killings over four days. Witnesses say that the police had given the boy a gun and told him to shoot it in the air and flee. This brings to mind the president’s words in a speech to the police last year, offering advice when dealing with unarmed suspects. “If they don’t have a gun,” he said, “give them a gun.”
The public outrage for Kian’s case could not be ignored. His family had proudly backed Mr. Duterte’s candidacy, and Kian had dreamed of becoming a police officer to join the fight against drugs. With Filipinos angry and scared, the president made an unexpected move and met with the boy’s family, promising justice. Yet many of Mr. Duterte’s supporters had been busy justifying Kian’s death and then had to scramble to fall in line.
Logic and common sense dictate that the president either sanctions the killings or is incompetent to stop them. As commander in chief, he bears ultimate responsibility. But the popularity of his style of governance makes his war on drugs neither legal nor right. It simply broadens the culpability to those who defend his words and actions.
The impunity that has seen at least 4,000 and as many as 12,000 Filipinos killed, more than 50 of them children, is bolstered by a refusal to confront the perpetrators honestly. The top brass cry foul whenever police officers are accused of brutality. Legislators scuttle or truncate investigations. A legion of trolls, bloggers and partisan writers posturing as journalists attack anyone who dares to dissent. And the administration and its supporters refuse to recognize human rights as universal protections against abusive power, instead redefining them as an obstruction to progress, a tool hijacked by those whom they say seek to overthrow a democratically elected president — albeit a president who has threatened to suspend democracy and impose martial law.
It’s as if we Filipinos haven’t learned.
Forty-five years ago on Thursday, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, purportedly to save the country from Communism. The clampdown led to the suspension of democracy for 14 years and resulted in shameless plunder, vast poverty and tens of thousands of human-rights violations.
The fact that dictatorship is achieved through a gradual process is a lesson we cannot afford to forget. If we do, we will have only ourselves to blame.
Miguel Syjuco, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel Ilustrado and a professor at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi.