Manuel Quezon III is a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and the host of the political affairs show “The Explainer” on the ABS-CBN TV news channel.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went to Manila this week apparently without making much of an issue of the drug war. Before his arrival, it was reported that he would bring it up with President Rodrigo Duterte. After the meeting, a Tillerson aide said that his boss had mentioned it to the Philippines president, but the statement sounded distinctly pro forma.
Duterte had his own version of the story. He told the press that the Americans and Australians (whose foreign minister also paid him a visit) are addressing the issue less and less and that they had touched upon human rights issues only “in passing.” He claimed they were mainly interested in discussing terrorism (in the context of the two allies’ support for the Philippine military’s ongoing fight against Islamic State militants on the island of Mindanao).
Diplomats posted to Manila had received a tongue-lashing from the combative Duterte at the annual State of the Nation Address to Congress marking his first year in office. The European Union ambassador, the Philippine ombudsman and the country’s human rights commissioner — all of whom he has thundered against in past weeks — were pointedly omitted from the list of invitees. His speech began not only with a reiteration of the need for the War on Drugs but also with a sweeping rejection of human rights and “Western” concepts of punishment. It is a waste of time, he insisted, to jail rapists and drug offenders, only to release them after they’ve served time.
Within a day of his speech, a suspected child rapist apprehended by the police died in custody after he supposedly tried to grab a policeman’s gun — a version of events that raised many eyebrows. The case underscored the point made by Duterte in his speech the day before. Not long after, the country was rocked by the killing of the mayor of Ozamiz City and at least 14 others.
That operation itself was dramatic. Electricity in the city was cut. Closed-circuit television coverage was switched off. And somehow, as security forces were supposedly trying to serve him a warrant, the notorious mayor, Reynaldo Parojinog, members of his family and bodyguards were killed in a firefight. The police officer in overall charge of the lethal operation happened to be the same man under whose watch another notorious mayor, Rolando Espinosa, had been arrested last year, only to die in custody. In that case as well, the police claimed that it had happened in the process of serving a warrant. A police officer suspended in the aftermath of that earlier killing — which the National Bureau of Investigation (equivalent to the FBI) bluntly categorized as a “rub-out” — was not only reinstated but also promoted. The head of the police later told the Senate that action was taken at the behest of Duterte himself.
As for the officer who headed the Ozamiz City operation, the head of the police said he would be reassigned — to the next city in which a major anti-drug operation takes place. Let this be a warning to other mayors, the police chief said.
We can assume that diplomats have advised their ministers that bringing up human rights publicly with the president is bound to be unproductive. Duterte has repeatedly stated that the only acceptable way for foreigners to discuss human rights with him is to do it in private, if at all.
What is lost in all the analysis and reportage on Duterte is why he has managed to get away with it. The answer lies in the Filipino fetish for “political will,” a phrase much loved by politicians and political observers alike, to describe Filipino expectations of their presidents.
From the start of his presidency, Duterte offered his subordinates and the public absolution for the drug war. All responsibility, he vowed, would be his, personally. He has said time and again that anyone convicted in a court of law will receive a presidential pardon. That declaration offers the key for his success at gaining public consent for his war on drugs. He has placed himself above, and thus beyond, ordinary law, making himself the supreme law.
A further, related point needs to be made: Duterte has been careful to lay out a case to the public and his subordinates for a “just war” through the use of dossiers containing lists of officials and others he insists are drug lords, which he waves around during speeches. Some of these are explicitly identified; others are mentioned obliquely, suggesting that he is giving them a chance to mend their ways. And always, he warns: If you do not surrender or stop, do not be surprised by what happens to you.
This method provides an alibi not only for himself but also for all officialdom. Here is political will in spades: assuming responsibility, reiterating the justness of his war, assuring everyone implicated that the president has their backs. Whether shocked or awed by the outcome, the country is assured of one thing: their collective innocence in what has transpired. And so the country can applaud the liquidations with a clear conscience.
The day after Tillerson left, having dispensed with the looming expectation of foreign criticism, Duterte was triumphant and uncompromising. Addressing the police during their anniversary celebrations, he said: “Find me a law … that says it is illegal to say those words, ‘I will kill you if you destroy my country and the youth of my land.’ “