FEATURE: ‘Are We Still Living in a Democracy’? Philippine Opposition Fights Back

FEATURE: ‘Are We Still Living in a Democracy’? Philippine Opposition Fights Back

What you need to know

President Duterte’s alleged extrajudicial killing spree looks set to be investigated by the Senate, but public sentiment in the Philippines is still overwhelmingly with the new president.

After more than 100 alleged drug dealers and addicts were reportedly killed by police and vigilante groups in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took office on June 30, opposition leaders are starting fight back.

Senator Leila de Lima has filed a resolution for an inquiry into what she described as a “policy of summary executions and extrajudicial killings” under the country’s new leader.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer published a daily 'kill list' and has tallied 72 police killings from June 30 to July 7 and an additional 35 such killings over the weekend of July 9-10,” Human Rights Watch deputy director, Asia division, Phelim Kine says in a recent report. “Police have attributed the killings to suspects who ‘resisted arrest and shot at police officers,’ but have not provided further evidence that they acted in self-defense.”

Lito Arlegue is the executive director at the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats (CALD), a group linked to the Philippines opposition Liberal Party. Arlegue says that while most agree that action to curb drug-related crime is necessary – particularly since the issue became so prominent during the election campaign – he is worried about the lack of due process which has emerged since Duterte took office.

“If these things continue, it will be really damaging to our justice system, to our democracy,” he told The News Lens International from Manila. “I know that things have to be done. But it still has to be in accordance with the law. That is what worries me.”

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

Potential impact and backlash

Duterte, who won the Philippines election with a strong majority, remains popular. De Lima’s proposed investigation has been slammed by political opponents and many in social media, but Arlegue remains positive that it could have a significant impact in “shaping and even changing” public perception of the killings.

De Lima, who has called for the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights to investigate, was the Secretary of Justice under the previous government and still has “a lot of clout," Arlegue says.

He adds that previous senate investigations, despite often serving senators’ self-interest, are “essentially for public consumption” and have made a difference in Filipino politics. He notes an investigation into corruption involving former vice president and presidential candidate Jejomar Binay led to a decline in his ratings.

“I think these senate investigations are very helpful in terms of public education. You see it on television, you read it in the news,” Arlegue says. “In the past, senate investigations have led to substantive political results.”

De Lima has suggested that the Duterte administration, if it has nothing to hide, should welcome the investigation. However, supporters of the popular president have been active on social media campaigning criticizing the opposition's stance.

De Lima herself has been severally attacked online – Arlegue says he was “personally, surprised by the level of viciousness on social media” – with most people in favor of allowing the administration to “have a chance to prove itself.”

“My sense is we are still in the honeymoon period,” Arlegue says.

He notes that most people commenting on social media who are giving Duterte “the benefit of the doubt” are educated, have access to the Internet and “are exposed to the news.”

However, he says it is “really worrying” to see some commentators “bordering on blind loyalty already.”

“If you read the comments, most people are saying ‘let the government do its job, ‘why are you protecting criminals, they deserve to die,’” Arlegue says.

But Arlegue concedes that the opposition to the killings remains in the minority.

“Looking at the opposition to these kinds of actions, I could not say they are widespread, [or] that the sentiment is widely shared by the population,” he says.

A supporter of presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte is pictured during election campaigning for May 2016 national elections in Malabon, Metro Manila
Photo Credit: Reuters/達志影像

Police links, international concern

Most of the killings have been attributed to the Filipino police. Vigilante groups have also taken credit for some of the killings and there have been “insinuations” that drug syndicates themselves have played a role, Arlegue says.

Duterte, speaking at a military ceremony earlier this month, surprised media by naming five high-ranking police officials who are now under investigation for their connection to drug syndicates.

Arlegue says while he hopes this investigation will produce results – “I would not be surprised if some members of the police may even be behind these drug operations – he is concerned by the “manner” in which the investigation was announced. He said it appears the generals names were announced publicly, prior to a formal investigation starting – although the government claims it does have evidence linking the generals to the drug cartels.

“Again, it appears the respect for due process and law is not being observed here,” he says.

Human Rights Watch’s Kine notes the 100-plus killings since Duterte took office compare with 68 police killings of alleged illegal drug suspects from Jan. 1 to June 15 this year.

He says the spike in killings of drug suspects places an extra burden on the administration to ensure police perform within the law.

“The government, starting with Duterte, should loudly make clear that the police need to respect the rights and protections of all criminal suspects all the time,” Kine says.

Meanwhile, Duterte, in his typical firebrand style, said he will pardon police officers who are convicted in relation to the crackdown on drugs.

This sort of rhetoric continues to concern some commentators, albeit the minority.

“Statements like that are quite worrying. It gives the police a ‘go-signal’ to kill,” Arlegue says. “I don’t think it is healthy for a democracy, which claims to have a working justice system.”

Arlegue says that dating back to the People Power Revolution in 1986, “I don’t think any one of our presidents acted in the way Duterte is acting now; not even the widely-despised, widely-criticized President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.”

“There are some statements coming from Duterte now that makes me wonder, ‘are we still living in a democracy?’”

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole