Philippine President Marks Controversial First Year in Power

Felipe Villamor
2017.06.30
Manila
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170630-PH-duterte-620.jpg Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to members of the Police Regional office of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (PRO-ARMM), at Camp Salipada K. Pendatun in Maguindanao province, May 5, 2017.
Mark Navales/BenarNews

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Friday marked his first year in office, one highlighted by his administration’s controversial war on illegal drugs that has left thousands of people dead, and capped by a raging offensive to win back the southern city of Marawi from Islamic State-inspired militants.

While his tough anti-crime policy has won him some plaudits internationally, rights groups argue that it has come at a steep price. Records from the police said 3,171 drug suspects have been killed in the drug war, while more than 10,000 others were considered “deaths under investigation,” including those blamed on vigilante groups.

While Duterte has denied any official involvement, his justice secretary has launched an attack on former human rights commissioner, and now Sen. Leila de Lima, who has been thrown in jail on charges of profiting from drug operations controlled by traffickers from inside the country’s national penitentiary.

A former police officer and self-described hitman have testified that they were part of a “death squad” employed by Duterte when he was the longtime mayor of the southern city of Davao prior to winning the presidency last year.

They had admitted to carrying out killings at his behest, and opponents of Duterte have filed a case in the International Criminal Court in The Hague, a move that was belittled by the maverick, 72-year-old president.

He has also rejected an independent probe that was to be carried out by the U.N.’s special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings.

Human rights calamity

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Duterte had “unleashed a human rights calamity on the Philippines in his first year in office.”

“President Duterte took office promising to protect human rights, but has instead spent his first year in office as a boisterous instigator for an unlawful killing campaign,” said Phelim Kine, a deputy director in HRW’s Asia Division.

“Duterte has supported and incited ‘drug war’ killings while retaliating against those fearless enough to challenge his assault on human rights,” Kine said.

The global rights watchdog group said HRW researchers had interviewed victims’ relatives, analyzed police records and uncovered a “pattern of unlawful police conduct designed to paint a veneer of legality over extrajudicial executions that may amount to crimes against humanity.”

It said claims by police of deaths from alleged vigilantes also did not exist, and noted that in some cases those who were found dead were earlier in police custody.

“Such cases call into question government assertions that the majority of killings were carried out by vigilantes or rival drug gangs,” HRW said.

‘An extraordinary year’

On Friday, Duterte’s office marked the anniversary by issuing a statement saying he was a “big winner” in 2016, and adding that the public appeared to have been largely transfixed by his every move during his first year in office.

“The first 12 months of the Duterte administration has been an extraordinary year – highly audacious, very productive and marked by political will, making the nation the real winner,” the presidential palace said.

Among other achievements, it said Duterte had laid the foundation for better progress ahead, noting that the country’s economy gained 6.4 percent in the first three months of 2017 alone. Investors’ confidence too has not waned, with foreign direct investments topping U.S. $1.6 billion in the same period in review.

“Economic prosperity will not be realized if lawlessness and corruption proliferate [in] a nation. The public is fully aware that the spread of prohibited drugs has reached an alarmingly high level, the rationale behind the president’s centerpiece program of law and order,” the palace said.

The extra tough measure has led to the decrease in crime rates by 27 percent from July 2016 to May 2017, and more than 80 percent of Manila’s estimated 12 million residents “feel safer,” the palace said, citing a recent survey by pollster Pulse Asia.

It noted that the president was also looking at the possibility of resuming stalled peace talks with communist insurgents, and of silencing the guns in Mindanao, the country’s mineral rich southern third hampered by years of Muslim rebellion.

Fire and smoke rise over Marawi City after a series of airstrikes carried out by military fighter jets, June 29, 2017. [Richel V. Umel/BenarNews]

Marawi siege

While Duterte was with his top security and defense officials on an official visit to Russia, local militants allied with the Islamic State (IS) took over the city of Marawi in the south on May 23, triggering clashes that emptied the city of 200,000 residents.

Backed by Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern fighters, the attackers, led by Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon and the previously unheard of Maute group, rampaged through the city, taking several hostages, including a Catholic priest.

Five weeks of fighting have left at least 44 civilians, 82 troops and police and 382 rebel fighters dead, with no immediate end in sight.

The tough-talking president has also been forced to accept the help of a longtime military ally, the United States, which he had earlier criticized and threatened to kick out of the country in favor of China and Russia.

The remaining gunmen still hold portions of Marawi, and efforts to push them out have been hard. Duterte himself had said that the government appeared to have under-estimated their firepower.

On Thursday night, Duterte said the Islamic State’s actions could be considered a “revolution with no objective.”

“It has nothing to do with Islam or Christianity or Judaism. But it is an activity that is dedicated to the destruction of mankind,” the president said. “They know nothing but to destroy and kill. And that puts us in a very grave danger.”

He said, however, that the fight for control of Marawi was “something which I cannot really predict” after the military earlier missed deadlines it had set.

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