The presidency of Rodrigo Roa Duterte is certainly one that has proven to be memorable. Yet, whether it be his decorum and speech, his stark disdain for drugs, or his use of unconventional methods in obtaining or maintaining peace and order, Filipinos are divided on whether to view this regime in a positive or negative light. In part two of this six-part Probe series, we continue to look back at the incumbent president’s reign, before we soon welcome the nation’s new chief executive.
2017: Distorting the Duties of Power
2017 was a productive year for President Duterte. With a total of thirteen national laws signed and implemented, three international conferences hosted—including the 30th and 31st ASEAN Summits—as well as his continuous pursuit to fulfill his personal goals for the country, the president was kept busy throughout the entire year.
In his second year of presidency, the Duterte administration exhibited what could happen to critics and anyone viewed to be an enemy of the state.
The Arrest of Senator Leila de Lima
Senator Leila de Lima had always been a critic of Duterte, long before he even ran for president. The history between the two politicians dates back to the year 2009, when De Lima, as the then-chairperson of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), flew south to investigate the Davao Death Squad and their connection to the murders of alleged drug users and other criminals.
The CHR discovered a “mass grave” in a firing range in Barangay Ma-a in Davao. Although they reported that no clothing pieces nor personal belongings were found, a “set of human bones” was seen in the quarry. “The site is believed to be the dumping ground of bodies of victims of summary killings, according to informants of the CHR,” said the institution in a July 2009 press release.
Not long after assuming the presidency, Duterte openly accused De Lima of being involved in illegal drug trade. He claimed that the then-senator’s driver and partner accepted money from convicted drug lords in the New Bilibid Prison, which would then allegedly be given to De Lima as campaign funds.
While De Lima refuted the claims, deeming them baseless and a form of “character assassination”, the fierce senator was soon after stripped of her position as chairperson of the committee of justice and human rights, after being voted out by her colleagues in the senate.
After inmates in the New Bilibid Prison testified to confirm Duterte’s accusations, as well as constant opposition from governing powers, De Lima was arrested and detained by the state on February 24, 2017. To this day she is still behind bars, despite past witnesses taking back their statements.
The Duterte administration made it difficult for freedom of speech and proper investigations to take place, as their power was used not to serve the public, but to silence anyone who goes against them. They send out the message that tells the masses they will be met with danger if they fail to follow the rules.
Problems in the PNP
In the first month of 2017, investigations and senate hearings took place after the kidnapping and murder of South Korean businessman Jee Ick Joo in October of 2016. This killing was brought about by PNP officers under the Anti-Illegal Drugs Group. Duterte then ordered the PNP to cleanse their ranks, before resuming Drug War orders in March,
Seven months later, Grade 11 student Kian delos Santos was also shot in an anti-drug operation in Caloocan City. The police officers claimed that he tried to fire at them first, but witness accounts and CCTV footage belied this statement.
Since his campaigning days, the president has been giving the PNP much power and support—as seen, for example, in his vow to raise the officers’ salaries. Thus, it is no surprise that a culture of impunity was built up and has been plaguing the entire institution. The police’s lack of remorse and audacious attempts to get away with their profound crimes through lying show how the state has fueled them to feel high and mighty in their position.
The more the War on Drugs became institutionalized, the more vigilante-style killings took place. From July 1, 2016, to October 10, 2017, 112,086 arrests and 3,933 deaths were reported by the PNP.
However, many in the police force and even Duterte himself denied that these murders were extrajudicial, and refused to push through with investigations—both local and international.
Martial Law in Mindanao
On May 23, the Maute Group began to wreak havoc in Marawi City, taking civilians hostage. Attacks worsened as public facilities were occupied, and as multiple places in the city were set ablaze. By nighttime, President Duterte declared Martial Law for the entire island of Mindanao.
Tensions in Marawi persisted until several daily battles won the city’s liberation on October 17. However, the supposed 60-day Martial Law was repeatedly granted extensions, reaching as far as December 2019. The initiative that was meant to uphold the security of Filipinos in the south soon evolved and transitioned into militarization.
The war in Marawi left over 1,000 killed and nearly 200,000 displaced from their homes. However, in 2020, the United Nations (UN) still tallied 127,000 people displaced from the fighting. Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, James Gomez, noted the possibility of atrocities committed by the government—not just by the militants.
“Civilians in Mindanao have faced unlawful killings, destruction of their homes, ill-treatment and numerous other human rights abuses at the hands of Philippine armed forces and Islamist militants since the imposition of martial law…” he remarked.
The director also shared that, in the recent months at that time, “there [had] been a disturbing rise in killings of human rights defenders and political activists across the region in recent months,” and urged that Duterte “ must not use martial law as a pretext to commit further violations in Mindanao without any accountability.”
Yet, just as Gomez had predicted, Martial Law indeed led to further violations of human rights. UN special rapporteurs also reported that from October to December of that year, 2,500 Lumad were evicted from their homes, and some Lumad farmers were also killed in South Cotabato.
As though repeating history, Martial Law was used by the administration as a license to take the lives and property of the innocent, simply in order to expand their power.
Perhaps President Duterte was not as favorable to the masses as many had painted him out to be. In 2017, he put aside any threat to his power and seized every opportunity to make his influence even greater.