VIEWPOINT: Reframing Duterte’s War on Drugs

Politics in the Philippines is rife with contradictions. It is probably the only country in the world where voters would elect an authoritarian as president, a human rights activist as vice president, a homophobic celebrity boxer as senator and the first transgender congresswoman all in one general election.

This partly explains why President Rodrigo Duterte has taken such a stronghold of the Filipino people. Filipino voters, who tended to go with the tide in the past, are now protesting global consensus in response to a glut of criticism that skirts the real motivations behind support for Duterte.

Many Western media outlets and world leaders have been wagging fingers at Duterte for his drug war since before he was first elected. Yet his national approval ratings are through the roof, and it seems the Filipino people are sincerely hopeful that Duterte’s methods will eradicate drug dealers from the country. The discourse around Duterte’s drug war outside of the Philippines has been one of disgust and condemnation, but Filipinos see Duterte as the only person who can affect change in a political system where corruption, and thus lethargy, have dominated for decades. And he has followed through on all of his promises, a rarity in politics.

When the conversation at the dinner table turns to discuss Duterte, you begin to see three camps of Filipino people. The first camp is anti-Duterte, and concentrates on the human rights of the poor at the brunt of the drug war. The second camp is somewhere in the middle, probably pro-Duterte -leaning, which does not want to take a side and instead states that it is pro-Philippines. The third view is completely pro-Duterte and, rather than avoiding talk about the killings, the people in this camp take that issue head- on and use four rationalizations to explain why we must continue with this war.

As explored by sociologist Nicole Curato, supporters rationalize Duterte’s effort by believing concepts like universal human rights are put forward by Manila’s liberal intellectuals, who are out of touch with the daily brutalities of crime and drugs. Others say the leader’s actions are the proper way of matching prosperous neighbors that have been ruled by strongmen whose legitimacy is based on delivering peace, order and economic growth. Supporters also put forth the claim that the country must sacrifice the lives of some to preserve the lives of the majority, and violence is the only way justice can be done for people affected by drugs due to the broken legal system.

The current discourse, which belittles Duterte supporters rather than truly engaging the rationality behind their arguments, has only made Filipinos more impassioned and supportive of their leader. Yet people who grew up in both worlds, like myself, now truly understand the effect that sensationalism in the media has had in fueling the fire rather than enabling intelligent discourse. We tiptoe around the anger emanating from both sides, because taking on an opinion also means taking on a side of a playing field where no one wins.

The media must stop positioning the Philippines as the first to go in a fatalist interpretation of world politics, or calling attention human rights issues as if Filipinos were blind to the obvious truth that people who do not deserve to die are in fact dying. If you really want to stop Duterte’s anti-drug war, I would avoid these traps and instead actually try to understand the motivations driving Filipinos to support him. As we have already seen in this unique U.S. election season, belittlement never works.

Micaela Beltran is a junior in the College.

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