President Duterte’s War on Drugs Is a Pretense


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He is using it to quash the opposition in the Philippines. I should know: I’m one of his victims.

MANILA — Since taking office just over three years ago, President Rodrigo Duterte has not only overseen a murderous campaign on drug users and sellers. He has also unleashed a brazen assault on the country’s democratic institutions — at times, using his so-called war on drugs as a pretense for going after his political adversaries and dissenters.

I should know: I’m one of its victims. I am writing this essay from a prison cell in Camp Crame, the national Police Headquarters in Manila. I have spent the past two years here, after being arrested on fabricated drug-trafficking charges. But the only crime I committed was to use my platform as a senator to oppose the brutality of this administration’s campaign against drugs. And I hardly am the only target.

Mr. Duterte’s government has orchestrated the removal of a Supreme Court chief justice and harassed and sidelined Vice President Leni Robredo (she belongs to a different party). Independent media houses have been bullied with bogus criminal charges; one was effectively pressured into being sold to Duterte allies. The president has publicly threatened human rights activistsand others with death — never mind that he or his aides often then downplay his statements as lighthearted banter.

But most worrisome, perhaps, is the administration’s effort to cow what little remains of the formal political opposition, often through politicized criminal cases.

Take my case. In 2016, shortly after Mr. Duterte’s election, I opened a Senate investigation to look into extrajudicial killings that were being committed under the guise of fighting drug crimes. The president’s retribution was as swift as it was ruthless.

He once said, “I will have to destroy her in public.” He has called me an “immoral woman,” and in 2016 his allies claimed to possess a compromising sex video and threatened to show it to a congressional panel. In February 2017, I surrendered to the police after arrest warrants were issued against me. I have remained in detention since, facing three drug-related charges — for which the evidence is laughably thin. The United Nationsthe European Union, various human rights groups and other experts have called the charges politically motivated.

Leila de Lima, center, after her arrest in 2017.
Leila de Lima, center, after her arrest in 2017.CreditTed Aljibe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Other opposition lawmakers have faced similar treatment, in particular those who oppose Mr. Duterte’s so-called war on drugs or other key administration policies, such as his efforts to bring back the death penalty or to revise the Constitution, most likely in order to remove limits on presidential terms. Many of these cases beggar belief. In October 2018, the Congressmen Antonio Tinio and Ariel Casilao organized a peaceful protest in Davao City against the continued application of martial law on the southern island of Mindanao, after brazen terrorist operations by an armed group linked to the Islamic State in the spring of 2017. The congressmen were then charged with child abuse, apparently because a handful of indigenous youth attended the demonstration.

Another frequent target is Senator Risa Hontiveros, a vocal critic of the government’s antidrug campaign. In 2017, Ms. Hontiveros helped shelter underage witnesses to the murder, by police officers, of a teenage boy. Although she was acting at the request of the witnesses’ parents — who understandably did not trust the police to keep their children safe — Ms. Hontiveros was charged with kidnapping (as well as for wiretapping).

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More subtly, the administration has also used a range of tactics to subvert democratic practices, not least in the Legislature. Lawmakers who oppose the Duterte administration have seen budgets for their home districts slashed or sometimes been stripped of their membership on important select committees. The government has also manipulated the rules of procedure of the House of Representatives to ensure that the official minority bloc — which should be an important check on the executive — is mostly composed of pro-government lawmakers.

A new Congress convened on Monday morning and Mr. Duterte was scheduled to deliver his fourth State of the Nation address later in the day. Since the midterm elections in the spring, the Senate is stacked with the president’s people: They now control the super majority needed to push forward problematic polices — including amending the Constitution to grant the executive branch even more powers.

Mr. Duterte was elected very comfortably in 2016, and his approval ratings remain very high. But the people of the Philippines voted him into office so that he would help the everyman and everywoman. They did not vote him into office so that he could repress the legitimate, also elected, opposition and use his brutal drug campaign to cement his grip on power.

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