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The War on Drugs Is Just One of Several Being Waged in the Philippines

Janine Jackson interviewed Amee Chew about the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte for the April 19, 2019 episode of “CounterSpin.” This is a lightly edited transcript.

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Filipino demonstrators
Filipino protesters march against President Rodrigo Duterte on November 30, 2017, in Manila, Philippines. , Jes Aznar/Getty Images

Janine Jackson interviewed Amee Chew about the Philippines under Duterte for the April 19, 2019 episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Janine Jackson: Welcome to CounterSpin, your weekly look behind the headlines. I’m Janine Jackson.

This week on CounterSpin: A March Washington Post article about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said:

As of December, more than 5,000 people have been slain because of Duterte’s war on drugs, according to officials. That number, however, is significantly lower than the estimate given by human rights groups, which put the casualties at closer to 12,000, or even 20,000.

Note the passivity of the phrase “have been slain,” and the choice to lead with an official death toll rather than human rights groups’ less self-interested numbers. The 12,000 figure provides a link to a Human Rights Watch report that has never been the subject of a Washington Post news story.

Among many things such reporting wouldn’t lead you to suspect: Two years ago, when the Philippines Senate tried to cut funding for the campaign of state and state-sanctioned violence, for which the toll of “even 20,000” is almost certainly conservative, it was the United States that stepped in with the money to fill the shortfall. That’s a direct line from your tax dollars to the leader who said:

Hitler massacred 3 million Jews…. There’s 3 million drug addicts. There are. I’d be happy to slaughter them.

Corporate media don’t talk much about the Philippines, much less about the US role and responsibility there. A recent piece from Foreign Policy in Focus, headlined “It’s Time to End US Military Aid to the Philippines,” filled some of that void. We’ll hear from its author, Mellon/ACLS public fellow Amee Chew, and hear also from two Filipino activist/organizers, Ed Cubelo and Mong Palatino.

That’s all coming up and we’re going to get straight to it. You’re listening to CounterSpin, brought to you each week by the media watch group FAIR.

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With his attacks on the poor and vulnerable, his disdain for international law, his assault on press freedom and his personal meanness, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte should not be completely unrecognizable to Americans. But US media take little interest in Duterte, even as his “war on drugs” racks up a death toll of human beings in the tens of thousands, making the crisis seem to be something happening in a faraway land.

But our next guest reminds us that the human rights crisis unfolding in the Philippines actually has quite a bit to do with US actions and aid. Amee Chew is a Mellon/ACLS public fellow; her article, “It’s Time to End US Military Aid to the Philippines,” appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, among other outlets. She joins us now by phone from the Bay Area. Welcome to CounterSpin, Amee Chew.

Amee Chew: Thank you.

JJ: US news consumers may have heard about a “crackdown,” or a “War on Drugs,” under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a war that “features extrajudicial killings,” as the Washington Post rather dryly put it. For those who have only a vague sense that Duterte is taking a “hard line” toward “drug dealers”—or “trying to fight criminality,” one AP report had it—how would you describe the scale and the nature of the killings, of the drug war, and what measures of accountability or transparency exist to even keep track of it all?

AC: Yes, well, so as of December 2018, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights estimated that as many as 27,000 people have been killed due to Duterte’s drug war. And police have officially claimed responsibility for 5,100 people who they have killed in anti-drug operations. The rest of the killings might be perpetrated by police as well as vigilantes. These are summary executions, where police will be doing house-by-house operations, busting into people’s houses and shooting people, or vigilantes will be riding on motorbikes and killing people on the street.

It’s important to note that Duterte has been inciting them. In his campaign, he promised to kill 100,000 people in the first six months of office, and dump them into Manila Bay. When he got into office, he told police that “If you kill 1,000 people by doing your duty, I’ll protect you.” Police have really stepped up their drug operations since he’s been in office.

And there’s actually been reports, by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that police are being paid rewards to kill people. This is an unofficial policy; it’s not publicly acknowledged. But there are witnesses coming forward about this.

And vigilantes who are perpetrating killings are also closely associated with the police. It’s been documented that some have reported being hired by police; witnesses have noticed collaboration.

JJ: Duterte was always clear that it was drug dealers and drug users whose bodies he was going to dump in Manila Bay, right? He wasn’t really making a fine distinction there, that people might be thinking.

AC: Right. The people being killed include former users, people who no longer use drugs, people who are users, and small petty dealers have been gone after. And most people are from poor communities; they’re almost all low-income people, very low-income people.

Just to say on a personal level, it’s at the point where most people I know in Manila know someone who has been affected, whether it’s an acquaintance, a family member or friend.

Just an example of some of the cases, there was a 17-year-old student, by the name Kian Delos Santos, he became a source of national protest, because for the first time, police were captured on CCTV cameras, showing that they were dragging him. And they later executed him. So the police claim that he drew a gun on them, and that’s the common story to justify all these killings, that the person fought back, they had a weapon. But because of the footage, people were able to press for these officers to be brought to trial, actually. So he was a young person who was killed.

And there are many cases. There was a 14-year-old, Reynaldo de Guzman, who was stabbed over 26 times and tortured. His body was found in a creek in 2017. I know someone who both of their parents were killed.

So there’s a very large dragnet, in terms of who is being affected, and also a real climate of fear in these communities; people are afraid to come forward about it, because they’re afraid they could be next. There’s a political element to some of these killings, because some of the people killed have been local elected government officials, and so forth.

JJ: And, of course, beyond the fatalities, we also have lots of folks in prison, including pretrial detainees.

It’s often isolated in US press coverage, but of course, as you’re just starting to say, the “drug war” in the Philippines comes in a broader context. And for that context, we were able to hear from two Filipino activist/organizers.

Mong Palatino was a former two-term Filipino congressperson representing the youth sector. And he’s now Metro Manila chair of the group BAYAN. He had this to say:

Mong Palatino: I think it is important to highlight and remind our friends in the US that the human rights situation in the Philippines is worse than is depicted by media. So more than the drug war, Duterte has been waging an all-out war against suspected communist rebels. He declared martial law in Mindanao. He’s jailing critics. He is filing trumped-up cases against activists. And then the extrajudicial killings have targeted, not just drug suspects, but also activists, human rights lawyers, environmentalists and church leaders. So it is important to highlight that the deterioration of the human rights situation is linked to the rising resistance in the Philippines against the repressive government of Duterte.

JJ: We also got context from Ed Cubelo, vice chair of the Philippines’ May First Movement; here he’s translated by Mong Palatino:

Ed Cubelo:  In particular, to the situation of Filipino workers, whose situation is not adequately reported by mainstream media in the Philippines, related to this is the demand of workers for adequate jobs and living wages. Also the continuing attack of the government against Filipino workers.

Filipino workers are facing greater hardships because of contractualization. Filipino contractual workers cannot join unions, cannot form unions, and their working conditions inside factories are not safe. And if workers assert their rights, they are removed from their jobs, or they are accused of supporting terrorist groups.

Also, I’d like to highlight the jailing of union leaders, the filing of trumped-up cases against union organizers, and I hope this will reach our friends in the US.

JJ: Amee Chew, another aspect of Duterte’s repression of dissent—of workers, of judges, of indigenous leaders—it’s also included attacks on the press, isn’t that right?

AC: Yes, there’s a really large number of journalists who were killed in the first two years under Duterte, which is the highest number of murdered journalists in the first two years of office of any Philippine president.

And one really prominent case, too, besides these outright killings, there’s an indy media outlet called Rappler, and the director of that outlet, Maria Ressa, just has had constant arrest warrants issued against her; I think she might be arrested right now. This is a form of harassment, because they are one of the few outlets to cover the war on drugs, as well as other issues, from an indy media perspective.

But, yes, what’s important to understand is that the war on drugs is actually just one of several wars that are being waged in the Philippines right now. And there are other wars of repression; they get a lot less coverage in the US media, but they are also escalating.

So one is this attack on human rights defenders and dissent from journalists, environmentalists to labor organizers and civil lawyers, human rights lawyers, there has been an increase in killings.

Secondly, there’s also an ongoing war against terrorism in the Philippines, especially in the southernmost, largest island, called Mindanao, so this war on terrorism has been going on for quite a while. There’s been ongoing civil wars in Philippines, but under Duterte, he declared martial law in Mindanao in 2017. And there’s been an escalation of bombings of indigenous communities, people being displaced. So that’s going on as well.

I also just wanted to say that, in understanding the violence of the police in the war on drugs, it’s important to put it in context of the relationship between the police and the military in the Philippines, and also the role of the armed forces.

In the US, historically, the police came from slave catchers. But in the Philippines, the police came out of counterinsurgency operations, from the period of colonization and conquest under the Americans at the turn of the century. They started a military police system called the Philippine Constabulary, and to this day, the police and the military work very closely together on essentially military operations that are counterinsurgency operations.

Basically, when the US left the Philippines—or officially left it, by giving it formal independence in 1946—it created a highly unequal society through colonization, where there is very concentrated land ownership under the landlord class, and also a very big, landless peasantry. The economy in the Philippines has been geared towards exports, whether that’s export agriculture; today it’s exporting migrant labor, call center services.

The process of colonialism left this very big inequality, and constantly since 1946, there’s been movements against that. There’s been peasant insurgencies, there’s been civil wars, there’s been several separatist movements. And the US has always played a role in backing the elitist government and repressing these movements. And so today, we have a situation where the main role of the armed forces is not about defending the Philippines from outside invaders; it’s about continuing these wars against people within the Philippines.

And it’s really an ongoing legacy of this unfinished colonial project, especially when you look in Mindanao. Like, who is being targeted? It’s these Moro Muslim and indigenous communities, that historically have been the last footholds of resistance against Spanish and US colonization. And now these indigenous lands, which are some of the last places to be opened up to multinational mining and logging corporations, people have been resisting against that. And that’s part of why the communities are being targeted.

JJ: And in some ways, it seems as though the United States has never left. You’ve traced the history, but to be clear, what is the current role of the US, and particularly of US military aid, or aid to the Duterte government?

AC: Military aid is absolutely critical in providing Duterte weapons, ammunition, surveillance technology, and bolstering his military modernization programs. Duterte’s regime is the largest recipient of US military aid in [East and Southeast] Asia, and he has massively increased his own military spending, like doubled the salaries of police and military. His whole program is about increasing the power of the police and military even more.

For example, just last year, US military aid to the Philippines totaled at least $193.5 million, not including arms sales and donated equipment of unreported worth. About as much is pledged for this year.

So this amount may not seem like that much compared to the US’s own bloated military budget. But it’s actually a very tremendous transfer of weapons and surveillance technology, that’s significant when it comes to propping up the Philippine armed forces capacity.

And then, meanwhile, there’s also a US troop presence in the Philippines, there’s up to as many as 5,000 troops deployed in the Philippines at any one time, purportedly for war games, but also overseeing this counterterrorism campaign in the south.

There’s also unequal military agreements, longstanding ones, like the Visiting Forces Agreement and the newer Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, that allow the US access to building military bases since we got kicked out in 1992. Actually, the People’s movement in the Philippines kicked out US bases, but this is a way of getting around that. And then the Visiting Forces Agreement, essentially, makes it very hard to hold US troops accountable when they perpetuate human rights violations, whether that’s murder or sexual assault.

So we give a significant amount of aid, and then there’s actually a significant amount directly to the police; of the figure I quoted, we gave $33 million in aid to the Philippine police, plus $18 million to them in arms sales. And so we’ve been giving 5 million rounds of ammunition last year, 2,253 machine guns, besides other surveillance equipment and weapons.

And when you look at the expenses, like, for example, a big expense in the war on terror is so-called aerial surveillance and reconnaissance technologies. There has been an increase in bombings in Mindanao under Duterte. So hundreds of thousands of people have been displaced by militarization, and Duterte has dropped bombs on Philippines soil, impacting over 368,000 people.

JJ: So when we read those news reports, we should be connecting that directly to what our taxpayer dollars are funding.

We asked Ed Cubelo and Mong Palatino what role the international community and folks in the US could play in the work for social justice in the Philippines. Here’s Ed Cubelo:

Ed Cubelo: The role of the international community is significant, especially here in the US, in adding pressure to the government about the protection of human rights in the Philippines.

It’s not just enough to inform people about the situation in the Philippines; we need to remind the government, legislators and other institutions in the US and other countries about the situation of workers in the Philippines, and how workers are being repressed who are simply asserting their rights.

JJ: That was Ed Cubelo. And now here’s Mong Palatino on the role of the international community in supporting Filipino human rights:

Mong Palatino: First, we’d like to thank our friends in the US and other countries who have spoken out against the abuses in the Philippines, and are standing with the Filipinos in asserting our rights. It is important to add pressure to the Philippine government by reminding the government to comply with international human rights standards. At the same time, here in the US, the Congress should review and stop giving military and police aid to the Philippines, which is being used to enable human rights abuses. We are also monitoring and supporting the process at the International Criminal Court, where cases have been filed against Duterte in relation to the drug war, and other human rights abuses committed by state forces. So this support is important in protecting the rights of Filipinos in the struggle for human rights and democracy in our country.

JJ: Amee Chew, any final thoughts about what folks can do, and also what reporters might perhaps do more or less of, in coverage of the Philippines under Duterte, and the US responsibility there?

AC: I think as reporters in the US, we should really cover the whole US role in this whole spectrum of violence that’s going on in the Philippines, not just the drug war. So, yes, thank you for doing this show and drawing attention to that.

And I also think that as people in the US, like Mong Palatino and Ed Cubelo said, we have a special role to play in pressing on government to not support the Duterte regime, and to end US military aid to the Philippines.

And also to make connections with movements on the Philippines, to build solidarity, to learn about the resistance movements there and build bridges, and in connection to the movements globally around these issues, in terms of direct military presence and the impact it has.

In Mindanao, one of the really concerning things that’s happening is the use of paramilitaries against indigenous communities, in a way that’s really similar to US-backed tactics in Central America, that resulted in genocide of indigenous communities. So the Philippine military is literally arming and training paramilitaries, and these are terrorizing local people.

And one of their targets has actually been schools, because, as part of efforts to organize against land-grabbing, indigenous communities have formed organizations, starting educational institutions, as something they really needed, because 90 percent of indigenous children do not have access to formal education. This service is neglected by the government. And they really also wanted to create education that’s relevant to the communities, that’s not paternalistic.

So these schools have been bombed, targeted; this community has gone through so much, intensely. And this is the result of the deliberate campaign against those schools. The military cut off the water supply. And at the present moment, those schools are currently closed. So that is the situation that these communities are facing. There’s dozens and dozens of schools in this similar situation. There are 2,000 students who couldn’t attend classes because of being harassed by nearby military encampments in the past year.

So that’s the situation, and it’s really disconcerting to read the reports of how we spend our money in these Department of Defense reports, and also know people being affected.

JJ: One of many, many stories that reporters who are interested in what’s really going on, and the deeper context of what’s happening in the Philippines, one of many stories, Mindanao is, that they could be digging into.

AC: Also, I’d just like to lift up some of the resistance to the drug war, because I think it’s in international media, how terrible Duterte is, but we don’t hear about the grassroots resistance, especially when there’s such a vibrant movement in the Philippines, in terms of mass-based organization in low-income communities.

So I just wanted to highlight a group called Kadamay, which is an organization of urban poor people throughout the Philippines, and their membership is the Ground Zero of the drug war, since the drug war really centers in metro Manila and urban communities. So they were one of the first groups to come out against it publicly, with protests and demonstrations as early as 2016. And they had a flier about it. And I just wanted to share a little bit from it. Their flier said:

Instead of using violence, we need to address the roots of the spread of illegal drugs. In the whole world’s history, drugs have not been eradicated by killings. Regular jobs, living wages, health services, education and raising the quality of life, are what is needed.

Why is drug use widespread among the poor? The number of poor people in the country is increasing. Many are drawn to using illegal drugs to escape the hardships of life, and even to be able to endure working longer hours despite sacrificing their bodies.  The syndicates and corrupt officials also take advantage of the desperation of the poor. They can get underlings who are forced to work for them.

Addiction is an illness that is very hard to treat if there is not adequate and prompt medical assistance. What we have is so expensive, and really, still, hardly any health centers are equipped to respond to this illness.

And so they go on to say, “We can’t address this with killing, but with a movement of people to change society.”

This is a kind of organizing that’s happening. In recent years, there’s a group of families of people who have been killed in the drug war, who have come together to also organize, called Rise up for Life and Rights. And you can find this group on Facebook if you want to support the work they’re doing.

So when we look at all this violence, we can’t separate it from the US’s imperial shadow. And when we look at the drug war, we have to consider that in the Philippines, there are not social safety nets, or significant ones, because they were never allowed to be developed, because of the neocolonial relationship between the Philippines and the US.

There’s never been a government budget for things, and there’s widespread unemployment and even the presidency prior to Duterte, Benigno Aquino’s regime, which has been celebrated as supposedly an anti-corruption government and unprecedented economic growth. Well, the reality is that poverty stayed the same. This was like a jobless economic growth. It did not help the majority of people, who still live on less than $2 a day. So there’s widespread precarity. Most people with jobs work in the informal sector. So I mean, most people who earn an income work in the informal sector; they don’t have jobs. So despite what you hear about, like the call center industry in the Philippines or whatever, it’s not reaching the majority of people. And so there’s been a failure of neoliberal economic policies of the last decades, and that’s played right into the hands of people’s need to want some other kind of solution. Then, unfortunately, in the form of Duterte, you know, it’s come in terms of authoritarianism.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Amee Chew. Her article, “It’s Time to End US Military Aid to the Philippines,” can be found on Foreign Policy in Focus; that’s FPIF.org. Thank you to Ed Cubelo and to Mong Palatino, and thank you very much to you, Amee Chew.

AC: You’re welcome. Thank you.

Janine Jackson is FAIR’s program director and producer/host of FAIR’s syndicated weekly radio show CounterSpin. She contributes frequently to FAIR’s newsletter Extra!, and co-edited The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the ’90s (Westview Press). She has appeared on ABC‘s Nightline and CNN Headline News, among other outlets, and has testified to the Senate Communications Subcommittee on budget reauthorization for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Her articles have appeared in various publications, including In These Times and the UAW’s Solidarity, and in books including Civil Rights Since 1787 (New York University Press) and Stop the Next War Now: Effective Responses to Violence and Terrorism (New World Library). Jackson is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and has an M.A. in sociology from the New School for Social Research.

FAIR is the national progressive media watchdog group, challenging corporate media bias, spin and misinformation. We work to invigorate the First Amendment by advocating for greater diversity in the press and by scrutinizing media practices that marginalize public interest, minority and dissenting viewpoints. We expose neglected news stories and defend working journalists when they are muzzled. As a progressive group, we believe that structural reform is ultimately needed to break up the dominant media conglomerates, establish independent public broadcasting and promote strong non-profit sources of information.