Get real
Philippine Daily Inquirer, 7 January 2017


Last year—last month, actually—I wrote a column on extrajudicial killings (EJKs) in the Philippines (“EJKs: Crunching the numbers,” 12/3/16) which was “to be continued.”  Today, I continue that column. If the Reader will recall, I had asked the question: “Will President Duterte’s war on drugs, which has given rise to a spectacular increase in EJKs (in five months, more than all the killings done under the Marcos dictatorship and the combined terms of Aquino, Ramos, Arroyo and Aquino, covering more than 30 years), succeed?

First, what does success mean, in this case? Well, actually, no one has defined it. Even the magnitude of the problem to be resolved is unclear—ranging from the official agencies’ estimate of 1.8 million drug users to Mr. Duterte’s estimate of 4 million.  To complicate things further, the President had foreseen his task to be accomplished within three to six months, but later adjusted to one year, and now readjusted to the end of his term. All this because he did not realize, when he started, how large the problem was.

What then do we do? Very simple. Let us assume that “success” in the war on drugs will be defined by the President when he gets around to it, but will involve some vague reduction in either the barangays involved or the number of users/pushers, which will be clarified in his own time. Okay?

So the next question is: Will this war on drugs be successful? And the answer that I gave the Franciscan priests and seminarians who invited me to talk on EJKs was a resounding NO. What is the basis for that answer? My basis is the experience of Thailand, which conducted its first war on drugs beginning in 2003, and then (according to news reports) conducted a second war on drugs sometime in 2008, and has gone on to a third, maybe even a fourth, war on drugs. Thai officials, according to those reports, have themselves admitted defeat.

Let’s examine the Thai experience.

The first war on drugs was started in 2003 by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, at the behest of the King (the late Bhumibol Adulyadej). Thaksin said he would do it in three months, and then extended the time frame to eight months, but then was waging it all the way until he abruptly left office. Does that sound familiar?

BTW, the war was supported by 90 percent of the people, according to the results of a poll at the beginning of the war. Sound familiar?

By most estimates, in the first three months of the campaign 2,800 people were killed, “over half” of whom “had no links to the drug trade.” Sound familiar?

The authorities claimed that most of the killings were in self-defense. Sound familiar?

The violence was blamed on a government “shoot to kill” policy based on lists drawn up by the Thai equivalent of our barangay captains, which, unfortunately and more often than not, contained the names of their political opponents.  This may not sound familiar, but did you ever wonder where the “Tokhang” operatives got their lists?

Two years later, in spite of the killings 74 percent of Thais polled still supported the campaign, but 68 percent did not think it would be successful (no one asked for a definition of success either).

Thaksin claimed success, but the King of Thailand did not agree, saying that the fight against drugs was far from over, and that Thaksin should investigate drug-related deaths for human rights violations.

In the United Nations General Assembly’s Special Session on the World Drug Problem last year, a senior member of the current Thai junta expressed his hopelessness. That means the Thai war on drugs has continued up to this day.

The UN office on Drugs and Crime Data has shown that the number of meth labs in Thailand has increased from 2 (2008-2010) to 193 (2011-2012).

Back to the Philippines. Even if we achieve “success” (rather doubtful), there will still be negative long-term impacts: the return, or at least the reinforcement, of the culture of impunity, particularly in the police force, and, relatedly, the isolation of the police and military from the people, with the latter’s growing suspicion and resentment of the former.

Is it worth it?