The kill list: how the Philippines leader is letting people get away with murder | Tom Smith

President Rodrigo Duterte is exploiting the rivalry of China and the US to wage a war on drugs that is cover for a tide of extrajudicial killings

More than a thousand Filipinos have reportedly been murdered or disappeared as a result of Presidents Dutertes war on drugs in little more than a month since he took charge.

There is little to suggest that Rodrigo Duterte will change tack he has plenty of domestic credit in the bank, and foreign governments thus far are ignoring the evidence of a mass tide of extrajudicial killings, despite his overt warnings. Beijing and Washingtons quest for dominance in the South China Sea trumps what Human Rights Watch describes as government-sanctioned butchery.

So-called kill lists look to be spiralling out of control, with bodies strewn in the most public of places including Edsa, the main freeway that runs through the Metro Manila region. The irony is that the freeway was the location for the people power revolution that ousted the Marcos dictatorship in 1986. Bodies bundled up with tape and labelled snatcher, dealer, pusher or user suggest vigilantes are taking Dutertes wild promise to eradicate all crime seriously. But the truth of whether the dead were guilty will never be proved, and is barely even questioned. Dutertes incitement has quickly created a monster, unleashing murderous criminality.

The kill lists are largely the work of the police. Election rhetoric has quickly become policy with executions on the streets. Some reports estimate that 10 people are killed a day , but nothing can be verified: police forces are able to rely on self-defence, avoiding legal accountability even though there is a strong suggestion that innocent people are being caught up in the carnage.

President Duterte speaking last Sunday at the memorial for a soldier killed in an encounter with communist rebels. Photograph: Lean Daval Jr/Reuters

One such case is that of 22-year-old Rowena Tiamson, a choir member whose body was found with hands bound and eyes and mouth sealed. Her desperate parents are pleading to have her corpse tested in an attempt for justice. What could be a mistaken identity is more likely to be a case of the war on drugs becoming a convenient cover for murder. Tiamson was not on her local kill list, the authorities have been forced to admit.

Dutertes obsession with drugs is putting the internal security of a developing country already struggling with Islamist and communist insurgencies, and devastating typhoons at undue risk. Drugs are an issue in the Philippines but only one of many, and Duterte has failed to display any understanding that drug crime is more a symptom of many social problems rather than the cause. Poverty and corruption were rightly on Dutertes manifesto, yet the drug obsession is blinding him and leading to carnage for a fundamentally flawed ideal.

How these lists are created is anyones guess. Duterte claims he has evidence to justify putting mayors, police, judges, and politicians on them. Police corruption is at the heart of the matter in one breath Duterte denounces the police as corrupt, yet is allowing them to murder without due process, and compile lists of people to kill. The image of a dead Manila rickshaw driver, Michael Siaron, in the arms of his partner will haunt many but not Duterte, who claimed it was melodramatic. The constant stream of images has become almost pornographic, causing tit-for-tat squabbles between supporters and detractors. Siarons drug use (though his partner forcefully denies that he was dealing) while pedalling passengers around the packed streets of Manila should offend, or surprise, nobody. Duterte and his supporters must try to understand the human stories of drug users before inciting further murder.

Civil society groups are calling on the UN and other authorities to condemn the president, but dont expect anyone with any more clout than Richard Branson to speak out. The rather grotesque and obvious courting of Duterte by the US and China cannot be overstated and he is likely to continue to exploit his countrys enormous strategic value. Sadly, while a reset of the Philippines relationships with these allies is long overdue, it would be unlikely to result in fairer terms for Filipinos. Indeed, it could provide cover for murder.

Despite the clash with China over control of the South China Sea, and Manilas recent legal victory, Sino-Filipino relations are less of a concern than ties with America. US military assistance, particularly in the battle to rid Dutertes backyard of Mindanao of its complex Muslim insurgency, is seen as central to the US pivot-to-Asia policy. Long mothballed bases are being re-opened throughout the country.

However, some feel that US involvement is only making things worse. For the first time in too long the country is asking itself some important and difficult questions regarding its until now one-sided relationship with the US. But the cost of this debate, and any future arrangements with the superpowers, is being paid in blood by people on the streets, labelled guilty with flimsy cardboard signs.


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