President Rodrigo Duterte has maintained a firm grip on the Philippines since being elected in July 2016. Although public support is slipping, due partly to the brutality unleashed by his “war on drugs”, which has seen up to 20,000 people killed in 18 months, the general population still backs the leader. But the violence has done little to change the support of America and Australia for Duterte’s conflict against ISIS in the Philippines.
Yet dissent is rising. During a recent visit to the Philippines to investigate the country’s drug war, I saw posters of Duterte with a Hitler moustache. “Dictator” and “Fascist” were written below his name in Tagalog — “Fight!” It was a message from the country’s biggest labour union. It was strong and direct, a sign of resistance. I saw, too, countless pro-Duterte posters in this battle of propaganda.
Duterte has used social media brilliantly to rally his supporters and denigrate his opponents. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this movement, largely ignored in the West, is how Facebook actively assists political campaigns around the world and then works with winning candidates to harness its online tools. BuzzFeed recently exposed this practice in authoritarian Cambodia, and Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany Party had Facebook assist its campaign for the 2017 general election. A former Republican digital strategist runs the Facebook global government and politics team in the US.
In the Philippines, Duterte’s media team weaponised trolling against its critics. Countless fake accounts attacked and threatened anybody who questioned the President. At the presidential palace, I asked Duterte’s communications undersecretary, Lorraine Badoy, if her department had any connection with Facebook officials. She said it hadn’t, and claimed that the many pro-government, online activists weren’t paid by the government. Badoy used language reminiscent of Donald Trump’s allegations of “fake news” regarding how Western media reported so severely on the drug war. This was an “internal problem”, she said.
Duterte’s war on drugs has become, like in every other nation where a drugs war is waged, an onslaught against the poor. Virtually no wealthy drug users or dealers have been arrested or killed, but thousands have been murdered in the poorest neighbourhoods in and around Manila. This mirrors Honduras, West Africa, the US and other nations where violence is used to control and exterminate the most under-privileged in society. Every barangay (district) collates a list of suspected drug users or dealers, which is given to government authorities. It’s a secret list, impossible for citizens to see, and I was told that those on the list can never get off it.
Horrific stories have defined Duterte’s drug war, and I heard them constantly. With authorities intent on killing and imprisoning poor drug users, rehabilitation services are left to churches (though the government is even cutting funding to these essential services). One such service at the San Roque De Manila Parish seeks to assist drug addicts through lessons on the Jesus and the Bible.
Police senior inspector Ana Lourence Simbajon, who works at the church, said that she believed religion was an answer to drug use and, more tellingly, that she believed the current war on drugs was successful. “Since Duterte, and his fight against drugs because it’s a big malaise in society, street crime has declined”, she said. “Only the President focused on illegal drugs.”
Antony Loewenstein is an independent journalist, author of Disaster Capitalism: Making A Killing Out Of Catastrophe, writer/co-producer of the documentary, Disaster Capitalism and currently writing a book on the global “war on drugs”, out in 2019