MANILA, Philippines – Over 300 drug-related killings have been recorded since President Rodrigo Duterte took office, with some quarters hailing these as proof of his successful war against drugs.
The anti-drug war was the campaign promise that propelled the popular, tough-talking Davao City mayor to the presidency.
But human rights activists have expressed alarm over the rising body count, pointing out that many of those killed were only unidentified suspects. For former Ateneo School of Government dean Antonio La Viña, death as punishment for suspects will not win Duterte's promised war against drugs. (READ: Philippines' war vs drugs: It has been bloody)
"We all agree that the war on drugs won't be won by extrajudicial killings, or even death penalty, or even legitimate encounters. The war against drugs is also a war on poverty, war on powerlessness," La Viña said.
He pointed out that several of those killed in the drug war were from the poorer classes. La Viña added that addressing poverty and keeping the peace – through the new administration's planned peace talks and agreements with rebels – could be key to stem the new problem of drug killings. (READ: Drug suspect killings rise after Duterte victory)
In Mindanao, he said, the ongoing conflict in the troubled southern regions has only exacerbated poverty. La Viña said that peace agreements that guarantee economic reforms will also help bring down poverty levels.
"If you have less poor in the country, there might be [fewer] extrajudicial killings," he said.
For her part, political psychologist Cristina Montiel expressed concern that Duterte's earlier pronouncements on his campaign promise – vowing a bloody crackdown on drug dealers and pushers – did not generate as much alarm, even with the President saying that he would reward and protect policemen involved in anti-drug operations.
"It wasn't even considered a crime to say 'We will reward you.' That was a very strong message coming from the top," Montiel said.
For Montiel, rationalizing extrajudicial killings might have unintended repercussions. (READ: Duterte's drug war in numbers)
"It's still rationalizing that extrajudicial killings are okay, if these are the objects of extrajudicial killings. Who knows where that story will go? It can be carried out dangerously, " she said.
Rappler editor-at-large Marites Vitug, meanwhile, said Duterte has recast the country's problem, shifting from the fight against poverty to a crackdown on drugs.