MANILA, Philippines – In a gathering in Manila of Southeast Asian journalists, many expressed concern and worry for the growing number of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte came into power.
At the Japan-ASEAN Media Forum, foreign and local journalists came together mainly to discuss different points of view on the disputed islands and the South China Sea, but the main topic of conversation among the media revolved on another topic: the Philippine government’s war on drugs.
In an interview with Rappler, Bambang Harymurti, the CEO of Indonesia’s Tempo magazine, said that in Indonesia, there is some worry over the Duterte administration’s approach, particularly the increased number of killings.
Asked about the sentiment in Southeast Asia’s largest country towards it, Harymurti said “it depends on what kind of person you are in Indonesia."
“If you’re a human right defender, you’re worried. You’re worried because this might become infectious. It might give some ideas to Indonesians because we do have this kind of illegal activities - extrajudicial killings under Suharto. Which was also very popular among the common people when they kill people considered thugs, and we don’t want to go back to that situation,” he said.
Drawing on the experiences of Indonesia, he also said that he believes following the rule of law could achieve the same goal
“I think using the normal court proceedings, it can be done. Because we have proven that in the case of Indonesian terrorists, I think more than 700 already arrested, put into the process and so on. So you don’t have to go into extraordinary measures. Because usually the bad side of it is much worse than the benefit you get.”
Last week, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) said that while extrajudicial killings have been happening in every administration after Martial Law, the scale of summary killings under Duterte is “unprecedented.”
United Nations (UN) human rights experts have also criticized the Philippines' war against drugs and the extrajudicial killings that it is believed to have spurred.
'Understand the context'
The concerns of regional journalists were further highlighted in a media forum with Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar.
Keiko Iizuka, a journalist from Japanese newspaper The Yomiuri Shimbun, also expressed concern about the President’s behavior and recent statements, asking Andanar how they manage him, or whether they advise Duterte to be more “presidential like.”
To this, Andanar said he does not feel there is a need to manage the president, calling him the “most popular president in the world” adding that at least one local broadsheet coined Duterte the “Lee Kuan Yew of this country.”
“When he speaks conventionally he just expresses what he feels,” Andanar said.
“It reflects his frustrations with the Philippine society in terms of rule of law, oligarchy, and the injustice that has left our country where it is right now.”
He also said it is important for international journalists “to understand the context of the president.”
“If you live in slum areas, and you live in the barangays, about 20% of the barangays in the country are drug infested. If you live in a society where you can take a hit, a high for less than a quarter cents of a dollar, then this country is in trouble,” he said.
“When you have 700,000 people who have turned themselves in because they want to be rehabilitated and they don’t want to fight the policemen, out of 700,000, you have 30,000 drug pushers who have confessed, that is already a Guinness Book of World Record phenomenon. Where in the world can you see 700,000 who surrendered to government because they want to change?”
Andanar admitted that he understands the international concerns, but continued to defend the administration.
“So of course the West would say that’s extrajudicial killings and the West has a point. But it is also a valid point to differentiate how many have died out of authorized police operations, extrajudicial killings and regular murders in the country.”
Duterte, who has encouraged the police to shoot and kill drug criminals who resist arrest, has said it was a "very stupid proposition" to attribute the extrajudicial killings to his administration.
'Who do you protect?'
Still another journalist of Myanmar said that he understands the situation in the Philippines, but asked whether the increased killings were worth it.
Andanar said that there has been “no war against drugs where there are no casualties.”
“He was elected with that platform. He already warned the electorate, ‘If you vote for me, there will be bloodshed. So don’t vote for me if you don’t want bloodshed.’ But he was voted,” he said.
“Remember the mandate, remember the context - that it’s too much, remember that we have mandate to reduce poverty. You have to remember that we want law and order in this country,” he added.
“Have you been to Mindanao? Have you been to ARMM? I advise you to go there but I don’t think the Myanmar embassy will allow you.”
Andanar also asked the journalist what he would do if he were the president of the Philippines.
“Who do you protect? The rights of 3.7 million Filipinos plus their families or the rights of say about 700 drug peddlers who are destroying the lives of 3.7 million and their families? It’s just a simple question, if you were the president, who would you prefer?”
3.7 million is the supposed number of drug users in the country. – Rappler.com