It is little more than a year since Rodrigo “mayor Rudy” Duterte won the Philippines presidential election. He had a single campaign promise, to solve the country’s drug problem, which had allegedly reached epidemic proportions. That at least is the popular perception across the country and when “mayor Rudy” of Davao City, a straight-talking, foul-mouthed man-of-the-people type swore that he would kill every drug dealer and user and feed their bodies to the fishes in Manila Bay desperate voters believed him.

As long-time mayor of Davao, the largest city outside Manila, Duterte’s approach to its rampant crime and drug problem was brutally direct. No arrest, no trial, no jail, a bullet in the head or any other part of the body and quick disposal in a mass grave was mayor Rudy’s answer. “Throw them in the ocean or the quarry. Make it clean. Make sure there are no traces of the bodies.” This is the model President Rodrigo Duterte replicated nationwide after he took office at the end of June last year.

The death count is beyond calculating, especially as private vigilante death squads have done the major part of the killing. No one is sure of the numbers but one estimate put it at 7,000 dead by March 2017. That is roughly 1,000 killings a month. Has it worked? For the moment, probably, but it is unlikely to be a permanent solution. National police data from 2010-15 show Davao as having the highest murder rate in the Philippines and the second highest number of rapes. So “Mayor Rudy’s” claims of success in halting crime seem to be mainly hyperbole but he has succeeded in normalising mass murder; his approval ratings are close to 70 per cent in opinion polls.

Whatever happens next, Duterte has ripped up the rule of law in favour of a righteous wrath that kills innocents as well as the culpable, with no accountability. And it seems likely to be applied in the case of the southern Philippines’ nearly century-long Muslim insurgency though it is an exercise in futility. Davao is on Mindanao Island, the centre of that insurgency, so Duterte should be better qualified to finding a durable solution. But his handling of the May 23 militant takeover of Marawi town on Mindanao belies that. Two months later, the militants were still dug in and official death counts had passed 650 (428 militants, 105 government forces, 119 civilians), in addition to thousands of wounded and displaced. This is a mess that no amount of killing can clear but all this display of testosterone could provoke terrorist reprisals in the north.

The larger fear that this contempt for the law will spread across Southeast Asia is coming true. In December 2016, Indonesia’s anti-narcotics chief was quoted as saying drug dealers and users should be shot on the spot. Both President Joko Widodo and the national police chief have backed that sentiment, though they chose their words more carefully than Duterte. Indonesia and Philippines are considered the more robust democracies in the region. They have mastered the art of an orderly transfer of power at regular intervals through elections and seen as stable societies.

While neither is a shining example of honest government, both have solid mechanisms for accountability. This is what the Duterte formula threatens to overthrow for the illusion of a drug-free Philippines on the back of state-approved mass murder.
The only problem, as his supporters will find out, is that drugs will return and dealers will return because demand will eventually find a source of supply.

This is a truth narcotics agencies are having to face in every part of the world, especially the west, where policing and surveillance is the most efficient. For Southeast Asia Thailand offers the most salutary lesson in the dangers that attend such drastic methods.

In 2003, newly elected prime minister Thaksin Shinwatra declared a war on drugs on the promptings of King Bhumibol. Some 2,800 people were killed in the first three months. Four years later, an official investigation concluded that nearly half had no connection whatsoever to the trade, either as dealers or as users. Did it work, though? According to a senior member of the Thai junta at last year’s UN General Assembly, methamphetamine should be taken off Thailand’s list of dangerous narcotics. Meanwhile, the country has been through two coups and is still struggling with political instability, partly because the Thaksin formula caused such deep divisions in the country. So the question Philippines’ voters and policy makers must ask is whether they should be backing a play that is not only doomed to fail but will also lead to much future suffering.

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