When he was elected president of the Philippines in July 2016, President Rodridgo Duterte promised to negotiate peace agreements with the major insurgent groups that have destabilised much of the country for decades.
His government announced it would commence peace talks with the representatives of the National Democratic Front, the umbrella organisation that represents both the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army. Duterte also committed himself to a peace agreement with the Philippines’ largest insurgent group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
At the time, these seemed like breakthroughs in the making. But the early optimism has dissolved, and the peace talks have stalled. While the government does seem genuinely willing to negotiate, the president seems to be been prioritising another one of his election campaign promises: eradicating crime and drugs.
This notorious “war on drugs” has been extraordinarily bloody, and criticised by human rights organisations and foreign governments alike. Nonetheless, it is supported by a majority of the population.
The popular narrative of the effects of drugs – in particular, shabu, or methamphetamine – seems to be exaggerated. Shabu use, urban legend says, results in not just theft and robbery, but paedophilia and arson; horror stories abound of addicts slaughtering entire families. The president himself has been quoted likening shabu addicts to “the living walking dead … of no use to society anymore”.
This rhetoric normalises a culture of impunity for the police and vigilantes, many of whom resort to extreme violence. Many innocent people have been targeted, both intentionally and unintentionally; journalists, police, politicians and other critics have been threatened, intimidated, fired or arrested for alleged links with drugs. Yet during my own research, many Filipinos told me they feel safer and that crime seems to have gone down.
The “war on drugs” may seem distinct from longer-running security issues, but it isn’t. The crackdown is contributing to a culture of unchecked violence, which is increasingly accepted as a necessary measure. If this normalisation continues, lasting peace will never be achieved.
For all its conciliatory talk, the government is still using tough tactics to deal with violent insurgents. So far, they have not paid off.
In May 2017, the military launched an operation to apprehend Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group, a faction of bandits designated as a terrorist organisation. But when the army swooped in, Hapilon was protected by scores of armed men who quickly took strategic positions throughout Marawi City. Instead of capturing Hapilon, the military raid seemed to kick-start the group’s unanticipated plan to seize the city.
Duterte was on a state visit to Russia at the time. The operation unravelled, and martial law was declared not just in Marawi, but on the entire island of Mindanao. The government has claimed it had intelligence about the group’s plans, but has issued contradictory statements on the rationale behind the siege, citing both jihadism and the drug trade.
Filipino government troops in Marawi City. EPA/Francis R. Malasig
Reports state that a few hundred jihadists managed to hold onto several neighbourhoods in defiance of government troops; they held off the military with improvised explosive devices, a sophisticated network of underground tunnels, and snipers placed in strategic locations across the city. This is a remarkable change in tactics for the Philippines’ insurgents, and clearly echoes recent urban battles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.