'People power' for rule of law in the Philippines

The president’s use of extrajudicial killings of drug users has sparked popular resistance among those who prefer rule of law and presumption of innocence.

AP Photo
Protesters brave the rain as they gather in Manilla Sept. 21 to call for an end to the killings in the so-called war on drugs of President Rodrigo Duterte as well as his alleged "tyrannical rule" of the Philippines.

One gift to the world from the Philippines has been the term “people power,” or peaceful resistance in the streets against a leader’s arbitrary rule and violent suppression. In 1986, it led to a dictator’s fall and inspired pro-democracy protests in other countries. Three decades later, Filipinos are at it again.

This time they are quietly resisting President Rodrigo Duterte’s neglect of both the rule of law and the presumption of innocence in a violent crackdown on drug users and dealers. After 16 months in office leading a campaign that encouraged police to shoot “drug personalities” on sight – by the thousands – Mr. Duterte is facing a broad backlash.

His popularity has fallen below 50 percent, especially among the poor who backed his anti-drug campaign. One reason for the decline may be a video that surfaced in August showing police killing a teenager who did not appear to be resisting arrest. Even before the video came to light, more than half of Filipinos told pollsters they believe that many of the alleged drug users killed by police had not resisted arrest.

The shift in sentiment has emboldened more top figures in society – including the police and Roman Catholic bishops – to speak out, even at the risk of political retribution.

One such person is Byron Allatog, chief of police in the city of Bogo. He prefers his officers shoot only in self-defense and work with addicts to help them seek treatment. “Some people may say, ‘He’s a drug addict, nothing but trash.’ But do these people even consider the fact that these drug addicts have families? I want people to know that killing is not the final solution to the problem of illegal drugs,” he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

The Catholic Church, meanwhile, has begun to speak out more forcefully. In a few cases, it has provided sanctuary to police who report the murder of innocent people by other police.

Earlier this month, Duterte stopped promising immunity for officers who kill suspects. And, in a major move, he decided that only the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency should conduct operations against drug-related offenders. The PDEA makes up only 1 percent of the nation’s police.

Many Filipinos still support extrajudicial killings out of impatience to end the effects of the drug trade. But the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines warns that Duterte’s war on drugs has created a “reign of terror in many places of the poor.” An even greater concern is “the indifference of many to this kind of wrong.”

That indifference, however, is steadily eroding as more Filipinos speak out. People power is at work again.

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