Why accept the killings?
The most talked about topic in the Philippines is, of course, Rodrigo R. Duterte. I suppose that is normal because he is the new President of the Republic. While both politics and governance in the Philippines may be painted at times as democratic and institutional, they are truly very personalized through those who wield the power. Duterte, therefore, cannot be but the center of attention.
Beyond being the center of attention, President Rodrigo R. Duterte is also the center of controversy. Controversy hounds him, or he hounds controversy. His reaching out to the Communists, his approval to the Marcos burial in the LNB, his surprising negativity to the United States and conciliatory attitude to China – all these are controversial. But the most controversial is, of course, his war on drugs and the attendant killings that have stained streets and neighborhoods across the country.
With regard to the Communists, the Marcos burial, and the US-China dynamics, President Duterte has received more negative reactions than usual. Considering his 91% approval rating about two months ago, it is natural that he is scoring significantly lower in these issues. The long-standing conflict with Communists, the Marcos and martial law atrocities, the pro-America and anti-China sentiments have been there for decades. Even Duterte’s popularity cannot reverse these established sentiments just like that. If he is willing to confront these sentiments, whatever his reasons, he must have considered the negative reactions. Any president who will take this position today must expect the same thing.
The war on drugs and the related killings, however, have never been a national controversy from the past. Yes, from the late 60’s and the execution of drug personality Lim Seng in 1973 all the way through the succeeding administrations, illegal drugs have been an issue. But they were an issue like most other illegal activities and were never front and center in the eyes of government. Of course, the directly affected members of our society felt more passionate, resentful or threatened, but it seems it was more a private affair than anything else. Even social media before the advent of the Duterte candidacy and presidency was not as active on the matter of illegal drugs.
I believe that tens of thousands had already been killed because of the drug scourge in the past few decades. However, national attention was simply not focused on them. I have not seen statistics on drug-related killings in the past so I cannot cite numbers. But I have read some reports about drug-related crimes from the pre-Duterte presidency and the percentages are actually significant. By extrapolation, drug-related crimes must have experienced its proportionate share of killings. But they stayed personal and relatively private, just festered and festered. Then, they exploded. It is as though Duterte waved a magic wand that made the blind see.
Killings are killings – whatever the causes. Filipinos are not used to killings. That is why the war in Mindanao was particularly painful, and that is why the communist rebellion in the countryside could not move to become a national uprising. Filipinos do not have a culture of violence. Our collective experience and history with violence go against the culture. Violence was never assimilated, only endured. In fact, peace rituals were in place in almost all tribes, signifying that peace has always been a revered societal value.
Why, then, would a people accept drug-related killings today? I do not refer to those who speak out against the killings, I refer to the greater number who accept it, including those who speak up justifying it. It is not enough to say that those who tolerate or approve of the killings are simply Duterte partisans. To do so is being simplistic and actually dangerous. If we do not take the effort to understand what drives many Filipino to tolerate or even approve of the killings, we may actually cause more of it to happen.
Why would people who never tolerated or approved of killings suddenly now do so? What made them look at things differently? What made them transcend the repulsion for killing and even discount the possibility that they or their families could be victims as well?
The most plausible reason is that the individual pain of the directly affected must have built up quietly over the last four decades while it caused fear among their relatives or neighbors. There must have been a sense of helplessness, enough to force either resignation or quiet resentment. And the dam broke. It seems Duterte broke the dam of helplessness, resignation and resentment.
Drugs have not been the only cause. Poverty, an insensitive bureaucracy, and sustained corruption have been heavy crosses that the weak and innocent have carried for so long. Again, Duterte broke that emotional dam and became the white knight for the poor, the oppressed, and the hopeless.
An emotional people, however, are more easily affected from issue to issue. Few Filipinos can see stay with a singular, long-term vision and give sustained support to it. Most Filipinos have many issues; when one is resolved, the others then demand resolution, too. Poverty does that. It has a long list of needs. And killings, justified or not, will be rejected sooner than later, simply because our culture had never been attuned to it as a regular and embedded happening. Government must have a Stage 2 in its war on drugs beyond using the fear that killings generate, a next stage plan that is more sustainable and generally hopeful.
At one point in the near future, aspirations more than fear must drive our collective effort. That is the challenge to government, to its institutions, and most especially, to President Rodrigo Duterte. That even if he stays radical, even if he stays controversial, it will be because he creates opportunities for the marginalized, he creates efficiency and integrity in the bureaucracy for the frustrated, and he creates dreams for a future full of hope for us all.
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