Business Matters

Duterte’s holy war

Why are Filipinos across the country’s breadth and beyond back in the streets?

PRRD assumed power at a time of great hope, with public morale at a record high. The economy was robust.  Crime and poverty rates were trending down. The campaign against corruption among the powerful was proceeding. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague recognized our rights in the West Philippine Sea, vindicating our commitment to the rule of law, for which we had won the respect of democratic nations.


A contentious presidential election notwithstanding, the succession proceeded peacefully. PRRD’s decisive victory delivered Congress into his hands and the political levers to accelerate the growth momentum. The public gave him a great deal of slack, accepting without much comment appointments awarded to classmates, province-mates and friends—despite the questionable credentials of some appointees and the people’s general unfamiliarity with the track record of many others.

PRRD was blessed at the starting gate with advantages none of his predecessors enjoyed. But these clashed with his campaign premise that depicted the Philippines as a country in crisis and himself as the appointed savior. Postelection pronouncements and policies reinforced and validated the campaign narrative.


His core messages have remained the same. He won without the support of any political or business group. He owed no one favors to be repaid, excepting so far only the Marcoses. Having placed him in power, voters must be presumed to support whatever policies he chose to pursue—on the Marcos burial, on foreign policy, on the drug menace.

His speeches continue to denounce drug addiction as the existential threat, corrupting the powerful, destroying the weak, turning the country into a narcostate. Habitual drug use dissolves the brain, producing demented addicts beyond redemption. He repeatedly shares personal stories of shabu-crazed addicts killing parents and raping children to justify ruthless measures to jail or kill them. He repeatedly asserts the need for additional powers to cope with “the crisis in this country involving drugs, extrajudicial killings and… an environment of lawless violence.”

But we are not told how many addicts have committed fratricide and child rape, the evidence against politicians implicated in drugs, the definition of a narcostate. Incredibly, officials responsible for crafting public policy, like Sen. Vicente Sotto, have dismissed data as unimportant, justifying exaggeration to legitimize the drug war. Administration minions have used another country’s photographs to depict Philippine drug crimes.

The war on drugs has assumed the character of a crusade, a holy war founded on faith, on dogma, not data. But its deadly consequences demand evidence on the balance between ends and means.

Prudence warns us against committing to a cure potentially worse than the disease, in promoting, for instance, an arbitrary manipulation of the law and a culture of lawless violence.

When he chooses, PRRD sticks narrowly to the letter, as in the Libingan case. He is not equally strict on enforcing the law on due process. Official figures estimate about 2,000 deaths in the course of police operations since he took office, as well as another 2,500 unresolved, drug-related murders.

Critics have attributed these murders to the police themselves or their subcontracted killers—to meet PNP performance targets or eliminate whistle-blowers. PRRD has repeatedly disclaimed vigilante killings as administration policy.  Accept this denial and the possibility that the murders stem from warring drug lords, but also continue to hold the government accountable for stopping these vigilante criminals.


A crusade condones no criticism. Critics raising questions are insulted as buang, unggoy, imperialist idiots, SOBs. On the altar of this holy war, PRRD dramatically declares he would sacrifice his presidency and his life. Fine. But, before that, he would first sacrifice the rule of law, the regard of nations, constitutional guarantees, human rights, moral principles, Filipino values, and however many lives it may cost.

Did we buy into this bargain?

Edilberto C. de Jesus ([email protected]) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management. Prof. Rofel Brion’s Tagalog translation of this column and others earlier published, together with other commentaries, are in

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TAGS: Illegal drugs, Permanent Court of Arbitration, PRRD, The Hague, war on drugs, West Philippine Sea
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