Q&A with Manolo Quezon III on drug killings

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

I recently wrote a column on the ongoing war in the Philippines against drug pushers and users. The escalating body count has alarmed human rights groups and the United Nations, who have called on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to reign in the violent campaign, speak out against extrajudicial killings and to respect the rule of law.

So far, Duterte has shown no signs of reigning in the killings.

For more perspective on this issue, I interviewed Manolo L. Quezon III, who was undersecretary of presidential communications under President Nonoy Aquino, and is a well-known political analyst and columnist. Here is the entire text of the interview:

Rasheed’s World: What are your general thoughts on this campaign? Do you support it, or think that it has gone too far with nearly 2,000 already dead?

Manolo L. Quezon III: The number of dead is an indication of what is problematic. An official distinction has been made between “legitimate” killings and those attributed to either preemptive internal purges within drug syndicates, or by vigilantes. The problem is that the mechanisms and manpower of the government seem hard-pressed (and sometimes simply disinclined) to clearly determine by means of inquests which fatality can be attributed to which of the supposed simultaneous trends going on. Responsibility, either by negligence or design, is also diffused; the entire police apparatus has been mobilized, and like any big organization the level of competence of various detachments varies widely. The result is all the public has to go on is confidence in both the president and his principal lieutenants in the police and other organs of the government.

The campaign itself seems to be modeled after that of Thaksin in Thailand –again problematic, because it was generally deemed a failure. Its domestic characteristics date to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (former president and one of the big players in the Duterte coalition) and some of her former people who had attempted saturation drives during her term, and whose political allies first tried to raise narco-politics as an issue in the 2010 campaign (narco-politics as an issue of public concern had emerged in 2001, the period of transition from the Estrada administration which was ousted from office and replaced with Arroyo). Both Thaksin and Arroyo (or their officials) in the face of their anti-drug efforts also found it convenient to use narco-politics as a political issue; this is risky because, as the present administration is also doing, any carelessness in accusations diminishes the long-term effectivity of the argument.

This much is clear. It is a campaign that is very specific –not a war on drugs per se, but a war on crystal meth. It is a war focused on the liquidation of pushers and the principal lieutenants of the drug kingpins, who have been officially announced to be generally overseas and thus beyond the reach of the government. It is one of indeterminate duration, which raises the problem of how –or by what measure– victory can be achieved.

Most worrying of all is that the state has a monopoly on the use of force grounded on the expectation that it is used sparingly, responsibly, and with accountability. A very human factor is thus being ignored in the ongoing debate on the war on drugs. We have a police –and possibly, in the future– a military that has been institutionally-expected to be responsible and judicious in its use of force. Individual policemen, long circumscribed in their actions by strict rules on the acquisition, and legal scrutiny, of evidence, and who had clearly defined rules of engagement in terms of the use of force on suspects and the public at large, are discovering that the institutions that used to limit their actions are now neutralized. This feeling of power, this sense of immunity and impunity, this thrill from obtaining instant results, can be a kind of narcotic, too. Once experienced, it can become increasingly difficult to limit it to just the war on drugs, particularly when that war takes on the attributes of a larger war, whether to “reform,” or “rebuild,” or “reengineer” or “defend” the state against its “enemies” –as defined by the commanders.

Every society that has experienced political instability knows these are developments that can have an effect on institutions and society lasting generations –it took the Philippines a generation to wean its military and police from a similar experience during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986).

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

RW: Why do you think that President Duterte has so much popular support? Do you think this support will diminish in a few years? If so, why?

MLQ: Every president who wins an election –even as a plurality victor– obtains a subsequent overwhelming level of public support in their initial months in office. The public, which previously supported different candidates, rallies around the victor and gives the winner a chance to fulfill the mandate given at the polls.

This is an observable trend in public opinion surveys. In June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III who won with 42% of the votes, obtained an 88% trust rating. In June 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte who won with 39% of the votes, obtained a 91% trust rating. Both surveys (By Social Weather Stations) having a plus or minus 3% margin of error, the results can be said to be quite similar, if not identical.

The question is what the next survey in October and every quarter thereafter, will reveal. No one knows. If public trust remains high, it will further embolden the administration; if it plunges, it can embolden the administration to even more vigorously pursue current policies, knowing time is running out in terms of public support. However, whatever the results, it also suggests the administration knows it can count on a committed constituency of 39% to sustain itself –even now, despite every indication of public support being high, efforts to mobilize this constituency to mount demonstrations against the Senate (which conducted an inquiry into the drug war) are being made, which suggests some in the ruling coalition may have noticed a dip in public enthusiasm.

RW: Many people, among them officials, judges, journalists and politicians, seem reluctant to publically criticize this anti-drug push. Why do you think this is so?

MLQ: The answer is simple: fear. Fear of public opinion and more importantly, fear of the president. The president’s supporters are vocal, aggressive, plentiful and in some instances, organized. They swarm social media, and media sites both local and foreign. The President himself has a gift for targeting specific personalities who to his mind, represent challenges to his authority. This combination is formidable and considering the enthusiasm for the use of force, requires every individual venturing on expressing an opinion to consider the consequences.

RW: Vice President Leni Robredo has called for the rule of law to be applied in the hunt for drug pushers, but has not really come out to criticize the president’s anti-drug campaign. Do you think she could do more in terms of speaking out, or is that too politically risky?

MLQ: In the Philippines we elect our presidents and vice presidents separately, a practice that dates from the foundation of our modern institutions in 1935. It was felt important at the time that the potential successor of a president should have a clear, personal, mandate, too. However, this means every vice-president is viewed with suspicion by the sitting president, especially if they do not come from the same party. This suspicion is particularly intense not only because Vice-President Robredo defeated one of the paramount allies of the president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but also, she was the candidate of the very administration the president’s ruling coalition (composed of the factions of former presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the united front parties of the Communists, and the political apparatus of the Marcos family) was meant to not only defeat, but permanently discredit as an ex-post-facto rehabilitation of themselves (the whole 1986-2016 era, with its periodic outbreaks of People Power, its anti-dictatorship constitution, and relative media independence and civil society participation, was a perpetual thorn in the side of those wanting a Marcos restoration, an Arroyo political rehabilitation, and a Ramos-proposed parliamentary system modeled on the one-party dominance of UMNO in Malaysia).

The other factor is that so long as the Vice-President is in office, an alternative leadership is available, and could potentially provide a rallying figure for those disaffected for whatever reason, with the present administration. However, the Vice-President herself seems to sense a long-standing rule in Philippine politics. No Vice-President has ever benefited from challenging the sitting president: the public expects the Vice-President, of whatever party, to cooperate with and serve, the sitting president, of whatever party. At the same time the civil society background of the Vice-President suggests she probably views it as a matter of civic conscience to have a seat at the table, in order to give voice to the constituency that elected her. A very delicate balancing act is therefore required, meaning she cannot be as vocal or critical as some of her supporters might want, but also, however cooperative she is, supporters of the president will always view her with suspicion. The wider public, on the other hand, will probably be more understanding in this regard.

She has from time to time issued gentle reminders about human rights, against the dictatorship of Marcos, and this includes the drug war. It would be fair to say however she is still finding her own voice in the midst of fast-moving events.

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