Duterte’s Drug War – The Mainstream Mindset is Getting Ugly

It has been a turbulent year for Philippines’ politics with the election of Duterte to the top office earlier in 2016. The writing was on the wall long before election day with the swell of support for the candidate set to shake up the system. Let’s face it, the system does need shaking up. Even before he took office, Duterte’s drug war has been headline news all over the world. 

Being a foreigner I don’t have the right to comment on the politics of everything, but what I would like to talk about is the change in the mindset of mainstream Filipinos that has taken place in the last few months. It is a change that I am incredibly disappointed to have observed and many of the qualities that I have previously admired have been pushed aside so easily that I really doubt they were ever there in the first place.

The drug war has been front and centre of the new administration’s initiatives, and has been the driving force behind this change in the public’s mindset. The merits of the campaign has been hotly debated in the media and online. It is a massive job to clean up the systemic corruption that has allowed the drug trade to flourish in the country and the all guns blazing approach is grabbing headlines all across the world. While people want these problems fixed, such a short sighted approach will no doubt lead to many unintended consequences. I will come back to this later, but there are some points that I do want to touch on first that have confused me.

In the five years I have lived in the Philippines I have never had a Filipino citizen comment to me that drugs in society were anywhere near the top of the list of problems that they would like fixed in their country. In fact no one has ever mentioned this to me once. It is only recently that people took any notice. This alone would make anyone question whether drug use is the issue that it is being made out to be. What I did hear a lot of is traffic, thieving politicians, and policeman who could not be trusted to write a parking ticket. This is what people talked about and cared about the most.

Now that they have been told that drugs are a scourge taking over the country people are turning a blind eye to their countrymen being slaughtered around them, and in many cases cheering on the action being taken regardless of who is being caught in the cross fire. All you have to do is read the comments section on any article that talks about these issues and you will hear all kinds of hysterics that reflect this massive change in the mainstream mindset of the Filipino people.

While I would never jump to any conclusions based on a few idiots sitting behind their keyboards, it is the personal discussions that I have had with everyone I know who has an opinion on these topics that makes me realise that the change is real. A couple of online comments that I came across which I think reflect this change are below.

“Desperate times need desperate measures. Not many realise it but if the president doesn’t act now the country will be lost to drugs forever”

As mentioned, months ago no one took any notice of this drug problem. That isn’t saying that it wasn’t there, but losing the country forever? I mean come on…. If the average guy on the street is not directly affected by this then we are a long way from crisis levels. Filipinos have big families so it doesn’t take much reach for a lot of people to be directly affected.

This is a reflection of nothing more than a trend and bandwagon that people have jumped on. Filipino people love a good trend, and few have the courage to speak out against the crowd. The wave of trendiness I think was a big reason why the administration made it into office. It was ‘cool’ to be a Duterte supporter, and regurgitate the slogan Change is Coming. I would put money on it that very few people put any thought into what that change will mean for them long term. This is not an anti Duterte comment, but an anti ignorance one.

What the country has already been lost to is the system that has allowed these networks to have been setup. The drug problem is a symptom of a broken system. It is not the cause. What about the human trafficking that takes place in the country? Or the child sex trade? I would class both as far more disgusting than the drug trade. People choose to take drugs (and usually have a great time doing it without bothering anyone else), people don’t choose to be sold into global prostitution. Putting the debate on priorities aside, the fact is that all of these networks come back to a broken system. The things that are supposed to stop them just don’t work, or don’t exist. Will this assault on the drug trade fix the system? I fail to see how targeting casual users or street level dealers will make one bit of difference. Yes, the higher ups are also being targeted but that isn’t where the risk is to the innocents.

Earlier I mentioned that a common problem amongst mainstream Filipinos was a distrust of the police. This seems to have evaporated and people are publicly in their corner and flaming anyone who questions their actions. While I think it is a good thing to support the people who are charged with protecting society you would need to have confidence that accountabilities are in place to prevent abuse of that power. To my knowledge nothing has magically changed in the last three months in this area. Yet the general public has been won over. Herein lies a risk that people don’t want to talk about. Are the killings that are taking place people who have resisted arrest and fought off police? Or is there an element of house cleaning and loose ends being tied up so that any trails of past involvement, or enabling in the drug trade are eliminated? These are not allegations against anyone, but genuine questions that need to be answered to have a well functioning law enforcement system anywhere in the world. They certainly need answering before such a ruthless campaign is entrusted to them.

If people have power without accountability it will inevitably be abused. This concerned most Filipinos until recently, now they are charged with being judge, jury and executioner without accountability. This has nothing to do with not supporting the police, but building a system that will function long term for the good of society.

“It is always given that there will be collateral damages when you’re doing a genuine operation”

This statement for me captures the heart of why I am writing this article. I have heard the same sentiments being spouted by politicians in interviews, and repeated by your average man on the street over and over again. This has woken me up to something I have observed for many years in the Philippines but never taken much notice of. I have observed and heard of many bad things happening in this country, both big and small. The common response from someone who could help out and put a stop to things is that they don’t want to get involved. In my opinion, standing by and doing nothing is as bad as being the perpetrator. Enabling people to do bad things is just as bad as doing it yourself. I am not talking about people risking their lives if someone is being robbed at gunpoint, I am taking about small things like observing someone being bullied in the workplace and doing nothing. Witnessing petty crime, and turning the other cheek.

On reflection this is not a change in the mainstream mindset, but a realisation how far it can be pushed where people still don’t care. I can understand indifference to drug criminals being killed in a shoot out with police. They make their own choices there. A casual user though? If anyone thinks that a kid toking on a joint deserves a bullet then you may as well start shooting teenagers (and a hell of a lot of adults) at will, or you could just come down off your high horse and get back in touch with reality. The system is not their doing.

What about the innocents caught in the cross fire? One person being killed without reason is too many and should be cause of great sorrow for the public, but it isn’t. People make blanket statements that dismisses this and puts it down to collateral damage. This has changed how view Filipino people in general. Their reputation for being caring, family oriented people to me becomes little more than a fascade in my opinion. To dismiss innocent people being killed needlessly in this way is beyond heartless, and it is how the mainstream are thinking. This disappoints me more than I can put into words.




A common retort is that the previous administration let XYZ happen. Whether it be crime, poverty, drugs etc. This is an understandable position. After decades of feeling let down by their leaders Filipinos are entitled to hold some resentment for the position they now find themselves in. However, this only serves to side track the debate to what can become an endless political slinging match for which there will never be a winner.

Arguing politics with someone is a pointless exercise. People see things differently, and value different actions. There is no right or wrong, there is only opinion and preference. You will have a better chance converting someone to a new religion than changing their political views. At the end of the day the past administration are now irrelevant. Nothing they did, or do now, will change what happens next. The future of your country depends only on what happens next. It takes a bigger person to put these issues aside and concentrate on the solution – unfortunately this is beyond many Filipinos. Emotions, ego and a need to win an argument take priority over exploring possible solutions.

In a similar vain you will hear people deflect from the issue by saying that the Americans are killing innocents in xyz country so they should not critisize. There is a point here that the USA certainly don’t have the moral high ground when it comes to dealing with tough issues in a peaceful way. In many ways it is refreshing to see a world leader push back and stand up to this. Having said this, the comments of another county’s leader has no relevance to the choices in front of you and your country. It is a weak justification that says that as long as my country isn’t the worst on the planet I will remain in proud support. I would hope that my country would never engage in a race to the bottom like that, and would seek to be a strong and positive global citizen regardless of what others do or say.

I have spoken to many people who are deeply embarrassed for their country and what is happening. So I want to make it clear that I am not branding all Filipinos as adopters of this mainstream mindset discussed here. There is and will always be many great people in the Philippines. What I have observed though is that any attempt to bring a new perspective into the debate is met with nothing but closed minds, and allegations of being anti Duterte.

I am not here to judge the president or his policies. I said at the outset that it is essentially none of my business as I am a foreigner, but that doesn’t mean I cannot care about the country or its people. No matter who the politician, and how good they are, no one is ever 100% correct in everything they do. Some level of compromise for the good of the country, and some accountability to think about the long term impact of actions that are taken, are necessary to keep a country functioning. Without this the unintended consequences can get out of control very quickly. Looking at the war on drugs you would have to ask whether there was any control to begin with? Most importantly, where does it end? Many countries have tried and failed with this approach. Let’s say by some miracle that the drug problem is completely eradicated. Then what? What is the next problem to be dealt with, and will the same approach be employed? What about the vigilantes who have been killing people? Will they become law abiding citizens overnight?

The last question there is a troubling one. Would vigilantes ever be investigated for their actions? If not it would be all too easy to take some out for whatever reason one could have, and label them a drug pusher. Aside from the tragic loss those around this person would go through, this person would carry the stigma of being a drug pusher forever. Just because someone said so. I have made the point previously the dangers that hearsay and gossip can have in the Philippines, but this takes things to a whole new level. Not only is everyone’s physical safety at risk, but the legacy you leave to your family and children. Is that something that everyone can live with for the sake of taking out a few drug dealers that would most likely be replaced the next day anyway?

I hope that there will be a happy ending for the Philippines with this issue, and I wish the new administration well in their pursuit of a better Philippines. Many of the initiatives outside of this drug war have been a breath of fresh air, and a win for common sense. There is no doubt that things are getting done and the country can make real progress. It is an exciting time for the Philippines, but it also carries an undercurrent of soullessness that goes against the surface values of Filipino society. So it is up to everyone to make a judgment for themselves as to whether the end justifies the means and whether you will still call yourself a proud Filipino once this story plays out.

4 comments On Duterte’s Drug War – The Mainstream Mindset is Getting Ugly

  • Fantastic post. I admire your optimism, I wish we shared that sentiment. Duterte seems like a hothead to me, I hope hrs not a tyrant. Good luck.

  • Before Pres. Duterte’s war on drug was waged, most of us Filipino people were not aware of it. We were only aware of the fact the crime rate went high until it gradually dawn on us that most killers, rapists, robbers were using shabu. When it was revealed that big time transactions of shabu have been done in the Bilibid national prison protected by high officials and Generals it was not a secret anymore that my country has become a narco state.

    Now, here is this new leader who is willing to clean up the mess of the past admin. He already told the voters during his campaign that his admin would be bloody and harsh towards the criminals to protect the law abiding citizens. Sadly, Duterte has become a bad guy as the media keeps on feeding twisted info that reach outside the country. While there are now around 700,000 drug users/peddlers who surrendered to the government, the killed criminals that reach to over 1.000 has become the focus with brand name ” extra-judicial killings”. The critics forgot that those 700k who surrendered will soon go to their new rehab shelter. If Pres. Duterte aimed at killing the criminals, then why there are 700k who stay alive who will soon go to new rehab centers build by the government?

    • I agree with most of what you said. There is no question that there is a problem to be solved. It is the blase attitude to innocents caught in the cross fire that is most concerning.

      Something else to consider. Are people killers, rapists and robbers because of Shabu? Or are the criminals who just happen to use drugs? A lot of people take drugs for the fun of it, and dont rape or kill anyone. Could things like poverty be a bigger driver of street crime? A starving family leads to desperation.

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