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The Philippines: September 2016 update

Published Monday, September 19, 2016

President Rodrigo Duterte took office at the end of June 2016 pledging to take a tough approach to criminals. Since then, over 3,000 people have been killed in his controversial 'war on drugs', about two-thirds at the hands of vigilantes. There have been protests both at home and abroad. Duterte is also pushing ahead with peace efforts in the south, where there has been a long-running insurgency, but observers worry that the new president could prove to be a 'loose cannon'.

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On 9 May 2016 the 71 year-old Mayor of the southern city of Davao, Rodrigo Duterte, won a decisive victory in the presidential election in the Philippines, defeating his main opponent, Mar Roxas. Rodrigo Duterte stood on a strong ‘law and order’ platform , pledging to transfer to the national level the tough approach to criminals he had taken over the years in Davao – especially those involved in the drugs trade – which critics argue extended to encouraging a ‘shoot-to-kill’ policy by both the security forces and private vigilantes. He said he would wipe out crime across the country within six months of taking office.

Since the new president was inaugurated at the end of June 2016, security issues have dominated the political scene.

The most recent official figure for the number of people killed in the context of the ‘war on drugs since President Duterte took office is just over 3,100 people, about one-third of whom have been killed by the police.

Concern about the level of extrajudicial killings has led to widespread protests at home and abroad. Leading the domestic protests is Senator Leila de Lima, a former Justice Secretary during the Benigno Aquino presidency, who is chairing a parliamentary investigation into the anti-drugs campaign.

Duterte also promised during the election campaign to bring to fruition the peace processes which his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had launched with Communist and Islamist rebels in Mindanao and the southern islands, one of the poorest parts of the country. These had lost momentum. Talks have duly resumed and there are cautious grounds for optimism.

Meanwhile, the army has intensified operations against the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf, which continues to carry out attacks and kidnappings in the south.

Duterte had relatively little to say directly about the economy during the election campaign, but did pledge that he intended to shift power away from “Imperial Manila” and towards the provinces by introducing a federal system of government.

He also pledged to do more to uplift the poor in the Philippines, identifying himself as a leader who would challenge the power of the country’s oligarchy if elected.

Soon after President Duterte took office, an Arbitral Tribunal under the Convention on the Law of the Sea passed judgment in a case brought by his predecessor challenging China’s territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea. The ruling has widely been viewed as a victory for the Philippines. However, Duterte’s economic and foreign policies appear oriented towards improving relations between the two countries.

At the same time, he has sometimes seemed lukewarm towards the US, with which the Philippines has long had a very close relationship. Duterte has made a number of unflattering statements about senior US officials, including President Obama, and has asserted that the Philippines will pursue a more independent foreign policy. But it is unlikely that the Philippines under its new president will entirely tear up decades of military and security cooperation with the US.

Other unguarded remarks have left observers worrying that President Duterte could prove to be a diplomatic ‘loose cannon’ in what is a volatile part of the world.

Commons Briefing papers CBP-7710

Authors: Jon Lunn; Steven Ayres; Claire Mills

Topics: Asia, Human rights, International economic relations, International politics and government, Terrorism

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