It has been a remarkably turbulent first year for Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose war on drugs has left thousands of suspects dead and prompted critics to call his rule a “human rights calamity.”
One accused him of crimes against humanity before the International Criminal Court.
A former state prosecutor, Duterte denies condoning extrajudicial killings and remains popular with the masses who embrace his unorthodox leadership style, profanity-laced outbursts and draconian bent in an Asian bastion of democracy. Last month, he declared martial law in the south to deal with an unprecedented siege by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-aligned militants that continues to devastate Marawi city and alarm the rest of Southeast Asia.
Martial law declared
Duterte was with his top security officials on an official visit to Russia for talks with his idol, President Vladimir Putin, when an estimated 500 militants, some waving ISIS-style black flags, blasted their way on May 23 into Marawi, a mosque-dotted enclave of Islamic faith in the southern third of the predominantly Roman Catholic country.
Joined by dozens of foreign fighters, the attackers occupied buildings, set free more than 100 inmates before burning a jail, destroyed a cathedral and barricaded streets and three access bridges in 19 of 96 Marawi neighbourhoods. Most of the more than 200,000 residents fled.
From Russia, Duterte declared martial law across the southern Philippines for 60 days and ordered a major offensive backed by airstrikes.
At least 303 militants, 82 soldiers and police and 44 civilians have been killed. A month and a half later, less than 100 gunmen were still holed up in four neighbourhoods with more than 100 civilian hostages, according to the military.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said weak law enforcement and a stalled government autonomy deal with a large Islamic rebel group, which could have helped ease Muslim restiveness, set the conditions for the militants to try to gain a foothold in the south.
A violent drug war
A former mayor of southern Davao city, where he earned the nickname Duterte Harry after the crime-busting Clint Eastwood movie character, Duterte expanded his anti-drug crackdown nationwide after winning the presidency.
During the campaign, he promised to rid the country of illegal drugs in three to six months and repeatedly threatened traffickers with death. But he missed the deadline and later declared he would fight the menace until his last day in office.
When then President Barack Obama, along with European Union and UN rights officials, raised alarm over the mounting deaths, Duterte lashed at them, once telling Obama to “go to hell.” Duterte’s fiercest critic at home, Sen. Leila del Lima, was detained in February on drug charges she said were baseless.
Nearly 5,000 suspects have died so far, including 3,151 in reported gun battles with police and 1,847 others in drug-related attacks, including by motorcycle-riding masked gunmen, police said. Human rights groups have reported a higher death toll and called for an independent investigation of Duterte’s possible role in the violence.
Duterte “has unleashed a human rights calamity on the Philippines in his first year in office,” U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said. In April, a lawyer filed a complaint of crimes against humanity against Duterte and other officials in connection with the drug killings before the International Criminal Court. An impeachment complaint against the president was dismissed in the House of Representatives, which is dominated by Duterte’s allies.
South China Sea
More than a month into Duterte’s presidency, the Philippines won a landmark arbitration case before a tribunal in The Hague that invalidated China’s massive territorial claims in the South China Sea under a 1982 UN maritime treaty.
Duterte, aiming to turn around his country’s frosty relations with China, refused to demand immediate Chinese compliance with the ruling. He promised he would take it up with Beijing at some point. Confronting China, which has dismissed the ruling as a sham, risks sparking an armed conflict that the Philippines would surely lose, Duterte contended.
Nationalists and critics blasted Duterte for what they see as a sellout to China. After a Beijing meeting between the two leaders, China allowed Filipino fishermen to return to the Chinese-controlled Scarborough Shoal, where Chinese coast guard ships had driven Filipinos away since 2012.
The Philippines has been the most vocal critic of China’s aggressive behaviour in the disputed waters until Duterte took power and reached out to Beijing, partly to secure funding for infrastructure projects.
His move has effectively de-escalated tensions in the busy sea, but critics have warned the president’s friendly overtures to China may gradually erode the country’s chances to demand that China comply with the ruling and relinquish its claims to waters regarded as the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone.
Duterte has made U-turns on public pronouncements that have kept reporters and even cabinet members guessing and clouded his policy direction.
He repeatedly declared last year that he would end military exercises with U.S. forces and drive them out of the south, where he says the American presence has helped fuel restiveness among minority Muslims. His defence secretary later said that the president had approved continuing joint exercises with the Americans, although the number of drills would be reduced and exclude mock assaults that have riled China.
Labelling himself a leftist, Duterte has declared he would chart a foreign policy independent of the United States, his country’s longtime treaty ally. When asked how that policy could be affected by the U.S. military’s deployment of a spy plane to help Filipino troops locate militants in Marawi, Duterte said he didn’t seek America’s help himself, but gave his defense officials leeway to do everything to crush the siege.
Duterte also explained that he only had a feud with Obama but not with the American people and the State Department, adding that “as far as [President Donald] Trump is concerned, he’s my friend.”
He grudgingly thanked the Americans for the assistance in Marawi, which he said was helping save lives.