The expendable poor and the oligarchy

In its first 50 days in office, the Duterte presidency has explicitly identified two targets for destruction. The first: the drug lords and their henchmen and protectors; the other, the oligarchs. The war against these two declared enemies is as complex as it can be. It generates new problems that the government may not be prepared to handle. It runs the risk of backfiring if it succeeds only in sacrificing the expendable poor.

In keeping with his campaign promise to eliminate the drug menace within three to six months, President Duterte ordered the police to launch a sweeping and relentless campaign to demolish the drug trade.  To no one’s surprise, the easy pickings occurred in the urban poor communities.

In his recent testimony before a Senate committee, Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa offered the following statistics: 655 drug suspects killed in police operations in a seven-week period, 899 deaths linked to illegal drugs outside of legitimate police operations, and more than half a million confessed drug users and pushers surrendering to the authorities.

Most of the victims were killed either during a raid or in the course of a buy-bust operation, or simply turned up dead in the streets, usually with a cardboard note labeling them as addicts or pushers.  Nothing like this has been reported in any middle-class subdivision or gated village. In such places, the police would have been asked to produce search and arrest warrants before they can enter the community or a residence or venue within it.

As staggering as the number of deaths is the number of individuals who have “voluntarily” turned themselves in for rehabilitation. These are people whose names appear in a police or barangay watch list. The police visit their neighborhoods, and they are “invited” to come forward to clear their names, or confess their drug addiction, or admit to being petty drug pushers.  After signing a document attesting that no one forced them to surrender, they are either sent home or brought to a rehabilitation center.

Most of them insist on being taken to a drug treatment center out of fear of being killed by the police or by the drug syndicates themselves.

The Department of Health says that there are only 44 government-accredited drug rehabilitation facilities in the whole country today. There is simply not enough room for the huge number of drug users (576,176) who have turned up virtually overnight, anxiously seeking treatment.  In actual fact, says the DOH, only a small fraction of these—possibly 1 to 10 percent—probably need confinement. The rest could be sent home and treated as outpatients.  Experts say that a relapse rate of 20 percent is usual even for patients confined in rehabilitation centers. Thus, it is almost certain the problem will recur as soon as the police operations have waned.

The sight of able-bodied young drug users lying side by side on the floor, like sardines, in overcrowded drug treatment facilities shows the extent of the drug problem, which, clearly, has been underestimated.  But it also indicates the immense complexity of the drug trade that is at its core. President Duterte has named some of the drug syndicates’ protectors in the ranks of the police, the judiciary, and the local governments. But, he himself admits that the really big fish typically operate from abroad, beyond the reach of our laws.

In other words, after all the shock and awe it has created, it is almost certain that the war against illegal drugs will fail to achieve its goal in six months—and maybe even in one year. Not because the willful Mr. Duterte lacks a clear plan, but because the problem has festered too long and has grown too big for one administration to solve.

Once drug addiction is defined as a public health problem, and not just a police matter, it is bound to cause further strain on the country’s already inadequate health system. Thus, one can only note with more than passing interest the recent offer of businessman Roberto V. Ongpin to donate the bulk of his shares in the beleaguered PhilWeb to the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. for the purpose of funding the construction and operation of drug rehabilitation facilities. A firm engaged until recently in online gaming, PhilWeb failed to get its license renewed by Pagcor.

Ongpin isn’t just being suddenly generous. He also appears to be sending out a message: Since, for whatever reason, President Duterte has declared him an oligarch worthy to be destroyed, he will gladly donate to the government his shares in the company, for use in the antidrug campaign. This donation would cost him several billion pesos, but it would not make him poor. The President, he says, has no need to destroy the business on which 5,000 ordinary employees depend for their livelihood.

The identification of the oligarchy as an enemy appeared now and then in the speeches of then Candidate Duterte. But, given the ostentatiously populist tone of campaign rhetoric, hardly anyone paid much attention.  But, today, the term is being echoed in a lot of social media postings, usually as a benign synonym for the elites of “Imperial Manila,” but sometimes ideologically, to refer to the few interlocking families that control Southeast Asian societies like the Philippines.

President Duterte clearly thinks of himself as an outsider to the oligarchical system.  It is a system that, in my view, is dying—though not nearly fast enough to pave the way for the birth of the new. In the interim, notes the writer Ben Anderson, all types of strongmen can appear, ominously spewing “plenty of ugly language directed at the oligarchs.”

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