Government News Analysis

Presage in the message

Duterte Christmas Message

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (photo) isn’t wishing ‘Peace on Earth and Good Will to ALL Men’ this Christmas – excluded from that greeting are corrupt police officers and people who sell their children into sexual and domestic slavery. They, instead, have received a presidential warning – which is this: “I will pursue you to the ends of the world”.

The president took the opportunity to deliver that ‘Christmas message’ to his lawmen on Sunday while attending the 39th birthday celebration of his friend and possible heir, Filipino boxing hero Senator Manny Pacquiao, in General Santos City on the southern island of Mindanao.

And that message will ring on into the New Year and beyond as Duterte steps up his purgation of the Philippine National Police (PNP) – an organisation that’s been variously described as “corrupt to the core” and the biggest organised-crime network in the country.

His warning to child traffickers – specifically, “some tribes in Mindanao and maybe in Visayas and Luzon” – he issued at the 7th LGBT Davao Year-End Gathering in Davao City which he also attended on Sunday.

Hopefully, that message will also be heard and heeded by parents and other adult family members who use their children to make money in a sickening industry that’s made the Philippines a world leader in child pornography, child cyber sex and a favoured destination for perverts and paedophiles everywhere from North America to Europe to Australia.

With regards to the police, apart from being an international embarrassment to a nation that prides itself on being a democracy – subscribing as it does to international standards of rule of law – the PNP has increasingly shown its inability to meet the challenges which Duterte has placed before it.

Most notable among these are his twin campaigns to rid the Philippines of illegal narcotics and defeat the culture of criminality which had been allowed to spread through a mixture of political neglect, police ineptitude and the combined corruption of both sectors.

Within the next couple of days, according to Duterte, we can expect to hear of about three senior police superintendents and of anywhere between 60 and 90 law officers either being drummed out of the force or tendering their resignation. They will join scores of others who’ve fled for the exit over the past year.

His warning was bleak and direct – “I said no corruption. You will destroy my nation. I will destroy you … I will watch you closely”.

This is not the first time that Duterte has highlighted corruption in the PNP. In August last year, Duterte went to Camp Panacan, the headquarters of the Philippine Army’s 10th Infantry Division, in Davao City and made public a list of drugs suspects. There were 158 names on that list; 95 – more than 60% of them – belonged to either retired or active police officers, ranging in rank from superintendent to beat cop.

He told them to report to the office of PNP Director-General, Ronald dela Rosa – “Or else I will order the entire Armed Forces of the Philippines to hunt for you”. He also ordered the cancellation of firearms licences for anyone on the list. “Firearms are ordered cancelled tonight,” he said.

In October, he suspended the force from Operation Double Barrel – the twin strategy of going after the drug underworld’s big and small fish – under his War on Drugs, following the earlier police killing of two youths in Caloocan, Metro Manila; incidents that created a huge public backlash against the administration.

In September, in the immediate aftermath of those killings, the entire Caloocan police force – some 1,200 personnel – was sacked after ‘lawmen’ were caught on CCTV breaking into an elderly woman’s home and stealing money and other valuables. Ironically – or mockingly – in August, the Caloocan Police had received the Police Service’s ‘Best City Police Station’ award.

Back in October last year, officers from a PNP anti-drugs unit in Angeles City, Pampanga, brought even worse dishonour on the police badge. They abducted a South Korean national under the pretence of making a drugs arrest, killed him – within the grounds of the PNP headquarters at Camp Crame in Quezon City, Manila – and extorted a PHP5 million ransom payment from his wife whom, unbeknown to her, was already a widow.

In additional to the national shame that incident caused, international relations with South Korea – a close friend of the Philippines, and the archipelago’s largest source of foreign tourist arrivals – were also put under threat.

Of course, for locals and observers of the Philippines, neither of these incidents caused any real surprise. In fact, the esteem which officers of the national police force are held in is so low, it’s hard to imagine any crime committed by them that would come as a shock. Certainly, the general public distrusts the police from top to bottom – rank and file; from uniform street cops to the detective branch to the top brass.

As far as the drugs war is concerned, the rogue behaviour of police has created a sort of dissociative identity disorder among the public. While the anti-narcotics campaign retains massive support (88% according to a survey released by Pulse Asia in October), certain anti-drugs police actions have left gaping doubts about the PNP’s handling of that campaign (an end-September Social Weather Stations’ survey showed that public skepticism had shot up 9% since June).

Part of the purpose behind Duterte’s purge, therefore, will be to shore up public validation of his drugs-busting programme by cleansing the police of its rogue elements.

The War on Drugs is a once-in-a-lifetime attempt – no president attempted this before; none is likely too in the future – to rid the country of a drugs scourge that’s created some 4 million addicts. The war on criminality is geared to make the streets and the communities through which they pass, safe; to bring order to society.

Neither of those wars can succeed, then, if those prosecuting them are working for crime and drugs syndicates or are freelancing in crime. It’s the rotten-apple syndrome by which bent cops beget more bent cops. The PNP, therefore, in its present state is a liability to Duterte.

Following the removal of the force from anti-drugs operations in October, Duterte had to return them to fight the drugs war earlier this month – The restive season [7 December]. He had little choice; the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) only has manpower of around 2,000 – wholly inadequate to cover the map and disrupt the gangs.

Restoring the PNP – with a strength of 165,000 – to those duties was always inevitable; though the PDEA, which was made the lead agency following the brutal Angeles City scandal, remains in overall control.

Child trafficking, meanwhile, Duterte is also committed to end. Vowing to “hunt down” the offenders, this is how he put it in his ‘Christmas message’. “I will take a strong stand against this. I will not tolerate it … If I catch you kidnappers, I will treat you just like a drug lord … Slavery must stop”, adding, with a measure of menace: “Beyond that, you make your own guess”.

The president told the LGBT gathering that he couldn’t imagine a child being forced to grow up in another family. A girl, kidnapped and sold, he said “will grow up believing that she really is a slave. And when she reaches puberty … she is ready for sexual abuse by the owner of the house. She has to suffer and be condemned to slavery for all of her life enduring pain and suffering”.

Ending his message, he said this: “Those are the things that are not acceptable to me. I will not tolerate it. You stop because if I learned that you are involved in it, I will pursue you to the ends of the world”.

Certainly this government is making efforts to deal with modern-day slavery and people trafficking. Earlier this year, the US State Department’s Office to Monitor Trafficking in Persons promoted the Philippines from Tier 2 to Tier 1, showing that it now meets the standards of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act.

One of the requirements of that Act is this: “The government of the country should make serious and sustained efforts to eliminate severe forms of trafficking in persons”. And that’s precisely what Duterte intends to do.

Both these issues, however, leave a large dark stain on the country. Criminal elements within the PNP have become institutionalised – they run throughout the entire system. Their rackets cover everything from blackmail, robbery and extortion to kidnapping, protection and prostitution. And they have the perfect cover – the police uniform and the badge – as we stated, The enemy within [31 January 2017], “a guise as disarming as the vestments of a pedophile priest”.

The public, of course will welcome any measure that looks like it might help to produce a national police force which they can trust and depend on. But that other matter – the selling of children into slavery – will have far greater resonance; particularly in this season of the Nativity, as Filipinos of all Christians denominations prepare to celebrate the birth of ‘a child born in Bethlehem’ two millennia plus ago.

This is something, however, which the normally vocal human-rights and civil-liberties groups and their media scribes seem to have overlooked – although their attacks on Duterte and his drugs war are probably sapping most of their resources. And there again, how much political mileage can be made out of drawing attention to a practice apparently carried out in the tribal regions of the Philippines?

That said, the country’s Roman Catholic Church, which often allies itself with the anti-Duterte movement, has spoken out about this – and forthrightly.

In February, Bishop Ruperto Santos, chairman of the Episcopal Commission on Migrants and Itinerant People, called for an all-out effort to “maximise resources and make a united effort against the traffickers” and combat “a booming industry of human trafficking” – which he described as a “major scourge”.

Well, he’s right. It is. And so Duterte’s initiative, to root out this inhumane commerce, is surely something which the Church could support. It already has a “covenant of partnership” agreement with the Philippine National Council of Churches and the Philippine Council of Evangelical Churches to tackle this problem. That was established in June last year.

They’ve pledged to make their churches “places of welcome, healing and hospitality” – sanctuaries – for those fleeing human trafficking or who’ve suffered as slaves.

However, its other pledge – “To continue to engage in lobbying through international and national networks to ensure that all forms of human trafficking are addressed by the government” – would seem to be surplus to requirements. If the churches are resolved to do what they can to deal with this problem, Duterte is already committed to eradicating it.