Government News Analysis

The Indonesian connection

Philippines-Indonesia War on Drugs

As drug gangs find it increasingly difficult to operate in the Philippines – the War on Drugs there has taken a heavy toll on the illegal-narcotics trade – they’re spilling next door into Indonesia. But if they think they’re in for an easier time there, they need to think again – when it comes to dealing with the drug lords and their pushers, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is in the same mould as his Philippine counterpart, Rodrigo Duterte. His order to his lawmen is plain: “Just shoot them on site. Give them no mercy”.

The signs are that Duterte’s zero-tolerance stance against the pestilence of methamphetamine use and addiction will be replicated in Indonesia, a fellow member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), as police and anti-narcotics chiefs in Jakarta prepare to hit back at a trade that leaves a daily toll of 33 dead – a toll that’s set to rise.

Last week, Brigadier-General Arman Depari, Director of Narcotics for the Indonesian National Police in Jakarta, said this: “The firm actions in the Philippines have caused drug dealers to look for a new market and Indonesia is that new market”.

Last September, Commissioner General Budi Waseso, the head of the Badan Narkotika Nasional (BNN, or the National Narcotics Agency), paid tribute to those “firm actions”. Referring to Duterte’s War on Drugs he said: “If such a policy were implemented in Indonesia, we believe that the number of drug traffickers and users in our beloved country would drop drastically”.

But he’s under no doubt where the upsurge in drugs in his country is coming from. “The market that existed in the Philippines is moving to Indonesia, the impact of President Duterte’s actions is an exodus to Indonesia, including the substance,” he said.

National Police Chief, Tito Karnavian, echoed those sentiments and has instructed his officers to follow police actions in the Philippines, telling them “not to hesitate shooting drug dealers who resist arrest”. He added: “When we shoot at drug dealers, they go away”.

And this is what they want to emulate. In the first 12 months of the War on Drugs, Philippine law enforcement arrested 86,984 drug suspects, including 302 government workers – the previous government of former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, during its first year, apprehended just 18,766 which included 97 government staff.

Duterte’s lawmen seized 2,445 kilograms of crystal meth, worth PHP12.62 billion – almost three times the volume seized in year one of Aquino’s administration. They also dismantled nine large drug laboratories as well as 152 alleged drug dens and reclaimed 3,677 barangays from the clutches of illegal narcotics, of the 20,126 affected.

On top of that, a total of 1.3 million drug users and pushers surrendered to Philippine authorities from 1 July 2016 to mid June 2017. In that same period, 3,151 drug personalities were killed in police operations. Meanwhile, the street price for crystal meth went from a range of PHP1,200 to PHP11,000 a gram – prices are determined by the sales location – to a range of PHP1,300 to PHP25,000.

Where law-and-order issues are concerned, Duterte and Widodo are on the same page; they’re soul mates. During their respective election campaigns, both men promised their people they’d cleanse their societies of crime, drugs and corruption. That promise got them both elected. The hellish state of their societies was the single-biggest issue for both electorates.

Last September, Duterte visited Jakarta, (photo. Duterte, right, with Widodo). Significantly, it was his first official state visit after assuming office. And the two countries’ respective drugs problems were high on the agenda – an agenda not helped by the issue of Mary Jane Veloso, a Filipina who’d been caught smuggling 5.7 lbs of heroin into Indonesia and was awaiting execution. Veloso remains on death row.

Both men believe that capital punishment is an essential tool in combating drug crime. Indonesia imposes the death penalty for drug traffickers and traders; the Philippines is in the process of deciding whether to do the same.

In Indonesia, capital punishment was the subject of a moratorium between 2008 and 2013. Two years after it was lifted, 14 people – many of them foreign nationals – were executed there by firing squad. That statistic is now likely to increase also. “We will not stop. We will step up the war on drugs,” Attorney-General H.M. Prasetyo has vowed. Furthermore, Widodo has said there will be no clemency for drug traffickers.

Meanwhile, Duterte has pushed hard for the reinstatement of the death penalty to deal with the drugs menace in the Philippines. In March, the House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly – 217 votes for; 54 against – to bring it back after a 10-year absence. It now awaits approval by the Senate.

The death penalty there, a provision in the Revised Penal Code, had been suspended in 2006 by the government of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The suspicion has been that the move was to keep the politically powerful Roman Catholic Church – a strong campaigner against the death penalty – on side. Duterte, however, won’t be listening to the bishops, and last Monday during his State of the Nation Address, he again called on Congress to “act on all pending legislation to re-impose the death penalty on heinous crime”. Specifically, the Bill now before the Senate seeks to penalise drug offenders.

Widodo described the drugs situation in his country as “a narcotics emergency”. And it is. Comr-Gen. Waseso believes Indonesia is the biggest illegal-narcotics market in the world. Last year 72 international drugs syndicates were identified there.

And there’s no question things are getting worse. In 2010, the United Nations reported that 0.18% of Indonesians were using amphetamines like crystal meth – known as sabu-sabu in Indonesia; shabu in the Philippines. That was equivalent to 434,800 users nationwide. Since then the population has increased by 22 million and the latest estimates by the BNN is that there are 1 million people hopelessly addicted to drugs in Indonesia – a major Southeast Asian narcotics hub – a further 1.4 million regular consumers and 1.6 million who occasionally use illegal substances.

Many believe that’s a conservative estimate for this country of 263 million people. Given the experience elsewhere, use and addiction rates climb; they don’t naturally fall. Indeed, based on the BNN figures drug use among Indonesians now stands at 3.25% of the population.

Furthermore, as the drug gangs relocate from the Philippines, the surge in usage that’s already been identified by the Indonesian authorities as a result of that migration will continue to rise. Last year, the BNN confiscated 157 kilograms of sabu-sabu, up from just 99 kgs in 2015. Given the seizures to date, 2017 looks like being a record year. In July, Jakarta police seized one ton of crystal meth, the largest drug bust in the country’s history. But to put that figure in perspective, according to Waseso, China-based gangs shipped some 250 tons of crystal meth into the Indonesian archipelago in 2016.

Duterte and Widodo are pledged to a ‘drug-free’ Asean Community – and are supported in that endeavour by leaders from across the Asean region. Their hard-line policies in pursuing their narcotics wars – each, in turn, has called on their law officers to kill drug dealers who resist arrest – have made them continual targets of international human-rights groups. They claim these leaders have committed human-rights violations; Duterte and Widodo claim it’s those trading in drugs who are culpable of crimes against humanity.

The two countries share similar problems in their efforts to beat the drugs scourge – not least, their extensive and porous coastlines. The Philippine archipelago comprises 7,641 islands; its 22,549-mile coastline is the world’s fifth longest; Indonesia has 17,000 islands in its archipelago and a coastline that stretches for 33,999 miles; the second longest in the world after Canada.

Duterte and Widodo are both nationalists pursuing ‘country-first’ policies, and remain hugely popular – not least because of their tough anti-drug policies. They are also close allies in the fight against Islamic terrorism – another scourge that affects both their countries.

But they’re also the subjects of fierce criticism. Both men are weathering the storm of what’s been described as the “elite assault on democracy” – the push back by the old political establishments in their countries; oligarchs and powerful political clans that want to concentrate power at the centre and regain the old status quo.

They’re also up against the progressive Liberal movement, at home and abroad, which view these two men as throw backs to what they regard as a dark era of Southeast Asia’s past. Duterte is viewed by his detractors as another Ferdinand Marcos who placed the Philippines under nine years of martial law; Widodo’s opponents see him as the new Suharto, Indonesia’s second president whose authoritarian New Order regime kept him in power for 30 years.

The fact is though, today these two countries are democracies and it is the people – not the human-rights groups; not the United Nations; not elite political interests; not the Western media – who decide who their presidents should be. And what they’ve worked out, independently of each other, is that their countries face some very serious problems – drugs, terrorism and general lawlessness – problems which they believe need a strong man at the helm to fix.

And now they’ve got the leaders they want, they’ll continue to support them. After all, why wouldn’t they? They’re doing exactly what the vast majority of people in these two lands want them to do – they’re purging those lands of a pestilence that’s ruining millions of lives. Duterte and Widodo are each trying to deliver a country where young people can achieve their aspirations; where old people can live in peace – instead of having to cower under the violent and destructive cloud of drugs in a place where there is no future and where the present is a living nightmare.

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