Is Duterte an autocrat?

If there is one thing that President Rodrigo Duterte resents is to call him an “autocrat.” Not only is he autocratic, he is a “threat to democracy.” That’s according to a U.S. intelligence report, which names the firebrand leader among the “threats to democracy in Southeast Asia.” Duterte was particularly reacting to the Worldwide Threat Assessment (WTA) report released by Daniel Coats, U.S. Director of National Intelligence last February 13, 2018.

Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque said that it is “myopic and speculative at best,” saying that it could hurt ties between the U.S. and the Philippines, which have been military allies for 67 years.

But WTA cited Duterte’s war on illegal drug trade – which has so far killed almost 4,000 since the mid-2016 – as the reason for its anti-Duterte views. It also referenced Duterte’s plans to impose a nationwide martial law, suspension of the Constitution, and to declare a “revolutionary government,” and extensive use of social media against critics. WTA based its report on the findings of Freedom House, which said: “We note that more governments are using propaganda and misinformation in social media to influence foreign and domestic audiences.” Among those cited were Thai officials and Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen as Southeast Asian leaders who threaten democracy and human rights. The WTA report also said: “Democracy and human rights in many Southeast Asian nations will remain fragile in 2018 because of autocratic tendencies, rampant corruption and cronyism.”

But unlike the Thai officials and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen who did not deny the WTA allegations, the Duterte administration is in a state of denial.

“Duterte is not an autocrat,” Roque asserted. “He adheres to the rule of law and remains loyal to the constitution,” Roque said. He went on to say: “Our media are still able to broadcast and print what they want — ‘fake news’ included. Our judiciary and the courts are functioning as usual. Our legislature remains independent and basic services are still being delivered.”

However, Roque did not address the fact that there are still political prisoners such Sen. Leila de Lima who is detained by the police on trumped-up charges of drug possession. After more than a year in detention, De Lima remains under police custody.

Extrajudicial killings

But the most serious problem of the Duterte administration is the alleged extrajudicial killings of suspected illegal drug pushers and users. The most notorious police operation against them is “Oplan Tokhang,” which involves the “visitation” of alleged drug personalities by “tokhangers.” The tokhangers are members of special teams who are trained to go after suspected illegal drug personalities to convince them to surrender to the police. In some cases, the suspected drug personalities fight back and ended up killed in gun battles. But there were cases where Oplan Tokhang was used by erring and corrupt police officers for their own benefit.

For a short period of time, the Oplan Tokhang was suspended due to police abuses. However, Duterte ordered the Philippine National Police (PNP) to resume the controversial operation last December. Oplan Double Barrel, another controversial anti-drug operation was also implemented.

Oplan Tokhang is the government’s flagship campaign against illegal drugs. Oplan Tokhang and Oplan Double Barrel work in tandem against suspected drug personalities. Oplan Tokhang is the “lower barrel approach,” which is mainly visiting suspected drug personalities to convince them to surrender. Oplan Double Barrel, on the other hand, is the “upper barrel approach,” which is to go after high value targets (HVTs). A lot of times, these HVTs are terminated when they resist arrests. Oplan Double Barrel is unconstitutional because it expressly authorizes the police to kill suspected drug personalities.

And then there are the gun-for-hire police officers that moonlight as hitmen. Police said about a third of the 9,000 people who have been killed since Duterte took office were shot by officers in self-defense during legitimate anti-drug operations. Human rights monitors believe the remaining two-thirds were killed by paid assassins operating with police backing or by police disguised as vigilantes.

There is another police operation known as “Masa Masid.” It requires all barangays to establish a “drop box system” to anonymously report suspected criminals. Crimes are reported by anyone who suspects — rightly or wrongly — that another person is a criminal.

Masa Masid is likened to the Kempeitai during the Japanese occupation in the Philippines and the secret police Gestapo in Nazi Germany. By allowing the submission of complaints through a drop box gives any person the opportunity to report any person even if they are completely innocent.

And since Duterte is the president, he has command responsibility over the implementation of Oplan Tokhang, Oplan Double Barrel, and Masa Masid. These are the tools used to control and subjugate people. Yes, in this regard, Duterte is an autocrat.