From Indonesia to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the Philippines’ deadly drug war is spreading across the region

In Asia, anti-drug rhetoric and action is gaining traction amongst democratically-elected leaders who are ignoring, perhaps willfully, the human rights implications. First it was south-east Asia, and now south Asia is joining the trend. Last year, ahead of national elections, Bangladesh’s prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, launched a ‘war on drugs’, empowering authorities to use force against suspected narcotics dealers. In less than a month 86 people were killed, and the death toll is now estimated at over 400 with over 25,000 arrested according to Al-Jazeera. Then earlier this year, Sri Lanka decided to reintroduce the death penalty with the expressed reason stated as the ability to execute drug criminals. This week Amnesty International called on the government not to execute a number of death row prisoners as part of a grim National Drug Eradication Week (21 June – 1 July) initiative.

“This is lazy governance and an effort to convince people that the political leadership is in charge,” says Meenakshi Ganguly, the south Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of doing the hard work – reforming the criminal justice system, enabling police to identify criminals and protecting victims – political leaders somehow believe that threatening criminals with hangings will deter them.”

The inspiration for both countries? The Philippines, which, since President Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016, has embarked on an incredibly violent war on drugs that has resulted in an estimated 20,000 deaths.

The first sign that other countries would mimic his tactics came in neighbouring Indonesia, which saw two rounds of drug-executions followed by a stark rise in extrajudicial killings by narcotics police in 2017 after President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo called drugs Indonesia’s “number one problem”. Recent events in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have raised fears that the use of state-sanctioned violence against alleged drug criminals could be spreading to south Asia where it would have a hugely detrimental impact on human rights and the rule of law.

“It’s horrifying to see that some governments have chosen to emulate Duterte’s actions,” says Omar Waraich, deputy south Asia director at Amnesty International. “Like him, they are desperately trying to appear tough to the public, claiming that they have a quick solution to establish law and order.”

The Duterte factor

There is evidence that the use and availability of addictive narcotics is increasing across Asia. In southern Thailand, the use of crystal methamphetamine has been rising, making addiction the top cause of divorce in the region. In China, the official number of drug users has risen from 150,000 in 1991 to 2.5 million in 2017. And seizures of meth tablets and crystal meth have risen dramatically in south-east Asia over the past decade, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

This increase is driving the sudden interest in populist, anti-drug policies. “Communities are often upset that the wide availability of illegal recreational drugs has led to addiction problems and they want the state to take action,” says Ganguly.

The Philippines was also dealing with this challenge, and there were reports of growing meth usage in parts of major cities such as Manila and Cebu. Duterte’s 2016 presidential campaign hinged on his success in reducing crime and drug usage while mayor of Davao City, where he debuted his now-infamous tactics, such as ordering the use of death squads.

There is a direct connection between Duterte’s rise and the spread of violent anti-drugs tactics in Asia. Both Bangladesh and Sri Lankan authorities have expressed admiration for Duterte’s methods. In fact, Sri Lankan president Maithripala Sirisena announced his desire to resume use of the death penalty after visiting the Philippines and calling what he saw there “an example to the world”. In Bangladesh, there are clear parallels between the rhetoric of Prime Minister Hasina and Duterte. Ignorance about drugs, and how to address their social impacts, allows this rhetoric to take hold.

“It has been easy for political leaders to simplify the ills of their society by blaming them on drugs, due largely to the fact that understanding about drugs is not based on evidence and science but on morality, ideology and fallacies,” says Gloria Lai, regional director for Asia at the International Drug Policy Consortium.

In fact, the effectiveness of Duterte’s contentious efforts to reduce drug usage or availability is yet to be proven. The price of meth remains similar to what it was before Duterte took power, and reliable figures on drug usage are inconclusive; meanwhile evidence of police brutality and abuse of power is plentiful.

“Duterte’s murderous ways have not rid the Philippines of drugs,” Waraich tells Equal Times. “In their own operations, the police have planted evidence in people’s homes, faked official incident reports and stolen possessions from people’s homes.”

A war on the poor and marginalised

Thailand provides another worrying example. While not as deadly as the Philippines, Thailand embarked on a war on drugs in the early 2000s, putting tens of thousands of people in jail. Today, more about 70 percent of the country’s prison population has been interned on drug offenses, yet drug use and availability remains high. This falls in line with data from the United States, where narcotics use remains high despite years of harsh anti-drug tactics. Moreover, several studies have shown that the use of the death penalty as a deterrent against the trade and usage of narcotics in fact does very little to reduce crime. “The death penalty is a simplistic measure to deceive people into thinking that the government is taking serious action,” says Lai.

Also, incredibly worrying to human rights observers is evidence that the victims of both extrajudicial killings and the death penalty tend to be those from poor and/or marginalised communities, not necessarily the people who run criminal networks. The lack of accountability for police means that the dead can include victims unconnected to drug use, such as the 2017 killing of 17-year old Kian Loyd de los Santos, or political opponents, as more than 10 of the victims in Bangladesh are activists for the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party.

“Breaking the very laws they are supposed to uphold, the authorities have acted on the flimsiest evidence to target people suspected of buying or selling drugs, often in poor neighborhoods,” says Waraich.

Despite all the evidence, there is little momentum to switch from tactics rooted in violence and force to one more rooted in public health: “It’s political symbolism at the expense of not just individuals but also communities and societies, because instead of investing in effectively tackling social problems, such governments have simply chosen to distract voters,” says Lai.

If the goal is political, then the war on drugs has been successful, at least for its leaders. In the Philippines Duterte remains one of the most popular politicians in Asia. Similarly, in Indonesia, Jokowi has seen a jump in his popularity ratings after each round of drug executions, and has seen no blowback from the rise in extrajudicial killings.

“Jokowi has been using, as much as possible, public issues that could be exploited on a populist platform, and one of those is drugs,” says Ricky Gunawan, an Indonesian human rights lawyer and director of the Community Legal Aid Institute (LBH Masyarakat), based in Jakarta, Indonesia.

In Bangladesh, the same trick has also worked well. Prime Minister Hasina’s Awami League party won elections in December 2018 convincingly, taking 288 out of 300 seats in Parliament, despite numerous allegations of fraud. In the Philippines, Duterte’s allies won a majority in mid-term elections for 12 seats in the Senate. As long as voters keep supporting politicians who put populist policies ahead of human rights, it is likely that the war on drugs will continue to claim more victims across Asia.