The great misconception of Rodrigo Duterte’s rule in the Philippines is that a ruthless attitude to resolving this country’s myriad problems might actually work. He tried that with drug dealers, with disastrous and unwarranted results for thousands, before suspending operations.
Duterte also promised to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf Group, indicating their end would be even swifter and nastier than his eradication of drug dealers after militants began “slaughtering people like chickens.”
“Kill them, destroy them,” Duterte told the police and military last October, adding his country had the ability to finish the group off within a week.
That was an optimistic outlook even for the Abu Sayyaf – a low-grade terrorist outfit with a liking for soft targets – and not enough to save 70-year-old Jurgen Kantner, who was killed after being held for three months by the Islamist militants.
Kantner was beheaded after the deadline for payment of a $780,000 ransom had passed. His wife, 59-year-old Sabine Merz, was shot dead when the couple’s boat was hijacked.
Among those killed in the past year were two Canadians and an 18-year-old local. The beheadings and kidnappings occurred around Duterte’s home town of Davao, where he used his record as mayor to run for the presidency in last year’s election.
Kantner’s death rekindled fears that militants fighting with Islamic State in the Middle East were returning home to create havoc and lick their wounds following a series of defeats in Syria and Iraq. In this case, that’s unlikely.
The Abu Sayyaf has been on the expansion trail and sworn allegiance to Islamic State, also known as Daesh. But kidnap and ransom, along with banditry, has always been their stock in trade, as opposed political point scoring or fighting for a caliphate. According to risk analysis firm Stratfor, the Abu Sayyaf and their leader Isnilon Hapilon, made $7 million in 2015 alone from kidnap and ransom.
Duterte and his men insisted they did everything they could to try and save Kanter. “Up to the last moment, many sectors, including the armed forces of the Philippines exhausted all efforts to save his life,” said presidential peace advisor, Jesus Dureza. “We all tried our best but to no avail.”
Put simply, the ransom was not paid. Like the Canadian hostages, Kanter was killed, while other Western hostages have been released under previous administrations in Manila when negotiations with the Abu Sayyaf were very difficult but possible.
It’s a major failure that comes barely a month after Duterte suspended anti-drug operations following the murder of a kidnapped South Korean businessman allegedly by anti-drug police, inside the national police headquarters, who got it wrong.
A 117-page report titled License to Kill by Human Rights Watch is also warning Duterte’s war against alleged drug dealers and the use of extrajudicial killings could amount to crimes against humanity, as defined by the International Criminal Court.
“Our investigations into the Philippine ‘drug war’ found that police routinely kill drug suspects in cold blood and then cover up their crime by planting drugs and guns at the scene,” Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, said. “President Duterte’s role in these killings makes him ultimately responsible for the deaths of thousands.”
In the final analysis, Duterte has so far failed to eliminate the Abu Sayyaf as he promised. In fact, he’s barely dented their operations and he has failed to secure the release of the too many hostages, local and foreign, being held.
One exception is an eight-year-old boy, who spent six months in captivity and was freed after an alleged payment was made by his family.
Given the carnage that followed Duterte’s assumption of office in June, people were right to fear him and his election promises. He kept his word with his bloody crackdowns. But those who backed him under the belief that heavy handed and deadly tactics would resolve some dreadful issues plaguing the Philippines would be right in thinking they got it wrong.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt