Rodrigo Duterte and the brutal drug policies of Southeast Asia

AKP Images / Keith Bacongco

Rodrigo Duterte, the soon-to-be President of the Philippines, is poised to implement some of the world’s most repressive drug policies. Duterte, nicknamed ‘The Punisher’, has vowed to kill all drug users and traffickers in his country.

“All of you who are into drugs, you sons of bitches, I will really kill you,” he declared at an election rally, “I have no patience, I have no middle ground. Either you kill me or I will kill you idiots.”

Duterte was unwavering in his commitment to extrajudicial killing of drug users prior to his presidential bid; while mayor of Davao City, he issued a chilling warning: “[if you] do drugs in my city, I will execute you in public”. And he has been clear that there are no exceptions: “my order is, even if it is a member of my family, kill him”.

Although extreme, Duterte’s remarks are not significantly divergent from mainstream drug policy in Southeast Asia. The region is home to numerous nations that regularly execute people for drug offences.

Last year, the government of Indonesia made headlines when it executed eight drug convicts in one day. Among these was Zainal Abidin, a 50 year-old man arrested for large-scale marijuana possession, who had his limbs tied to a pole before being shot to death with assault rifles by state executors.

      Indonesia executed eight drug offenders in one day last year

In the island city-state of Singapore, execution – primarily by hanging – is mandatory for any adult convicted of trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin, or 500 grams of marijuana. According to Amnesty International, Singapore has the second highest per capita rate of execution in the world, with over 400 inmates killed since 1991 – the majority of which for drug offences.

In the majority of neighbouring countries, drug policies are similarly draconian. In March of this year, 21 Malaysian nationals were arrested in Thailand on suspicion of transporting heroin and methamphetamines, and currently face the death penalty. In Vietnam, three women and a man were recently sentenced to death for illegally importing narcotics.

Capital punishment is also implemented for drug offences in Cambodia, Thailand, and Malaysia.

As Rodrigo Duterte’s rhetoric indicates, state-mandated killing of drug offenders is often portrayed by the region’s politicians as successful, and in many Southeast Asian countries, such policies enjoy popular support.

However, regardless of such populist vitriol, Southeast Asia remains a global hub of the international drug trade. The region’s ‘Golden Triangle’ is the second-largest opium producing area in the world, generating 762 tonnes of the drug in 2013, and its production rate continues to rise.

As governments across Southeast Asia continue to kill people for drug offences, the potential income for those daring enough to break the law may simply increase with the risk. Duterte and his ilk must realise that repressive implementation of drug policies may win them votes, but it won’t win them the drug war.

Malaysia has some of the harshest drug laws in the world.

                            Malaysia has some of the harshest drug laws in the world