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Legacies of violence—anti-crime campaigns and extrajudicial killings in Southeast Asia


Amid the Philippine Government’s ongoing campaign of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and addicts, and reports that Indonesia is looking to emulate aspects of this approach, it is timely to recall similar previous anti-crime campaigns in Southeast Asia.  

Indeed, Indonesia has conducted campaigns of this sort in the not-too-distant past. In the mid-1980s, the so-called petrus (penembakan misterius, ‘mysterious shootings’) episode resulted in the extrajudicial killing of an estimated 2,000 known and suspected criminals across Indonesia by the military, the police and their proxies. As the historian Robert Cribb has observed:

Most of the killings followed a similar pattern. The victims were widely known local roughs. Many of them had been arrested on previous occasions, and both the police and the public regarded them as professional, or at least habitual, criminals. Some of them simply disappeared, but others were seen, often at dusk, being hustled away by muscular men with short haircuts who were dressed in civilian clothes. In most cases, the bodies of these alleged criminals were discovered the next morning, sometimes dumped into canals or ditches, sometimes deposited at prominent places on roadways, often shot neatly through the head at point-blank range. Many, but not all, showed signs of torture.

The petrus operation lasted for around two years, coming to an end in mid-1985. In his 1989 autobiography, Indonesian President Suharto confirmed that the campaign had been state-sanctioned. Following a four year investigation, in 2012 Indonesia’s National Human Rights Commission designated the petrus campaign a ‘gross human rights violation’ that involved systematic extrajudicial killing, torture and abduction by state security personnel. It also found that some victims had no criminal records but were targeted simply because they had tattoos.

Thailand’s anti-drug efforts in the early 2000s adopted an equally brutal approach. In 2003, the Thai Prime Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, announced a three month ‘war on drugs’ intended to eliminate narcotics from the country. Thailand’s Interior Minister declared, ‘in our war on drugs, the district chiefs are the knights, and provincial governors are the commanders. If the knights see the enemies, but do not shoot them, they can be beheaded by their commanders’.

According to a 2004 report by the US Department of State:

The Minister of Interior instructed local authorities to update "blacklists" of individuals suspected of being involved in illegal drug trafficking, sale, or use and the Prime Minister told the governors and provincial police that those who failed to eliminate a prescribed percentage of the names from their "blacklists," would be fired. The Government threatened retaliation against local officials who did not produce results. There were reports that local officials used the blacklists as a means to settle political differences.

According to official figures, there were 1,386 narcotics-related deaths between February 1 and April 30. No arrests were made in 1,195 of these cases, which led many observers to believe police were responsible for most of these deaths. According to press reports, more than 2,200 alleged drug criminals were killed during the year [2003], while more than 90,000 suspects were arrested.

A subsequent investigative committee formed by the military junta which ousted Shinawatra in 2006, found that ‘over half of those killed had no links to the drugs trade’ and blamed this on police shoot-to-kill policies based on flawed ‘blacklists’.

While they involved different security actors and political dynamics, there are some important commonalities in the Indonesian and Thai cases. Both campaigns were reportedly greeted with a high level of popular support, at least in their early phases. In the case of Indonesia, Cribb states that the initial public response to the petrus killings was generally positive. In Thailand, a March 2005 poll showed that 74 per cent of those surveyed supported Thaksin’s ‘war on drugs’ (despite 68 per cent believing that it would not be successful).

Both campaigns, however, left troubling legacies. In Indonesia and Thailand, there were claims that some killings were the result of proxy battles over resources and ‘turf’ between competing elements of the security forces. These battles reflected the (ongoing) links between criminal gangs and security authorities and resulted in a further corrosion of oversight, governance and integrity of these authorities. Moreover, there is little evidence that these measures effectively addressed the forces that drive crime in these societies, or its consequences; indeed, in the case of Thailand, it has been argued that this approach exacerbated the country’s HIV/AIDS epidemic by reducing the ability and willingness of drug addicts to access harm reduction services.   

Reports from the Philippines suggest that the current anti-drug campaign directed by President Rodrigo Duterte has already resulted in over 3,000 deaths, an average of as many as 44 killings per day. Of these, an estimated 1,894 have been unexplained deaths, ‘deaths which rights groups believe are largely due to out-of-control security forces and hired assassins’. Mark Thompson from the University of Hong Kong has pointed out that the overwhelming majority of those who have lost their lives are likely to have been poor Filipinos. In contrast, those elites thus far publicly accused of complicity in the drug trade ‘only risk losing face’.

The Philippine Government has declared the controversial crackdown a ‘success’, claiming drug supply in the country has been cut by 90 per cent since the campaign began mid-year. While surveys indicate that the campaign currently has a high level of public support, this is likely to decline if levels of impunity and retaliatory violence spiral out of control. The Government has acknowledged that some of those killed are likely to have been murdered by drug gangs who have used Duterte’s campaign as a cover to eliminate rivals.

According to Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade:

Improving the quality of governance in the Philippines is fundamental to the country’s prosperity and stability. In response to the challenge of weak institutions and corruption, we will support the national government as it fosters a culture of accountability and transparency.

Australia has a long history of supporting the Philippines’ law enforcement efforts in areas such as counterterrorism and transnational crime. Australia has an interest in there being an effective and accountable Philippine police force that is able to maintain public confidence over the long-term. The brutal and arbitrary nature of the Philippines’ current anti-drug campaign puts these interests at risk.