LAST SUMMER, riding the global wave of anti-establishment right-wing populism that would several months later propel Donald Trump into the White House, Rodrigo Duterte took power in the Philippines. He campaigned on the promise that he would launch a brutal war against drugs, criminality, and corruption—like he did as mayor, when he sanctioned death squads that took more than 1,000 lives—and wasted no time implementing his agenda once elected. At the same time, he has deftly made overtures to the political parties on the Left, which has largely quieted their criticism.
As was the case in the 1980s—during the nonviolent People Power movement that toppled Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator who ruled the Philippines for more than two decades—this has left civil society, students, and faith-based organizations to lead the charge not only for social, economic, and environmental justice, but also against the rapidly growing number of drug-related killings.
In January, I traveled to the Philippines to better understand Duterte’s rise and to meet with those organizing to stop him. The international news is filled with headlines of the vicious campaign of extrajudicial executions. To explain his commitment to the cause, Duterte has positively compared himself to Adolf Hitler—saying that he would be “happy to slaughter” 3 million drug users—and pledged that the drug war will continue for his entire six-year term. To date, since he took office more than 8,000 people, or on average more than 30 a day, have been killed by police and so-called “vigilantes,” whom critics argue are often connected to state security forces.
As the drug-related killings mounted, a new ecumenical network of people of faith—including clergy from the Catholic Church, United Church of Christ, and the United Methodist Church—and groups such as Kalipunan ng Damayang Mahihirap (KADAMAY), the largest alliance of urban-poor organizations in the country, launched Rise Up for Life and for Rights in October.