Epic city traffic jams, a 'war on drugs' and martial law. Upheavals – natural and political – are par for the course for this country situated in the typhoon belt and the Pacific Ring of Fire. As a result, Filipinos are resolute and adept survivors. Political intrigue, corruption scandals and shifting foreign alliances are often splashed across newspaper headlines. However, for many, it's mostly white noise. Scratch the surface, and Filipinos' thoughts are elsewhere: on migration, traditions, superstitions, and the next generation.

Duterte's Drug War

Rodrigo Duterte (aka 'Digong'), who was often referred to as the 'Death Squad Mayor' when he was mayor of the city of Davao for more than two decades, ran a populist campaign for the presidency in 2016, promising to fight crime, drugs and corruption. He made no apologies. He spoke impoliticly. He vowed to destroy enemies. And he bested his closest rival by more than six million votes.

According to Human Rights Watch, quoting official police statistics, more than 7000 people were killed in the so-called war on drugs in the first six months after Duterte took office, many of them suspected dealers and users of shabu (methamphetamine). Police are reported to be responsible for up to half of this figure (2500 by their own admission); the remaining deaths are largely attributed to ‘unidentified gunmen’.

In a televised speech in August 2016, Duterte accused 150 officials, from mayors to police officers, of being part of the illegal drug trade, and at other times has encouraged the public to kill addicts. Despite this, Duterte remains popular. His claim that drugs fuel corruption, militant groups in Mindanao and crime overall resonates with some Filipinos. Journalists and human rights groups have worked to document extrajudicial killings, though they often take place in communities that fear reprisals, and circumstances are hazy.

No Peace in Mindanao

The Philippines is home to some of the longest-lasting resistance movements of indigenous peoples, and communist and Muslim rebel groups, and they continue to fracture society. The situation in Mindanao, which has been festering for decades, changed trajectory radically in 2017 when nearly 600 ISIS–affiliated militants seized the Islamic City of Marawi. The Philippine military's response, involving bombing raids, artillery and urban warfare, was intense; however, the rebels still controlled parts of the city several months later. Duterte declared martial law in all of Mindanao, for the first time since Marcos' rule. Several militants were caught at checkpoints, attempting to escape to other parts of the island. In December 2017, Congress voted to extend martial law until the end of December 2018.

Most alarming to some observers was the involvement of foreign fighters, many from Indonesia and Malaysia. Duterte came to office promising to federalise the country's political structure, thereby granting more autonomy to Muslim Mindanao. It remains to be seen whether he can garner enough political and public support, in light of the siege in Marawi and martial law.

Geopolitics & Natural Resources

The Philippines' location, with its maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, leaves its economic momentum vulnerable to regional and superpower jockeying. In 2013, the former Aquino administration, aligned with the US, brought a case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, alleging violation of territorial sovereignty in the South China Sea, including key fishing grounds and isolated shoals and reefs. After much legal wrangling, the court ruled in the Philippines' favour in 2016. China rejected this ruling, denying the court's authority, and citing claims to the territory going back to 'ancient' times. Since assuming the presidency, Duterte has begun to move away from the US and closer to China, both in rhetoric and policy.

For its part, China is pledging to invest billions of dollars in several large infrastructure projects in the Philippines. Yet access to the South China Sea continues to be an issue. An estimated 320,000 Filipinos fish in these waters, and their livelihoods, and the larger industry, depend on it. According to the Philippine Coast Guard and government officials, there have been continued reports of Filipino fishermen being intimidated and even attacked by Chinese ships. The presence of vast reserves of natural gas ready for exploitation complicates the situation even further.