COLOMBO: Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who had openly expressed a bizarre wish to replicate Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s harsh extra-judicial methods of controlling the drug menace, now says that he will not follow Duterte in toto.

Sirisena’s thoughtless statement, made in Manila last week, came in for censure back home in Sri Lanka where “human rights” has become a major issue after the 30 year war against Tamil militants marked by abductions and extra-judicial executions of suspects.

Speaking at the State banquet given at Malacanang, Sirisena told Duterte: “The war against crime and drugs carried out by you is an example to the whole world, and personally, to me. The drug menace is rampant in my country and I feel that we should follow your footsteps to control this hazard.”

And Duterte said that Sri Lanka could be a partner in addressing the trafficking of illegal drugs. Sure enough, the matter figured in the Joint Statement issued on Sunday.

“Both sides acknowledged the threat that crime and illegal drugs pose to society and affirmed their desire to strengthen cooperation and to share relevant experiences and best practices,” the statement said.

But later, on being told about the real nature of Duterte’s campaign, the Lankan President watered down his stand to eschew extra-judicial killings.

Sirisena told an audience in Mullaitivu in North Sri Lanka on Monday, on return from Manila, that he will not follow the methods used by his Philippines counterpart in toto, but there will be no deviation from his decision to sanction death sentences given to drug traffickers who have been plying their trade even while being in the death row.

Sirisena also declared that all decisions taken in the last four years to curb the drug menace will be implemented “with a new approach”. He will not change the stern decisions taken against drug traffickers due to the fear of NGOs, he added.

He also announced a toll free telephone number “1984” which people could be used to lodge complaints about the drug menace in their area.

The President was speaking at an event held at the Vidyananda Maha Vidyalaya, Mulliyawalai, Mullaitivu, to inaugurate the National Drug Prevention Week.

But he did not fail to appreciate Duterte’s tough stance on the drug issue. He said that Sri Lanka will make use of Philippines’ expertise on the matter. A Philippines expert team is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka shortly to explore the possibility of providing technological consultancy services in this regard, the President said.

Sirisena pointed out that the Philippines was being destroyed due to rampant drug use. And it was due to the initiatives taken by President Duterte that it had overcome this challenge.

“Certain human rights organizations raise their voices against hard decisions taken against drug dealers, but they should realize the damage caused to the country, the nation and the future of children by rampant drug use,” Sirisena said.

He announced that information regarding Lankan drug dealers, and those in high positions who are behind these dealers, will be revealed.

From the Lankan President’s statements on Duterte’s drug war, it is apparent that he had not been briefed fully about its nature and results. Duterte’s methods have, in fact, failed to deliver the goods.

One sign of it is that, despite the official and unofficial execution of an estimated 12,000 people over 2016 and 2017, the street price of a popular drug like Shabu (methamphetamine or meth) came down and not gone up.

In 2016, the street price of a gram of Shabu was US$ 24. But in 2017, it had come down to US$ 20. In other words, drugs are now cheaper than what they were before the brutal crackdown.

However, to be fair to Duterte, the drug menace in the Philippines in 2016-2017 could not be under-estimated. As per the US State Department’s 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, addiction to Shabu (methamphetamine or meth) was the most significant drug problem of the Philippines. A UN World Drug Report tagged the Philippines as the country having the highest rate of Shabu use in the whole of East Asia.

The Catholic Bishop’s Conference of the Philippines released a pastoral letter expressing concern about the proliferation of the drug problem in the country and the alleged involvement of government officials.

Estimates of the annual drug trade ranged from Peso 350 billion to Peso 500 billion (US$ 66.3 million to US$ 94.7 million). According to a report by the Philippine National Police, about 27% or 11,321 of the total 42,026 Barangays (the smallest administrative units) in Philippines were infiltrated by illegal drugs, with the situation being worse in Metro Manila. Almost four million out of 106 million Filipinos were classified as drug addicts.

To combat the menace, the newly elected President Duterte allowed the police and even civilians to kill drug dealers and users. According to Amnesty International, the government pays policemen and vigilantes for killing suspected drug users and dealers.

“We always get paid by the encounter.The amount ranges from 8,000 pesos (US$151) to 15,000 pesos (US$ 284). That amount is per head. So if the operation is against four people, that’s 32,000 pesos (US$ 606). We’re paid in cash, secretly, by headquarters.There’s no incentive for arresting. We’re not paid anything. It never happens that there’s a shootout and no one is killed,” a Metro Manila police officer told Amnesty.

According to another estimate, in any raid, 97% of the suspects were killed.

Duterte has been continuously criticized for his methods by Filipino human rights activists, the Philippine Association of Psychologists and the media.

It is pointed out that hundreds of innocents, including children, have been killed in the shootouts. Most of the dead are small time operators if not innocents. The drug lords have managed to dodge the police.

Duterte’s murderous strategy has not worked even in Davao city, where the anti-drugs campaign was started and where Duterte was Mayor for 22 years. Davao city is still the “crime capital” of the Philippines.

It is also pointed out that the criminalization of the drug trade and drug use has driven the activity underground. Once it goes underground the difficulties in effectively curbing it mount. And because it has gone underground, those still in the business are the hardcore and the hardened elements who know how to dodge the long arm of the law. In other words, the government’s indiscriminate brutality has made the problem more intractable than before.

Critics also say that Duterte has been exaggerating the drug problem. According to a report in The Guardian the “prevalence rate” of drug use by Filipinos is 2.3%, which is roughly half the global average.

The Philippine Association of Psychologists has been urging Duterte to switch over from brutal suppression to capturing addicts and rehabilitating them. The latter technique has worked in many countries, including those of the Third World, they point out.

According to practicing psychologists, there is no such thing as an “incurable drug addiction”. There are various kinds of drug users. Not all are drug dependent (addicts). In most cases, OPD treatment would suffice with community and family support, they say.

The Philippines authorities are a good 30 years behind the West in understanding the real nature of the drug problem. Drug use is still seen as a law and order issue, not as a medical condition which can be treated.

There is a need for improvement in the rehabilitation centers which now house about 96,000 surrendees. They are of very poor quality.

Duterte Dismissive

But Duterte would either be dismissive about the criticism or he would threaten to kill the critics. He insists that his strategy has worked; that he has the backing of the masses (according to a survey 85% back him); and that those who protest are anti-socials who deserve to be killed.

He would not hesitate to hold out threats. He ionce told a journalist in an open press conference: “Just because you are a journalist it does not mean that you are exempted from assassination!”