By Hannah Ellis-Petersen South east Asia correspondent
Sri Lanka’s president has praised his Philippines counterpart Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs, which has taken thousands of lives, calling it an “example to the world”.
In a speech during a visit to the Philippines this week, Maithripala Sirisena said he intended to replicate Duterte’s ruthless approach to tackling illegal drug use.
“The war against crime and drugs carried out by you is an example to the whole world, and personally to me,” said Sirisena. “Drug menace is rampant in my country and I feel that we should follow your footsteps to control this hazard.”
In his own statement, Duterte said that their aligned vision could mean partnering with Sri Lanka in the future to address international drug trafficking.
Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, which has seen police handed unprecedented powers to carry out drug-related raids and arrests, has officially killed more than 5,000 people since 2016, though campaigners allege the real death toll could be up to 20,000. Those who have died have mainly been the urban poor. The international criminal court (ICC) is carrying out a preliminary investigation into whether the extrajudicial killings constitute crimes against humanity.
Duterte has remained unrepentant about the scale of the deaths in the crackdown, saying he would promote police officers who “massacre” drug dealers and describing those killed as “just carcasses to me”.
The speech was not the first time Sirisena has signalled his admiration for Duterte’s war on drugs. In July, Sri Lanka ended its 43-year moratorium on executions to bring back hanging as a punishment for drug dealers, a move the Sri Lankan president said was directly inspired by Duterte’s policy in the Philippines.
During a cabinet meeting in July, Sirisena said he “was ready to sign the death warrants” of repeat drug offenders, according to his spokesperson Rajitha Senaratne. Nineteen drug offenders who were serving life sentences now face the death penalty.
The Sri Lankan government says narcotics are a growing problem in the country and in January this year, authorities seized a cocaine stash worth $108m from a single shipment in the port of Colombo, which is a growing hub for international drug trafficking.
“We were told that the Philippines has been successful in deploying the army and dealing with this problem,” said Senaratne in July. “We will try to replicate their success.”