UN­DER THE GUN

Rodrigo Duterte’s bru­tal rise

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Jonathan Miller

in a dis­ap­pointed coun­try, where the prom­ise of a half-for­got­ten peo­ple’s rev­o­lu­tion had been squan­dered, and mem­o­ries of dic­ta­tor­ship and Imelda’s shoes had faded, they were fi­nally ready for an­other strong­man. The Age of Anger was dawn­ing in the ­Philip­pines, a trop­i­cal archipelago of over 7000 far-flung is­lands and 100 mil­lion peo­ple – a quar­ter of whom live in poverty. The fuse was lit, and, as the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of May 2016 ap­proached, “Duterte Harry” swag­gered into the political arena, threat­en­ing to blow punks’ heads clean off. “Kill them,” he’d say. Make my day.

Rodrigo Duterte rev­elled in his nom de guerre, a play on Clint East­wood’s shoot-first-ask-ques­tions-later vig­i­lante cop Dirty Harry. He re­as­sured his au­di­ence that killing crim­i­nals was noth­ing new to him. “If I have to kill you, I will kill you. Per­son­ally,” he said. This be­came his ­rhetor­i­cal re­frain, delivered in such an in­for­mal, un­der­stated, poker-faced way that no one could be sure if he was jok­ing. It turned out that he wasn’t: the core elec­tion pledge of the law-an­dorder can­di­date for 16th pres­i­dent of the Philip­pine Re­pub­lic was mass mur­der, pure and simple. The shame­less self-com­par­isons to Idi Amin and Hitler would come later.

He had never killed an in­no­cent hu­man be­ing, Duterte said, as he vowed to ex­ter­mi­nate a ­species of sub-hu­mans: the “sniff-dogs” and ­deal­ers at the heart of what he claimed was a na­tional metham­phetamine pan­demic. This had been al­lowed to fes­ter for far too long, he de­clared, to the point that it posed an ex­is­ten­tial threat.

Filipinos had long known that their coun­try had a drug problem. Un­til now, though, they hadn’t re­alised that it threat­ened na­tional se­cu­rity. But when Duterte as­sured them that it did, they be­lieved him. The bro­ken jus­tice sys­tem could not fix things, he told the peo­ple – and, in that, he was not wrong. But he had a Fi­nal ­So­lu­tion of his own: there will be blood, he said. “God will weep if I be­come pres­i­dent.” The funeral par­lours would be packed, he pre­dicted, ac­cu­rately.

Duterte’s words made him headline news. The more he cursed, the more me­dia at­ten­tion he won, and the more his grow­ing army of sup­port­ers laughed and loved him. Many Filipinos, of course, baulked at his boor­ish­ness, ap­palled by his ­un­fil­tered out­bursts and vul­gar­ity. He had the bear­ing and be­hav­iour of a gang­ster war­lord, and sold him­self as an out­sider from the far south, where, as mayor of Davao City on the is­land of Min­danao, he claimed he had sorted out a trou­bled city’s woes. His master plan as pres­i­dent was simple: to na­tion­alise the fran­chise he had founded.

He spoke the salty lan­guage of the poor, but Duterte, a lawyer by profession, shrewdly played to the fears of richer Filipinos, too, and their per­cep­tion that vi­o­lent crime was ram­pant. Noth­ing was sa­cred. In a de­vout Catholic coun­try that idolised Amer­ica, he called both the Pope and Barack Obama “sons of whores” and ­dis­cov­ered that this did not dent his pop­u­lar­ity at all. He warned the Ro­man Catholic Church, the Philip­pine na­tional me­dia, foreign govern­ments and any­one with the temer­ity to sug­gest his meth­ods were un­sound: “Don’t f..k with me.”

“He is be­ing used as a ve­hi­cle of the Holy Spirit,” Duterte’s el­der sis­ter, Eleanor, ex­plained. “The coun­try is in such tur­moil and is so dark, we have to cleanse it. You can­not see the light un­til you clear the path of dark­ness. If it is your destiny, it is your destiny.” As we climbed the creak­ing stair­case of what she grandly called “the an­ces­tral home” in Davao City, Eleanor said a clair­voy­ant long ago told their mother that all that has since tran­spired had been writ­ten in the stars. “One of your sons,” she’d said – and Eleanor stressed that she ob­vi­ously meant Rodrigo – “will, by destiny, as­sume a very high po­si­tion.”

“What made him pres­i­dent?” she asked me, rhetor­i­cally. “Destiny. The Fa­ther’s will. Lu­cifer will never win.” In Eleanor’s mes­sianic vi­sion, any­one who chal­lenged her brother was an ­emis­sary of Satan. We reached the top of the ­pan­elled ­stair­case and there, in a gold and dark-wood frame, a cocky-looking kid stared out from a ­fad­ing sepia-tinged pho­to­graph printed onto ­can­vas. “See that young boy with the cap on his head? That’s Rodrigo. That’s him! Five years old.”

The re­cal­ci­trant glare of the young Rodrigo Duterte is a vaguely men­ac­ing look that the ­Filipino peo­ple have all now come to know. His ex­pres­sion, though, is hard to read – then, as now. Those who love him see it as de­fi­ance; to oth­ers, it is the sneer of cold com­mand. His sis­ter, three years his se­nior, sighed. “Typ­i­cal mama’s boy. He gets away with mur­der.” Those who’ve tracked Duterte’s long and blood-soaked jour­ney from that “an­ces­tral home” to the Mala­cañang Palace in Manila

would not ar­gue with Eleanor’s un­wit­ting ver­dict.

On elec­tion day, Duterte won 16.6 mil­lion votes, 6.6 mil­lion more than his clos­est ri­val and more than any other pres­i­dent in Philip­pine ­his­tory, bar the rigged re-elec­tion of Fer­di­nand Mar­cos in 1981. Within his first six months in of­fice, more than 7000 peo­ple had been gunned down, twice as many as were killed dur­ing the en­tire nine-year­long mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ship of Mar­cos. To give this a sense of com­par­a­tive scale, this was dou­ble the number killed in North­ern Ire­land’s Trou­bles, over a pe­riod of 30 years. The num­bers in the Philip­pines just kept going up: 10,000 in just 12 months, most of them dirt poor.

Duterte scoffed at threats by hu­man rights ­lawyers to hold him to ac­count for “com­mand re­spon­si­bil­ity” in what they said could amount to crimes against hu­man­ity. Once pres­i­dent, he said there would be a price to pay for “safety” – and that price was hu­man rights. Hu­man rights ac­tivists and lawyers were both classed as le­git­i­mate tar­gets for as­sas­si­na­tion. When Duterte burst onto the scene as a ­pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, few in the cap­i­tal and across the big­gest is­land of Lu­zon, on which Manila stands, knew much, if any­thing, about the fire­brand from the south. To the north­ern­ers, Duterte’s is­land home of Min­danao is a ­far-away place where wars hap­pen; the Philip­pines’ “wild south” for cen­turies, un­tamed, and now be­set by blood-thirsty ji­hadists, sep­a­ratist in­sur­gents, ­kid­nap gangs, pi­rates in the Sulu Sea, and, in the moun­tains, guer­ril­las of the com­mu­nist New Peo­ple’s Army. All of them ei­ther killing or ­mak­ing a ­killing – or both.

Min­danao was, and still is, re­garded as a ­caul­dron of Is­lamist violence where Lu­zon ­Catholics fear to tread; a land where gun-law rules. Its de facto coastal cap­i­tal is Davao City, once the mur­der cap­i­tal of the Philip­pines. The city’s streets are now clean and or­dered, and it’s said to be com­pletely safe to wan­der around at night. There’s a build­ing boom, the lo­cal econ­omy is thriv­ing, speed lim­its are rig­or­ously en­forced, smok­ers are ban­ished, and chil­dren aren’t al­lowed out alone past cur­few at 10pm or their par­ents face fines. And, like ev­ery­where else in the ­Philip­pines these days, the “scum” get shot – al­though that’s al­ways hap­pened here.

To­day, the city’s 1.6 mil­lion res­i­dents are too timid to ad­mit what they know to be the truth about the lengthy reign of ter­ror dur­ing Duterte’s time at the helm be­cause, for three decades, they blindly ac­qui­esced and kept their heads down. The elim­i­na­tion of un­de­sir­able el­e­ments – drug ad­dicts, crim­i­nals, street-kids – was deemed ac­cept­able col­lat­eral, the trade-off for the transformation that mayor Duterte en­gi­neered in the city.

His achieve­ments were, os­ten­si­bly, im­pres­sive, en­abling him to claim that Davao City was his “Ex­hibit A”; that “if I make it to the pres­i­den­tial palace, I will do just what I did as mayor”. For all the omis­sions in the re-spun ver­sion, there were some se­duc­tive truths. Filipinos, con­vinced by Duterte that their coun­try had been sub­sumed by a na­tion­wide con­ta­gion of drugs and vi­o­lent crime, learnt, for ex­am­ple, that within a short time of his be­com­ing mayor, the peo­ple of Davao City could walk the streets with­out fear af­ter dark, wear jew­ellery in pub­lic with­out it be­ing snatched, and catch jeep­neys home at night with­out fear of be­ing mur­dered. Taxi driv­ers no longer risked be­ing robbed at gun­point. The crim­i­nals were scared to death – Duterte told them if they didn’t leave his city ver­ti­cally, he’d make sure they left it hor­i­zon­tally. And this was ex­actly the kind of tough talk Filipinos now wanted from their pres­i­dent.

By the time Duterte stood down as mayor, the lo­cal econ­omy was grow­ing at more than 9 per cent a year, as he liked to point out in his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Some say Davao City blos­somed de­spite him, not be­cause of him, but to­day there’s a con­struc­tion boom, the city is an in­ter­na­tional tele­mar­ket­ing hub, ho­tels are crammed full, and there are 20 flights a day to and from Manila. The mayor’s peace and or­der cam­paign turned Davao City into what its res­i­dents call a “city of respite”.

Duterte lodged the love of grate­ful res­i­dents in his ever-grow­ing vote bank. He was famed lo­cally for his sup­port of a chil­dren’s can­cer charity – his sup­port­ers like to cite this as ev­i­dence of Duterte Harry’s ten­der side. Lo­cal news­pa­pers reg­u­larly printed photographs of the mayor with chil­dren ill from can­cer. He splashed out on as­sist­ing the poor and needy when­ever pos­si­ble: vote-buy­ing dis­guised as al­tru­ism. Be­cause his pock­ets were so deep, his political op­po­nents couldn’t com­pete.

One of the mayor’s more bizarre habits was to prowl around the city late at night vis­it­ing funeral par­lours. He would ar­rive with flow­ers and dish out thou­sand-peso bills to be­reaved fam­i­lies. This too in­creased his pop­u­lar­ity. Lo­cal sur­veys put Duterte’s ap­proval rat­ing at 96 per cent. Sur­pris­ingly though, even some of his most fer­vent ­ad­mir­ers don’t deny there’s a cli­mate of fear. “Yes, there is,” one con­ceded pri­vately. “But it’s fear with re­spect. Fear with love.”

Few have stopped to dig into the pres­i­dent’s

record as Davao City mayor – or, in­deed, ques­tion his pol­icy of “ul­ti­mate de­ter­rence”. Na­tional crime sta­tis­tics show, for ex­am­ple, that Davao City re­mains the mur­der cap­i­tal of the Philip­pines to­day, and number two for rape. In the city’s slums, metham­phetamine ad­dic­tion re­mains rife, 30 years af­ter the for­mer mayor set out to cleanse the place of shabu, as it’s called lo­cally. “It’s there, like candy,” one res­i­dent who is an au­thor­ity on this, but who re­quested anonymity, told me. And if more ev­i­dence were needed that Duterte’s ­“neu­tral­i­sa­tion” pol­icy had failed to end the drug ad­dic­tion problem, there’s the fact that in the course of just 10 days – the first 10 days of his ­pres­i­dency – 17,211 drug users sur­ren­dered to po­lice in the Davao re­gion fear­ing they would be shot by rov­ing na­tional death squad hit­men. ­For­mer ad­dicts I met there reck­oned there were at least as many more who had not sur­ren­dered.

When Reuters in Manila ran a re­port ques­tion­ing the “ex­ag­ger­ated, flawed or non-ex­is­tent” num­bers cited to jus­tify Duterte’s drugs cam­paign, the Pres­i­dent’s com­mu­ni­ca­tions sec­re­tary, Martin An­da­nar, dis­missed the story as malicious and re­ferred the news agency to the na­tional po­lice. As Pres­i­dent, the mer­cu­rial Rodrigo Duterte has, at times, proved er­ratic. But al­most ev­ery­thing about the style and di­rec­tion of his gov­er­nance has been un­can­nily pre­dictable, if not quite writ­ten in the stars. His per­son­al­ity traits, his pat­terns of be­hav­iour – ob­serv­able since his teenage years and through his seven terms as mayor – pre­saged ex­actly how he would be­have as Pres­i­dent.

Within months of com­ing to power, Duterte con­tro­ver­sially or­dered the re­burial of Fer­di­nand Mar­cos in Manila’s Ceme­tery of Heroes – a “hero” who had over­seen the mur­der, im­pris­on­ment and tor­ture of thou­sands of Filipinos, and plun­dered $US10 bil­lion from the na­tional cof­fers. The Pres­i­dent reg­u­larly threat­ened to do away with habeas corpus – the le­gal re­course by which un­law­ful de­ten­tion of sus­pects can be chal­lenged in court - and re­peat­edly floated the pos­si­bil­ity of his be­ing “forced” to de­clare mar­tial law, be­fore declar­ing it across Min­danao in May 2017 to try to con­tain a small ji­hadist in­sur­rec­tion in the city of Marawi. Hav­ing failed to do so, he used the su­per­ma­jor­ity he com­mands in Congress and the Se­nate to ex­tend mar­tial law to the end of 2017; con­cern in­evitably grew that he would ex­tend it ge­o­graph­i­cally as well.

Then, in De­cem­ber last year, mar­tial law in ­Min­danao and the sus­pen­sion of habeas corpus was again ex­tended, this time un­til the end of 2018, with Congress vot­ing 240-27 to ap­prove Duterte’s re­quest. The pres­i­dent used his al­lies in both houses to push leg­is­la­tion rein­tro­duc­ing ­cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. His “eye-for-an-eye” bill stalled in the Se­nate, but he has con­tin­ued to press Congress to pass the leg­is­la­tion, which if ap­proved would make the Philip­pines the first and only coun­try in the world to re­nege on the abo­li­tion of the death penalty, in vi­o­la­tion of in­ter­na­tional law. Duterte an­nounced that he wanted to put “five or six” pris­on­ers to death every day for var­i­ous ­“heinous crimes”, in­clud­ing drug of­fences.

He launched a bru­tal “lock her up” cam­paign against his lead­ing critic, the for­mer jus­tice min­is­ter and hu­man rights in­ves­ti­ga­tor Sen­a­tor Leila de Lima, who was ar­rested and de­tained in­side na­tional po­lice head­quar­ters, where she has re­mained for the past 15 months. As the months went by, he launched fur­ther at­tacks and threats against the hand­ful of re­main­ing sen­a­tors who dared to ques­tion, crit­i­cise or con­demn his ev­er­more despotic gov­er­nance. By Oc­to­ber 2017, seem­ingly con­vinced of a plot to oust him, he warned he would de­clare what he called “a rev­o­lu­tion­ary gov­ern­ment” and would ar­rest all his crit­ics amid grow­ing con­cern that the Philip­pines was re­turn­ing to dic­ta­tor­ship.

For Filipinos who keep their heads be­low the para­pet, life just goes on. They’re aware, of course, of the killings and still in­trigued by the an­tics of Duterte Harry and his out­bursts. But if you’re ­mid­dle class and ed­u­cated, the clos­est you are likely to come to Duterte’s death squads is when you chance across a para­graph in a pa­per re­port­ing a slay­ing in a slum you’ve never been to, or your eye is drawn to the pho­to­graph of a five-year-old who’s been shot and whose killer will never be caught.

In her 1985 book The Hand­maid’s Tale, the writer Mar­garet At­wood cap­tured well such col­lec­tive in­sou­ciance: We lived, as usual, by ig­nor­ing. Ig­nor­ing isn’t the same as ig­no­rance, you have to work at it. Noth­ing changes in­stan­ta­neously: in a grad­u­ally heat­ing bath­tub you’d be boiled to death be­fore you knew it. There were sto­ries in the ­news­pa­pers of course, corpses in ditches…

Over the months I spent re­search­ing and writ­ing my book, that’s how it felt in Duterte’s re­pub­lic of fear. But, as the tem­per­a­ture rose, a grow­ing number of or­di­nary Filipinos be­gan to show signs of dis­com­fort, dis­tress. It just be­came harder and harder to ig­nore what was hap­pen­ing.

Drug war: Que­zon City jail; protest in Manila

Cocky: Duterte aged five; at a cam­paign rally in 2016

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