UNDER THE GUN
Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal rise
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