Ro­drigo Duterte’s first year in of­fice – be­yond the head­lines

Al­though the hor­rors of Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte’s un­re­lent­ing war on drugs con­tinue to dom­i­nate the in­ter­na­tional me­dia’s cov­er­age of his first year in of­fice, a closer look at the fire­brand's do­mes­tic poli­cies re­veals a politi­cian who refuse

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By Paula Mil­lar

FORthose who have watched the foul-mouthed Filipino’s rise with hor­ror, the pres­i­dency of Ro­drigo Roa Duterte ap­pears to be lit­tle more than the lat­est in a long line of tin-pot dic­ta­tors dev­as­tat­ing the most vul­ner­a­ble in their com­mu­nity to shore up their own author­ity. Since tak­ing of­fice a year ago this month, Duterte has presided over the ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings of more than 8,000 men and women sup­pos­edly linked to the Philippines’ drug epi­demic. But behind this in­de­fen­si­ble, blood-soaked veil, the so­called Pu­n­isher’s first year in of­fice has seen him strug­gling to re­form a stag­nant and di­vided sys­tem.

Per­haps nowhere is the dis­con­nect be­tween the Duterte dis­par­aged by the West and the Duterte beloved by Philip­pine vot­ers more pro­nounced than in the in­ter­na­tional me­dia. The man splashed across the pages of the New York Times bears lit­tle re­sem­blance to the one who still holds the ap­proval of nearly eight out of ten Filipinos. Ac­cord­ing to Aries Aru­gay, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor in po­lit­i­cal sci­ence at the Uni­ver­sity of the Philippines, nei­ther Duterte nor his sup­port­ers care about the cen­sures of the world press.

“He’s not like other Filipino pres­i­dents who thought more about their pres­tige abroad than their pres­tige at home,” he said. “He doesn’t care what peo­ple on the out­side think.”

Mark Thomp­son, di­rec­tor of the South­east Asia Re­search Cen­tre at City Uni­ver­sity of Hong Kong, said that Duterte’s ut­ter dis­re­gard for the ap­proval of the Western world has res­onated with those in the Philippines who still ran­kle at the US’ in­flu­ence over its former colony.

“Peo­ple have this mis­lead­ing im­pres­sion that nationalism is not very im­por­tant in the Philippines, par­tic­u­larly be­cause of the sup­posed stronger pro-Amer­i­can view of many Filipinos that shows up in many sur­veys,” he said. “That’s true to some de­gree, but it also misses the flipside of US colo­nial power.”

As the first Philip­pine pres­i­dent to rise from the na­tion’s ne­glected south­ern re­gion of Min­danao, Duterte’s dis­dain for US moral­is­ing takes on an edge that can­not be dis­missed as mere bel­liger­ence. Speak­ing on the eve of last year’s Asean sum­mit in Laos, Duterte hit back at then-US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s re­peated crit­i­cism of his

PEO­PLE HAVE THIS MIS­LEAD­ING IM­PRES­SION THAT NATIONALISM IS NOT VERY IM­POR­TANT IN THE PHILIPPINES. THAT'S TRUE TO SOME DE­GREE, BUT IT ALSO MISSES THE FLIPSIDE OF US COLO­NIAL POWER”

anti-drug cam­paign by re­call­ing the mas­sacre of hun­dreds of Mus­lim men, women and chil­dren at the hands of US troops in the early years of the 20th cen­tury.

“He re­ally cap­tured me­dia at­ten­tion for his shoot­ing straight from the hip rhetoric, but if you re­ally ex­am­ine his words, they’re words as­sert­ing sovereignty, they’re words as­sert­ing that we’re not go­ing to bow down to the US as the Big Brother any­more,” said Ber­nadette El­lorin, chair­per­son of the US chap­ter of Bayan, a Philippines-based left-wing al­liance of work­ers' or­gan­i­sa­tions. “And to hear a Philip­pine pres­i­dent say that, even if it’s just words, is un­prece­dented – and pos­i­tive.”

In the months that fol­lowed, how­ever, Duterte’s proud stance proved to be short­lived. As his over­tures to­ward China failed to win much in the way of ma­te­rial sup­port – and the 2016 US elec­tion pro­duced a pres­i­dent less in­clined to com­ment on his al­lies’ atroc­i­ties – Duterte be­gan to take a softer tone with the world pow­ers. When he chaired the 2017 Asean sum­mit, hosted by the Philippines in April, the world was pre­sented with a very dif­fer­ent side of the pres­i­dent.

“I saw two dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” said Ra­mon Be­leno III, a po­lit­i­cal sci­ence pro­fes­sor from Ate­neo de Davao Uni­ver­sity in Duterte’s home city. “In Laos, the pres­i­dent was very ag­gres­sive. His words were very strong against both China and the US… But a few months passed, and I think he was able to re­alise his role as a states­man – that there was no need to cut ties or even dis­tance one­self in or­der to fully im­ple­ment his plan for a more in­de­pen­dent for­eign pol­icy. I saw a more ma­ture Duterte dur­ing the Philippines’ Asean chair­man­ship.”

Per­haps nowhere has this shift been more pro­nounced than in Duterte’s re­sponse to China’s con­tin­ued ef­forts to dom­i­nate the South China Sea. De­spite an early vic­tory for the Philippines in an in­ter­na­tional tri­bunal at The Hague, the man who once promised to ride a jet ski to the dis­puted Spratly is­lands with a Philip­pine flag in his hand has since used his coun­try’s chair­man­ship of the re­cent Asean Sum­mit to block all men­tion of China’s on­go­ing recla­ma­tion projects. Ac­cord­ing to Be­leno, it was a move born more from prag­ma­tism than pride.

“If push comes to shove, he won­dered what the Philippines can do against the mil­i­tary forces of China,” he said.

Op­po­site page: Duterte at his fi­nal cam­paign rally

on 7 May 2016 in Manila. This page: Philip­pine Na­tional Po­lice chief Ron­ald Dela Rosa whis­pers to Duterte dur­ing the an­nounce­ment of the dis­band­ment of po­lice op­er­a­tions against il­le­gal drugs (top); Jen­nelyn Olaires, 26, weeps over the body of her part­ner, who was killed on a street by a vig­i­lante group in

a spate of drug-re­lated killings in Manila

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