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
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