Duterte’s US tirades in battle against Manila elite
DECADES before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte began ranting about US imperialism, he routinely blasted another conquering power closer to home: Manila.
Duterte’s disdain for entrenched elites can be traced to his upbringing in Davao, the biggest city on the southern island of Mindanao, where insurgents have fought for more than 100 years against outside dominance by the Spanish, Americans, Japanese, or governments in Manila. He felt that leaders in the faraway capital never did enough to atone for past atrocities and help develop Mindanao, home to 11 of the country’s 20 poorest provinces.
“Years of Mindanao’s neglect is in Duterte’s consciousness,” Danilo Dayanghirang, a Davao City councilor who has known the president for three decades, said in an interview last month. “People in Manila have a low regard for people in Mindanao because their drivers and maids are from here. You can see the discrimination, and Duterte hates that.”
That sense of injustice, impressed on his psyche after decades of public life in Davao, now threatens to upend US strategy in Asia. Since taking office at the end of June, Duterte has spooked markets with repeated outbursts aimed at the US -- everything from scrapping joint patrols in the South China Sea to insulting President Barack Obama.
International investors have pulled $366.58 million from Philippine stocks since Duterte was sworn in, and the peso has fallen 3.5 percent. The American Chamber of Commerce and other business groups in Manila have also warned that Duterte’s comments are creating unease.
While Duterte said he would try to curb his tirades now that Donald Trump has been elected, the real-estate mogul was unlikely to have given the relationship much thought, said Gregory Poling, a Southeast Asia specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“I worry that their similar personalities but very different political leanings are a recipe for greater tension, not less,” Poling said.
Duterte has made clear he intends to continue to push for his country to be less economically and militarily reliant on the US, which he accuses of hypocrisy in its criticism of his war on drugs. For now, China and Russia appear to be the beneficiaries. Duterte stated that it could be the three of them “against the world” on an October trip to Beijing in which he took home investment promises worth $24 billion.
“Historically, I have been identified with the Western world,” Duterte said during a Nov. 20 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “It was good until it lasted. And of late, I see a lot of these Western nations bullying small nations.”
In the Philippines, Duterte uses similar language to describe elites in the capital.
For decades, the nation has been led by powerful dynasties whose main assets are their wealth, family lineage, business connections, and ties to the US, which controlled the Philippines as its territory for nearly 50 years until 1946. Duterte, whose father was a lawyer and mother a teacher, is the first president to hail from Mindanao.
“Imperial Manila controls everything,” Duterte said in an August speech. He lambasted central government policies that had “allowed oligarchs to take control of mines” near his home in Davao City, adding: “I am fighting a monster.”
Duterte said Wednesday that Mindanao, especially its Muslim regions, would be a priority for government assistance.
Duterte was drawn into leftist politics during the late 1960s during his time at university -- where one of his teachers was the founder of the Philippine Communist Party. After g r a d u a t i n g w i t h a d e g r e e i n l a w, he became a prosecutor in Davao City. He eventually became mayor, serving seven terms that spanned 22 years in office. Duterte earned the nicknames “Duterte Harry” and “The Punisher” with a no-nonsense approach to crime that foreshadowed the bloody tactics that would be used in his nationwide drug war, which has killed thousands of people.
Duterte has always shown that he is willing to get nasty if he believes it is for the greater good, said Jesus Dureza, a member of Duterte’s inner circle who has been friends with him since high school. Dureza recalled a time when a gang leader from a rival school was disturbing neighbors. The young Duterte scaled the school wall, warned the gang leader to stay away and then punched him in the face.
“He’s a very naughty soul,” Dureza said. “It’s only now that I look back and see that he had a tendency to be a punisher even in the early days.”
Dureza said Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric is part of his push for an independent foreign policy and shouldn’t be taken literally. Despite his repeated attacks on the US, Duterte is yet to cancel any key agreements with the Americans.
To illustrate his point, Dureza recalled how Duterte used to flirt with the canteen lady when they were high school students. One day he told her: “Did you hear that plane circling on top of the school earlier? That was me practicing. If you don’t accept me as your boyfriend, I will crash that plane toward the school.”
As mayor, Duterte’s tactics also created controversy -- including accusations from groups such as Human Rights Watch that his advocacy of extra-judicial killings had led to the deaths of more than 1,000 suspected criminals since the late 1990s. Duterte denies ordering any killings, though while campaigning for president he said that he had helped kill at least three suspected rapist-kidnappers during a rescue operation in Davao in 1988. “I said ‘Put your hands up’. No one did, so I attacked,” he told a radio station.
“His anti-elite attitude can be traced to hailing from the province and he may have had a difficult time navigating an elite-driven Manila,” said Earl Parreno, an independent political analyst who sits on the board of Institute for Political and Electoral Reform. As an undergraduate at the San Beda College of Law in Manila, Duterte would often take on anyone who bullied other southerners like him, Parreno said.
That sympathy for the disadvantaged was later reflected in some of his polices as mayor of Davao, and helps underpin a high popularity rating.
In the 1980s, Duterte dismantled the city’s anti-vice squad so sex workers could ply their trade without being harassed by policemen, as long as they submitted themselves to regular free health check-ups, according to Davao city official Dayanghirang. Under Duterte’s leadership the city passed an anti-discrimination ordinance and mandated that minorities make up at least 30 percent of the police force, he said.
Duterte frequently joined government drives to distribute Christmas goodies to Davao residents in remote towns, handing out gifts to everyone including communist rebels. Stories abound of him driving a taxi cab, even picking up passengers, as he checked whether police were doing their job at night. He treated other drivers to hamburgers and coffee.
“If you’re not a problem to society, he’ll respect you and you don’t have to worry about anything,” said Rene Lumawag, who has known Duterte since the 1980s and now serves as an official photographer for the president. “If you’re treated badly, it’s because you deserve it.”