More than a Filipino Trump

Duterte’s bluster obscures a quest for radical social reform

In his first 100 days in office, Filipino President Rodrigo R. Duterte has courted outrage from the international community to the best of his ability. Promising to end corruption via the gun barrel, calling Obama a “Son of a Bitch,” pledging to murder 3 million drug dealers, and embracing the Hitler comparisons that ensued has earned him round criticisms from the UN, Human Rights Watch, and Western news outlets. What has gotten lost in this maelstrom is any semblance of context. Duterte didn’t come out of nowhere, after all, and his goals are far more ambitious than just killing drug dealers. As the body count from his drug war mounts, it is important to put his politics in some context. 

Colonial Meddling in the Philippines
The nation we call the Philippines is a dizzying array of 7,500 different islands, whose unique accessibility and wealth of natural resources made it a popular target for a who’s who of different empires over five centuries. The respective island groups that make up this archipelago, and the 21 ethnic groups within them, experienced this colonization very differently. In the 14th century, the Visayas in the center and Mindanao in the south received Arabian traders, who converted the previously animist residents to the Muslim faith, while Luzon in the north traded mostly with its Chinese neighbors.

In 1598, Magellan joined in, armed with Catholicism and the usual civilizing mission. His native Spain was a century into their expansion after a victory against Moorish Islam, concluding 770 years of bloody war. Imagine his surprise after sailing around the world to find a large Muslim population in the southern Philippines. The Spanish named these Oriental Muslims the Moro, and since then the nation’s history has been irreparably split. Most Luzon Filipinos adopted Catholicism by sword and Bible, working in the colonial governments, while the Moro people mounted a united front of resistance that continues to this day.

After winning the Spanish-American war, the U.S. bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million. Sensing a chance at freedom, Filipinos launched the Philippine-American War, leading to three years of bloody conflict, 126,000 American and 80,000 Filipino casualties, and their eventual defeat by the West. The Americans occupied the country, using it as a strategic platform for the Pacific Theater, only to lose it again to Japan in 1941. The Japanese colonization forewent religions for a more modern tool: nationalism. They promised progress through unity, which they hoped would make the colonized easier to control. While the Moro and other U.S. Navy trained guerrilla groups responded to the Japanese with greater resistance, some Filipinos in Luzon decided to take advantage and played along with their new masters. These collaborators would end up becoming the heads in the Japanese-created big family system — an invisible hierarchy that entrusted these slick colluders with inordinate amounts of financial and political power — a system that lasts to the present day. However, the fierce resistance of a combined U.S., Moro, and Communist force whittled Japanese control to only 12 of the 48 provinces by 1944.

In 1945, when the American Air Force ended World War II by obliterating large sections of Japan, the Japanese evacuated all former colonies and ceded control back to America. The U.S. rewarded the Filipino aid in preventing Japanese control of their strategically positioned nation by signing the Treaty of Manila and recognizing their independence. The nation stood in ruins. Over a million soldiers, guerilla fighters and non-combatant civilians died in the conflict, leaving survivors with most of their major towns and cities, including Manila, destroyed.

The history books of Luzon tell this story of survival and endlessly inventive development despite foreign forces. The history of the Moro, meanwhile, emphasizes the unending resistance against foreign invaders. From their perspective, there was little difference between the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese. After 347 years, the Moro knew they weren’t fighting Catholics, Christians, or Shinto, but economic imperialists. Regardless what was on the incoming flag, they understood that the colonists saw them as second-class citizens and terrorists for their noncompliance. Successive colonial governments, seated in Luzon’s capital of Manila, devalued the Moro people, providing the southern islands little in the way of education, employment, infrastructure, or land rights. To Moro hearts, the government of Manila was and always will be complicit in these crimes. So when President Manuel Roxas oversaw the birth of the independent Third Philippine Republic, the war-torn island group of Mindanao didn’t celebrate the new era of peace to come, but instead was eager to achieve autonomy from a government owned by foreign powers.

Rodrigo Duterte was a year old then, son of a poor family from the Visayas who moved to Mindanao during this great time of change. He grew up surviving in a region full of proud separatist violence and watched the Luzon government’s pervasive corruption from afar.



How Long Can a Revolution Run?
Duterte’s father worked very hard to afford a good education for his children, sending them to all Catholic schools. Young Rodrigo grew up attending mass and hearing prayers at the mosque across town, while learning the new history of the heroic Philippine saga of independence that would bring prosperity for all. He, like many in the south, must have heard these promises with deep skepticism as they watched the Philippine government in Luzon betray it over and over again, as every single president promised a new world on the campaign trail and stole from the people while in office.  

Duterte grew up under President Marcos, who declared permanent Martial Law and ruled as a dictator for twenty-one years. The sixty years of Philippine independent democracy is a dark history of the government stealing public land, bowing to leaders on the take, and systematically dismantling the people’s tools for civil resistance. The purported goal of the new Philippine republic was to end the big family control of the farmlands and distribute the incredible agricultural wealth to a nation of poor farmers. Of course, this never happened as every leader found their wallets padded until they agreed to keep the land in control of the sugar, coffee, and coconut barons.

This legacy is epitomized in revolutionary President Corazon Aquino. Elected after the citizen-formed People Power Revolution finally overthrew Marcos’ dictatorship, she was lauded for reviving the policy of Land Reform. But, she left a small loophole that allowed the big families to distribute the land in the form of stock holdings instead of soil. When it was discovered that she herself took this option while distributing her family’s land, the citizens rose up. On January 22, 1987, 15,000 farmers gathered to protest in front of Malacañang (the presidential house) and met a force of armed police and Marines. The soldiers opened fire, and murdered twelve of the protestors. This tragedy is remembered as the Mendiola Massacre, and made a clear point to all Filipinos from Luzon to Mindanao: if the government wants your land, give it up or die.

The Luzon government has consistently stripped its citizens’ of all basic democratic rights. Journalists were regularly assassinated, like in the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre — an armed ambush on the political entourage of Buluan mayoral candidate Esmael Mangudatu. While driving to file his candidacy, his motorcade faced a mercenary group hired by his political rival Andal Ampautan, Jr., member of the Muslim political clan that had controlled Mindanao for the previous eight years. The armed force opened fire and killed 58 people, including 34 journalists Mangudatu brought as a form of insurance against just this kind of violence. This event made the Philippines the second most dangerous country for journalists (on the Committee to Protect Journalists list), second only to Iraq. On the federal level, former president Gloria Arroyo was recently acquitted of stealing 366 million pesos meant for indigent aid by eight justices that she appointed while in office.

Colonialism had merely transitioned into self-colonialism thanks to leaders promoted by the colonizers. An insidious example is the last president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III (2010-2016), who was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for economic policies that raised the GDP to levels that had commenters calling the Philippines the next tiger economy of the ASEAN. But as we’ve seen in the first world as well, a rising tide doesn’t raise all ships. Income inequality only widened as Noynoy’s economic progress made the rich richer and offered no new opportunities to the lower classes.

In karmic inevitability, the international acclaim he enjoyed at the expense of the poor was quickly marred by the largest Philippine corruption scandal to date — the Pork Barrel Scam. Uncovered by the Philippine Inquirer, it seems 28 different Congressmen took huge portions of their annual development project budgets, laundered it through a private company, and defrauded the Philippine government of some 10 billion Philippine pesos.

Aquino had good reason not to sign the Freedom of Information Act, providing his people with a tool to push back against government corruption, though he had promised he would sign it when running for office in 2010. This inaction became widely satirized by an increasingly online-savvy citizenry as a meme called noynoying — an image of the president reclining in a chair resting his head on one arm.

That is the legacy, and over its sixty years, it slowly but surely drove the people via fear, exhaustion, and apathy into the deep silence of political paranoia. How else to survive in a nation bound by Catholic mores, founded on family as the world, and yet split apart by the insidious instruments of crony capitalism, moneyed politics, total corruption, and failing infrastructure? Many made the painstaking choice to join the 10 million Filipinos that work overseas and send money home to survive the abysmal class gap. Others, battered by a 32% income tax for earning above minimum wage, a VAT that disproportionately hurts the poor, a lack of literacy and educational opportunities, and the sporadic violence of government oppression, turn to drugs for escape or crime to survive.

It is against this corruption, in various forms, that the Moro rebel groups have waged their struggle. Long cut out of political power because their numbers only comprise 10-20% (depending whose numbers you believe) of the national population, they have watched the various Land Reform acts slowly corrode their borders, year after year. They have mounted increasingly desperate attacks against Philippine National Military, Police, and many times, innocent civilians. Their battle shifted from fighting foreign oppressors to domestic ones, who used law and gun to take their lands. The corruption of the government only further entrenched the Moro view of Luzon as the modern seat of oppression, running a nation they never wanted to be subject to again. The increasing violence of their attacks transformed public apathy with corrupt politicians to a very real fear for personal safety. Enough was enough, and in 2013, the masa (or common people) of the Philippines were marching again. Noynoy’s slovenly dropping of the FOI Act, and the enormous arrogance of the Pork Barrel Scam inspired the people to an unprecedented level of collective activism.

When the news of the Pork Barrel Scandal broke, an estimated 100,000 citizens took to the streets in a protest now called the Million People March and kept going until the President called for an independent investigation. It resulted in the courts declaring the use of all Pork Barrel funds unconstitutional, abolishing the age-old practice. It was another time for change. Amid this chaos, Rodrigo R. Duterte announced his candidacy for President.

The President from the Gutter
Since his emergence on the national stage, Duterte has stood for unbending principles with a politics, language and lifestyle so blatantly opposed to the slick, Western-inflected Manila style of crony capitalism that he could claim not only integrity, but competence in both halves of his country.

Duterte’s Catholicism is infused with irreverence, which manifests in casual misogyny and a love of violence. We can trace this irreverence to the late 1950’s, when he got to Catholic school. It was there that he claims that his teacher, the infamous Father Mark Falvey sexually abused him and other students. (The Jesuit Order had to pay $16 million years after Falvey’s death to settle claims that he had sexually abused nine children in Los Angeles). After that, Duterte had trouble staying in school. He was expelled often for misconduct, but always found his way back in, eventually enrolling at the Lyceum of the Philippines University and law school at San Beda College of the Law, graduating in 1972.

He took a job as Junior Prosecutor and in nine years, worked his way up to Senior Prosecutor of Davao City. From this position of outsider power, he watched Luzon politicians bend and break the law time and time again. So as a lawyer in Davao City, the capital of Mindanao, he represented both parties for the State and the Moro people in court as the armed conflict between them raged on in the streets. By 1990, after a stint as vice-mayor, he became mayor of Davao and began the groundwork for the brash outsider politics we see today.

The Punisher, The Hero, The Thug
Over his 24-year-long tenure as mayor, he fought tooth and nail for a city that would be safe and healthy for its people. These efforts included anti-smoking campaigns, banning swimsuit beauty contests, fighting for LGBT rights, and providing free contraception for women. These policies were extremely progressive for any city in a majority Catholic country, and despite outsider criticism, earned Duterte much respect from his city. These policies foreshadowed the New Morality at play in Manila today — an ethics that stands apart from Catholicism and Islam, and aims for an equality between classes, genders, ethnicities, and religions, promising all a fair shake at prosperity. But the dark side to his liberal socialism was his method of defending its communal dignity against any and all crime that could undermine it.

His mayoral tenure was marked by his long campaign to end crime in the city. His efforts earned him the nickname “The Punisher” for his extremely hardline policing tactics. While he ordered his cops to follow the writs of habeas corpus and rule of law in their arrests, he also publicly issued death threats to known criminals in his town, often leading to brutal acts of violence in the showdowns. He is rumored to have aided his campaign by sponsoring a secret group of police and mercenaries, popularly dubbed, “The Davao Death Squad,” to kill drug users, pushers, Sinaloa Cartel and Chinese Triad importers to stop the spread of drug addiction and sale in his city. These allegations did force a government investigation, but, like so many attempts at balancing power in the Philippines, it found no evidence. This created competing conspiracy theories: one about a murderous mayor; another about a Mindanoan hard-ass who offered a bold alternative to Manila’s corruption and so was being framed and scape-goated. In the absence of facts to prove either side, he did succeed in reducing crime in his city at certain points.

During one of the presidential debates, rival candidate Former Interior Secretary Mar Roxas pointed out that Davao’s crime was still fourth highest in the nation. Duterte rebutted that, “I do not deny that, the figure. But ask who is dying.” Those who die are those “who should die,” citing the rapist of a 16-month old baby and armed jailbirds who gunned down a missionary — the “psychotic” criminals that “fucking making the life of the Filipino miserable.”

But when asked about the statistics on the innocent, often underage, Davao citizens also caught in the gunfire — of the 469 recorded victims of death squads or hired killers from 1998-2005, 12 were shot by mistaken identity — Duterte stuttered, “That’s a collateral social problem. It becomes collateral…collateral itself. It’s not a question of crime anymore. That’s what makes things difficult. Well, that is another problem. I cannot answer that.”

And this brings us to the problem of how to talk about Duterte. The image he presents  — his brutal threat to criminals; the toxic masculinity he discharges in his off hand jokes about infidelity and rape at press conferences — doesn’t line up with his long history of populist reform and attempts at reconciliation between Catholic and Moro Filipinos. Consider that he is the only mayor in his time that chose Moro and Lumad citizens to be his deputy mayors so they also had equal voice in his city, beginning a tradition that many Southern mayors followed. His progressive work with gender issues stood out in the Catholic country in which divorce is still not a legal option. Finally, he built the first rehabilitation center in Davao City for drug users, pairing his policing campaigns with a public health policy approach in his civic drug war. So while his flippant and defensive public speaking persona gave many an impression of an uncouth, thuggish Southern mayor, his actual work as mayor tells a somewhat more nuanced story.

His bold moves in the social, criminal, and territorial levels didn’t escape the notice of the Manila government either. He was courted with an offer of the position of Minister of the Interior by four different presidents during his tenure in Davao City. This position would have allowed him to work directly with land distribution in the nation. This must have been a tempting offer for such a vocal ally of the Moro people, long oppressed by land deals that shrunk their borders in favor of big business owners from Luzon. But he rejected all four offers. His fans took this as proof of the strength of his identity as a Mindanaoan — his great courage to take on the power struggles with a Luzon government that has often treated this 20% of the population as second-class citizens. As Minister of the Interior, he would have had to play to whichever president was in office, and by proxy, the business interests behind them.



The New Morality
As the country recovered from the Pork Barrel Scam, and waited out Noynoy’s term, Duterte enjoyed a swell of support on social media. His fans touted him as the 70-year-old Southern son, decorated with numerous awards for the civic progress he built by muscle and bullet. They pictured him as a battle-hardened mayor ready for retirement, but willing to step up to save his nation from going to war with itself. The story of him approaching a smoker after his smoking ban  and shoving the butt down the man’s throat went viral. The stories of his secretly driving a taxi to listen to his citizens’ problems won more hearts. His every irreverent quote that disarmed the politico sophistication with curse-ridden machismo and total disregard for social niceties earned huge waves of likes and shares from his increasingly fanatic supporters. But most of all, his lifelong alliances with Moro rebels served as proof for many that he was fighting for the centuries-old mission of offering true autonomy and congressional representation to the southern people and end the violence that had marred the nation for so long.

To spread his message, he turned the campaign trail into a spectacle, offering presidential pardons to anyone that kills a drug dealer or user. The shock factor of these claims drew so much media attention that they slowly drowned out all of the other candidates. But they also overshadowed the rest of his progressive platform. To the larger world, his speeches were horrifying — a public declaration to violate human rights. His inciting of savagery drew immediate criticism from the UN and Human Rights Watch for creating a climate of violence and encouraging the abandoning of the rule of law.

But many locals saw this as political scapegoating. Dead drug dealers became a symbol of the new fight he was offering — not one of compassion, but one of competence. This war against cyclical inaction effectively exploited Filipino fears that their country was lost to criminals in the underworld and thugs in power. He offered to replace this dystopian system with an actual platform of progress — a promise both familiar in its campaign trail idealism and revolutionary in its unambiguous pledge on how he would start solving the nation’s problems.

In Duterte’s political universe, Drugs — particularly meth, the current drug of choice, known locally as shabu —  are a symbol for the problems of the huge lower classes created by the graft of corrupt politicians. His drug war was a direct appeal to lower and middle class voters throughout the country, using it as a sensational opening to his end-to-end platform. He smartly banked on voters seeing through the smokescreen of his macho policing to the centerpieces of his platform: economic equality and a peace for the Moro peoples. He pushed for the passing of Bangsamoro Basic Law — the goal of the Muslim rebel groups for years — that would grant the Moro people an autonomous region separate from the Manila government. As a Plan B, he also proposed the alternate option of reforming the government into a truly Federalist system that would allow regional representation.

Furthermore, he pushed for a re-enfranchisement of the Philippine masa, increasing pay for police and military, giving free irrigation to poor farmers, passing tax exemptions for government workers earning below 25,000 pesos a month, improving the mass transit systems and decongesting the Metro Manila roads, decreasing the bureaucratic red tape many Filipinos face when dealing with basic government services, ending the rampant use of informal labor contracts to bring 80% of Filipinos under long-term contracts with salaries, promoting family planning to prevent overpopulation, and shutting down illegal mining operations that destroyed many provincial ecosystems. This platform aimed at improving the life quality of common people by giving them actual loophole-free tools to attain upward mobility. The people ate it up, and his popularity surged to 91% approval, where it remains today.

The international media only took interest in his campaign when he said something shocking, drawing readers with the shocking tale of a Philippine presidential candidate that commanded voters to kill any and all drug users they knew. This would usually be followed up by a second paragraph noting his public approval rating. The dark implication of this was that Filipinos endorsed his brand of violence in their country. By not covering the other parts of his platform, or any of the historical backstory, the story became an easily digestible narrative of a political monster that was hoodwinking his country.

In the context of this bigger picture, it’s much easier to see why the middle and lower classes came out for him. His Drug War came from his mayoral policies, and so represented a continuation of his integrity. To maintain it, he had to make good on his promise right away, especially since he had sworn to reduce drug crimes drastically within his first six months. It was a horrifying stick, but with it came the very real possibility of an outsider president from Mindanao who would maintain his integrity and finally deliver the carrots as well.

Despite the darkness of voting for a man who encourages a climate of extrajudicial killings, there was a strange hope that this would mean he was actually accountable to his promises in a country ridden with a legacy of corrupt presidents. And now, 100 days into his first term, we can see that he is actually making strides towards making his promises come true. Of his thirty campaign promises, he has reportedly begun or completed work on fourteen of them already.

But in these same 100 days, he has also undermined the Philippines’ growing reputation on the world stage. While his wild man attacks on the imperialism and hypocrisy of the U.S., the UN, and China maintain his reputation as a plainspoken Mindanaoan son, they also force the nation to go all in on his domestic platform of reform —raising the stakes to the point of no return. Duterte’s brazen New Morality is holding the future of Philippine democracy hostage at gunpoint.

So as we look forward to what will come in the remaining five and a half years of his potential term, let’s consider what futures he can attain. If he can harness the terrified trust of his people into a charge for Federalism by plebiscite, he clears the path for completing his reforms and retiring. But, if like the fifteen men and women before him, he lets the power of the office consume him, the Philippines may see an unprecedented era of violent betrayal-fueled Moro revenge and a police force transformed by the taste of unrestricted jurisdiction over life and death. As of publication, the Drug War has killed around 2,210 people. 942 of these killings were extrajudicial.

Since the completion of this essay, Duterte has visited China for trade talks, and returned home with promises of $13.5bn in Chinese investment. $9bn of these deals include low-interest loans to the Philippines from private Chinese banks, with $15m being earmarked for the construction of drug rehabilitation programs. After earning support from Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at a Southeast Asian Leaders conference in Laos last month and the success of these negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte dropped his next bombshell when he said, “I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also.” In light of these recent developments, and with Duterte’s sensationalist bluster in the rearview mirror, we look ahead to the specter of Former President Arroyo’s NXT-ZTE corruption scandal that also began with Chinese investment in Philippine businesses. These new moves also offer a clearer explanation for Duterte’s seemingly apropos campaign tactic of responding to Western criticism with wildly anti-American comments.