Rodrigo Duterte, populist President of the Philippines, approached his second anniversary as President in brazen Duterte Harry–style. The swaggering strongman again threw down the gauntlet with the cocksure air of a new style of dictator, now feeling untouchable and confident that he really can get away with murder… in his case, mass murder. Those Filipinos with the guts to raise their heads above the parapet to challenge Duterte Harry’s gun law risk being shot down. And this is not a metaphor.
As if celebrating the stealthy capture of the state by his band of gun-slinging hoodlums from the south, Duterte, at the end of June 2018, mocked the impotence of his political enemies live on national TV. He continued to slut-shame his chief critic (the senator still locked up on fabricated charges) and trumped his branding Pope Francis a ‘son of a whore’ by declaring God ‘stupid’. His Catholic compatriots were predictably outraged, again, but Duterte is long past caring.
This anniversary kerfuffle grabbed headlines for the president, even in a country where nothing Duterte says or does can actually surprise anyone any more. And in the wider world, inured to the antics of other grandstanding leaders, self-assured in their own ignorance and bathing in narcissism, the rambling iconoclastic outbursts of the President of the Philippines went virtually unnoticed.
He sought to defend his God-insult by reassuring people that he was just ‘shaking the tree,’ to see how the nation would react. Aside from a few outraged Catholic bishops, most were too appalled or scared to react at all. Duterte quoted his ‘favourite’ Bible passage, from Ecclesiastes 3: ‘There is a time for everything and a season for every purpose under heaven.’ There is ‘a time to be vicious,’ he postured, in a personalised addendum to the scriptural quotation. And there would be a time for him to speak, in the days ahead, he prophesied.
During his 22 years as the gangster-warlord-mayor of Davao City –– where he set up and ran a death squad which killed drug addicts, petty criminals and street kids –– he liked to quote from Ecclesiastes too: chapter three is his go-to passage from the Bible. It seems he thinks it lends spiritual authority to his general air of menace. There is ‘a time to be born, and a time to die… a time to kill,’ he would say on his Sunday morning TV show – watched by his multitude of disciples each weekend before they’d wend their way to church. He would selectively (and usually inaccurately) quote from Eccleiastes to promote his Old Testament-style justice. Today he presides over a national death squad which has left between 10,000 and 20,000 Filipinos dead in the space of just two years.
Since I embarked on writing Duterte Harry: fire and fury in the Philippines it’s become increasingly clear that Duterte’s drug war is killing the wrong people. His victims are the urban poor, not those controlling the lucrative trade in methamphetamines. But Duterte has made this war his signature policy –– if you can call it a policy at all. And it’s all based on a lie. Crystal-meth addiction in the Philippines is serious –– but, per capita, it’s not a patch on many other countries, like Australia, for example, where hooded assassins don’t go round on motorbikes methodically ‘neutralising’ addicts.
Duterte’s drug war is founded on a myth; there is no drugs pandemic posing a national existential threat. The contrived mythology extends to Duterte’s own two-decade-long tenure as mayor of Davao City: he didn’t solve crime or drugs as he claims… Davao is still the murder capital of the Philippines. And crystal meth is still ‘sold like candy’ there, as one long-time city resident told me.
Aside from the mass murder, Rodrigo Duterte’s most chilling accomplishment in the two years since he was elected president has been the systematic dismantling of the foundation stones of Asia’s oldest democracy. Duterte now ‘owns’ Congress (which voted 245-14 to extend martial law in Mindanao). He has won over the army by granting them free rein to fight Communists and Islamists in the South. The police have been corrupted and compromised and turned into a killing machine. The Chief Justice of the Supreme court has been ousted. The Catholic Church and the media, attacked.
Worst of all, killing has been normalised.
On my bookshelf, I have a weighty tome called Lost Lives, given to me years ago when I was making a documentary about what were euphemistically called Northern Ireland’s ‘Troubles’. The book relates the stories of almost every one of those murdered over three decades of bloody conflict. It personalises and brings humanity to the statistics of fatality. In the front there is a dedication ‘to our children that they might learn from the lessons of the past.’ Between the lines of Lost Lives lie untold grief and tragedy which linger to this day. The book cauterises wounds but it recognises that many scars will probably never heal.
I’m from Northern Ireland and I find that tragic Bible of a book extremely moving when I do dip in. In 30 years, 3,600 people died. That’s a lot of people. But, not seeking to diminish for a moment the horror of what happened in my own homeland, Duterte Harry has, in just two years, sanctioned a bloodbath in which three, maybe five times as many have been killed than in The Troubles. These murders, incited and encouraged by the president himself are also many times the number killed under the dead, disgraced dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Few have documented many of the Philippines’ lives lost. In two years, there has not been one conviction.
Duterte Harry has come to encapsulate what populist authoritarianism can look like at its very worst, at its most violent – and at its most insidious. Duterte has pulled it off without the trappings of dictators past. There are no massed ranks of jack-booted soldiers goose-stepping down Roxas Boulevard in Manila. He has conned a nation of 100-million people into thinking he’s a breath of fresh air, a saviour come to clean out the cobwebs of elitism and corruption and to rid the Philippines of drugs and crime. He’s done the opposite and he’s done it by stealth. Two years in, the state of play in Duterte’s republic of fear is best captured by the words of Margaret Atwood, in her 1985 book The Handmaid’s Tale:
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…