As a Filipino in Bahrain, I admire my President Rodrigo Duterte. But less than two years into a six-year term, he has already threatened to pull out of the United Nations. His main mode of speech is stream-of-consciousness, so he doesn’t necessarily mean what he says, but you can never be sure. He is not unintelligent, but the one constant that shapes everything he says and does is his tough-guy persona.
That’s what Filipinos love him for (last year he had a 91 percent approval rating), but the problem is that he really is a tough guy – and not in a good sense. He graduated from law school and became a prosecutor in his home city of Davao, the biggest city in the southern island of Mindanao. It was then the most violent city in the country, and he set out to tame it. It is not clear when Duterte decided that a death squad was needed to accomplish that task, but he makes no secret of its existence. In fact, he boasts about it, and sometimes hints that he did some of the killing himself. He became the mayor of Davao in 1988, and claims that 1,700 suspected criminals were killed on his watch.
Most of them were street kids – petty thieves and small-time drug dealers – but it did work. Davao is now reputed to be the safest city in the country. And it was his promise to do the same thing country-wide that won him the presidency in 2016 with 39pc of the vote.
It would have made more sense if the Philippines was an ultra-violent country overrun by crime and drugs, but it isn’t. It is a profoundly unequal country whose politics has been dominated by a privileged and largely hereditary elite, but neither the crime rate nor drug usage is significantly higher than in other southeast Asian countries.
Amphetamine use (the Filpino drug of choice) is around the same level as in the US or Australia, and opioids and cocaine are virtually absent in the country. The murder rate is around the same level as the US: four per 100,000 people in 2015, six per 100,000 in 2016 (due to Duterte’s killing spree). In less than two years in office, Duterte has presided over the extrajudicial murders of some 8,000 people, most of them drug-users who do little harm except to themselves. The real problems are corrupt politicians and police and income disparities so huge that a quarter of the population lives in absolute poverty.
Displacement tactics are quite common in politics (like Donald Trump promising to bring back millions of lost American jobs from foreign countries when most of them were really destroyed by automation). But the pity of it is that Duterte, for all his bombast and vainglory, had other qualities that would have been very useful in the presidency. He is an honest man, as Filipino politicians go, and he has a real empathy with the poor.
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