TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — He’s compared himself to Hitler. He’s vowed to wage a war on drugs via execution. He’s threatened to cut all ties with the U.S. He swears like a sailor and has been nicknamed “The Punisher.”
But he also created one of the safest cities in the Philippines when he was mayor, and he enacted some of the country’s first pro-LGBT legislation, anti-rape legislation, and anti-religious discrimination legislation. He has a Sunday talk show that people watch more than the news.
He’s the ever-enigmatic Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and he’s causing quite the stir around the world lately.
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Fatou Bensouda, expressed concern today about the thousands of extrajudicial killings in the first few months of Duterte’s term and sent a harsh warning to those involved.
“Let me be clear,” she said in a statement. “Any person in the Philippines who incites or engages in acts of mass violence … is potentially liable to prosecution before the Court.”
She said her office will be closely monitoring activity in the coming weeks to see if an examination is necessary.
What Does Duterte Have Against the US?
When he called President Obama “son of a b—-” and told him to “go to hell,” threatening to cut off ties with the U.S., Duterte propelled himself into the international spotlight and painted a controversial picture of his leadership style to the rest of the world.
The truth, however, is more complex than his comments might suggest.
Many Filipinos, like Patricio Abinales, a professor at the University of Hawaii and former Woodrow Wilson Center scholar who grew up on Duterte’s home island of Mindanao, attribute Duterte’s anger to a somewhat-forgotten bombing in 2002. “People say he’s never forgotten it,” Abinales said.
American Michael Meiring brought a homemade bomb into a hotel in Davao and accidentally blew it up ahead of time, injuring himself and ending up in a hospital, according to authorities. Then-Mayor Duterte, along with the police waiting to question Meiring, were shocked when U.S. FBI operatives took him out of the hospital and flew him out of the city without telling local officials, reportedly promising immigration documentation to hospital administrators for the favor.
According to a report in NPR’s Morning Edition, Duterte was furious and has held a grudge ever since. “He’s famous for holding grudges,” Abinales said. Mindanaoans suspected that Meiring was an under-cover CIA operative working to destabilize Mindanao, and a former army intelligence officer responded, “I cannot say that’s right, but I cannot say that it’s wrong,” according to the same NPR report.
Duterte in 2013 denied the U.S. permission to use Davao as a base for drone operations, citing the 2002 incident in his reasoning.
But his anger’s roots may live deeper than 2002.
The U.S. colonial rule of the Philippines from 1898 to 1946, for starters. More than that, Duterte was in college in the 1960s, when the U.S. was in the midst of the Vietnam War and was using several bases in the Philippines for their proximity to the country. President Lyndon B. Johnson also called for Philippine troops for the effort. This caused a stir among Filipinos, who were mostly against that war.
One of the people who may have influenced Duterte is Jose Maria Sison, the former head of the communist party who was exiled from the Philippines and is one of Duterte’s mentors and friends. Sison was one of his professors during this time, and organized youth protesters against the Vietnam War.
Duterte was a member of that protest movement formed by Sison, called “Kabataang Makabayan,” according to ASEAN Today, which noted that the movement was “known for its anti-American imperialism stance.”
Why Is His Leadership So Controversial?
The terms “Davao Death Squad” and “Duterte Death Squad” were coined to refer to the Davao-based vigilante justice squad allegedly hired to aid in ridding the city of its criminals by shooting repeat offenders (drug dealers, murderers and rapists, among others) — with no time of day, demographic or setting off limits.
Killings have been reported on sunny afternoons, in churches, in mosques, outside of police stations and grocery stores, often with young children as victims. But Duterte denies any involvement with this task force.
Regardless of his involvement or lack thereof, his policies and his term were marked by a tough-on-crime attitude showing no mercy for local criminals.
“None of my children is using drugs,” Duterte said in a presidential debate in Dagupan City in April. “But my order is, even if it is a member of my family, kill him.”
In addition to his aggressive war on drugs, Duterte has drawn controversy for harsh insults to the U.S. and other nations. In a speech in Manila last week, he told President Obama to “go to hell” for questioning his drug-fighting tactics. He has called Obama a “son of a b—-” in other settings and threatened to break ties with the U.S. and look to China or Russia for trade instead.
In a Davao news conference, he likened himself to Hitler and vowed to kill millions of drug addicts. “If Germany had Hitler,” he said, “the Philippines would have,” and pointed to himself. “I’d be happy to slaughter [three million drug addicts],” he said. He has since apologized to Jewish communities.
Abinales said he is not so shocked by his swearing and insults. “It’s how many Filipinos talk,” he said. “Especially local politicians.” And Davaoans like him for it.
Eighty-three percent of Filipinos have “much trust” in him, according to the first polls conducted about his presidency by Philippines-based research nonprofit Social Weather Stations.
The highest approval ratings, at 88 percent feeling “satisfied,” come from his home island of Mindanao, while other regions like the Visayas are at 75 percent and Metro Manila are at 74 percent.
How Did He Come to Power?
He’s one of the longest-serving mayors in the history of the Philippines — seven terms, totaling over 22 years. When he came to power in 1987, the city of Davao was considered a murder and drug capital.
“In the ‘80s and ‘90s,” Abinales explained, “not only were you scared because people were killing each other, but also for the spread of drugs.”
“Before he came to power, after President Marcos fell in the ’80s, two things were happening in the city,” Abinales said. “One was an emblematic increase in the drug trade.”
Because Davao is the southern-most port of Mindanao, drug traders once used it as a sort of hub, moving drugs from nearby Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
“The second problem was that the Communist Party in the island split, and there was massive internal killing and torture,” Abinales said, noting that Davaoans were fed up, and welcomed his no-holds-barred crime-fighting.
With Duterte at the helm, Davao’s crime rate would slowly but surely become one of the nation’s lowest, transforming the city.
“There are only a couple of cities where you can walk around at any time of night and people stop at stoplights,” Abinales said. “Davao is one of them. You can’t do that in Manila.”
His ascent to the presidency was then welcomed by Filipinos, who saw him as an exception to the corruption and damning ties that marked many local and national leaders, and a healthy middle-ground between Communist influences and protesters — his father was a Communist secretary for President Ferdinand Marcos, while his mother was an anti-Communist human rights activist.
While Americans seeing bits and pieces of controversial quotes might wonder how extrajudicial killings can be OK, Abinales said the logic makes sense for those who wanted their city back. “People are asking, ‘Who doesn’t want the drug addict or drug pusher killed?’” he said.
His brash rhetoric and his harsh tactics have drawn comparisons to Donald Trump. The difference, Abinales said, is his humility and disdain for press attention. He has turned down awards and nominations, like the “World Mayor Prize” given by an international body to outstanding mayors, and he rarely gives interviews.
As mayor, he had a weekly television talk show, “Gikan sa masa, para sa masa,” meaning, “From the masses, for the masses,” which drew more viewers than local news talk shows. He’s announced plans to do the same as president. In his show, he addresses citizen complaints and reports of corruption and has even read out names of convicted criminals, who are often killed soon after.
In a 2015 episode before he decided to run, Duterte said to Davaoans, “God will weep if I become president.”
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