A common thread that I am finding in the responses to my criticisms of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte is that I should give the man a chance before I drive hard against his words and actions. Respondents have suggested instead that I reallocate my energies for a much later time when we would be better able to assess and evaluate Duterte’s performance.
The reasoning that has been put forth by these respondents as they take issue with my criticism of the Philippine president converges on a frame of reference which is centered around the overdue need for reform. However, the way the respondents have defended that frame of reference is incompatible with one of the important lessons of analyzing political leaders: ignore the past at your peril for it is ever-present in the ways and means of how rulers will exercise power.
The last thing Duterte supporters want to hear is that the most vociferous in their praise of him run the risk of becoming the most vociferous in their disapproval of the president down the road. As they applaud him for his ruthlessly violent stance against drug-related crime—as if in and of itself killing suspected drug users and dealers alone will stop drug crime in the country—Duterte supporters constantly remind us that “change” is what it’s all about and that only he can carry out that change as a leader who is tough and strong and who will do what is in the best interests of the Filipino people. But what the Duterte supporters ignore is the historical truism that how someone comes to power will be exactly the way they will rule once in power. To put it differently, the past is a valuable resource in prognosticating the future with Duterte at the helm of the country.
Duterte’s political past raises many eyebrows for his alleged involvement in the so-called Davao death squads which are believed to have extrajudicially taken the lives of hundreds of people in the city for crimes, real and imagined. Duterte has freely and without remorse admitted his complicity in the killings and has even bragged about their bloody effectiveness in reducing crime in Davao.
But in using excessive lethal force without due process of law undermines the very notion of law and order that forms Duterte’s political center of gravity. To circumvent the rule of law in order to enforce law and order is an example of the narrow sophistry and rationalizing that is a trademark of President Duterte’s governing style. Maintaining law and order by breaking it is the height of hypocrisy and the absence of common sense and reason. Duterte however, has parlayed this into a winning narrative among his voters.
There is something to be said for the overall conclusion that Duterte has reached on the U.S.-Philippine relationship. Since its genesis in the turn-of-the-century American colonization of the archipelago, it has been a hegemonic patron-client relationship to be sure and on that account Filipino nationalists have said that Duterte is justified in reliving the painful memories of how it has—materially, physically, culturally, and psychologically—highlighted American strength and at the same time underscored Philippine weakness and dependency. A singular take-home for Duterte from the history of the US-Philippine relationship is his near-scathing indignation at a specific episode in America’s historically-checkered role in the islands. It involved a 2002 explosion in the Davao hotel room of Michael Terrence Meiring, a US citizen who had been indicted for possessing explosives. Before any case could be pursued, Meiring mysteriously disappeared. Davao mayor Duterte believed that the US government had somehow wielded its magical wand of neo-colonial machinations in enabling Meiring to escape justice. Duterte has understandably never forgotten that incident. Indeed, what has become a ritual response for Duterte in his critical scrutiny of America’s constructive yet controversial history in the Philippines has been laced with defiance and bitterness and filled with invective towards the former colonizer and long-time patron.
A far more distant historical event that Duterte talks about with rancor is the massacre of 600 Moros at the hands of American soldiers in 1906. Hardly one to expound upon the necessity of forgiveness when acting as the protagonist, Duterte has demanded an apology from the United States for the massacre which took place on Jolo Island in the southernmost reaches of the Philippine island chain. What became known as the Bud Dajo massacre occurred against the backdrop of America’s counterinsurgency operations against Moro rebels who resisted the colonial occupation of their land. Duterte has tried to sear these two historical moments—along with his general enmity towards the United States—into the contemporary Filipino consciousness to the same pathological extent he has carved it into his own. And yet, Duterte does so with great irony. About the president and his insights on the United States, novelist Gina Apostol writes: “An abuser condemned an earlier abuser of the nation in order to sanction his own abuse.”
Duterte has been able to project his antipathy towards the US government’s neo-colonial policies into a national policy of his own. It is a policy that is slowly turning US-Philippine relations on their head. It is also a policy loaded with a range of unintended consequences not the least of which is the appeasement of a repressive dictatorship in China. China, with its exertive ambitions on maritime territories in the South China Sea—some of which are legally under Philippine sovereignty—potentially represents a clear and present danger to the Philippines.
One only has to open their eyes to Duterte’s political past as a brutally honest, uncompromising mayor and presidential aspirant to see how it informs his thought processes as president. The atrocious acts of guilty-until-proven-innocent violence perpetrated against thousands of suspected drug dealers and users and his precipitous disruption of vital US-Philippine ties both arise out of the recesses of his public past. The problem with the Duterte defenders that I have heard from is that they disregard what his past has to say about how he would conduct himself as president. It was Duterte after all, who as a mayor and presidential candidate advocated extrajudicial killings—irrespective of any human collateral damage—to fight the drug trade. It was mayor Duterte who shouted from the mountaintop his aversion towards America and who as presidential candidate telegraphed that he was willing to jeopardize relations with the United States—an impeachable but indispensable ally nevertheless—for both historical and personal affronts. It was candidate Duterte who threatened to abolish the Philippine Congress if its members did not facilitate the passage of his policies. And it was first as mayor and then as presidential candidate that Duterte unconscionably called for the burial of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos as an undeserved national hero.
Nothing that Duterte says and does consequentially as president, now and in the future, cannot be traced back to the record of his dubious, pseudo-democratic public past, a past that has been glossed over with his populist, anti-establishment, everyman image by his hordes of disaffected supporters.
The respondents’ sentiment that at any rate—his contentious past notwithstanding—Duterte is an agent of change so therefore he’s better than no change at all is the definition of self-deception. Change has to be implemented responsibly, compassionately, and sensibly. To implement it thoughtlessly and full speed ahead simply for the sake of change itself is going too far, too fast. In other words, the cure should not be worse than the disease. Change is only a salutary preoccupation if it is sown with unmistakable empathy and judiciously maximized to such a fundamental level as to be truly meaningful.
When the regrets start pouring in over the course of time with Rodrigo Duterte, it will be too late. The damage will have been done. Then Filipinos will hit themselves over the head as they ask themselves, as they did with Marcos, Estrada, and Macapagal-Arroyo, and with countless other politicians, why they enabled these individuals, individuals they knew in their hearts to have questionable ethics and morals, to rise to the pinnacle of power.