This book is about the man reasonable, smart, hard-working Filipinos elected as president almost two years ago: a gangster-politician who’s since added the Philippine police to his gang, too, authorising extrajudicial killing of up to 20,000 perceived drug users and dealers.
At 73, Rodrigo Duterte is still the wild boy brought up by bodyguards left to mind him in southern Davao City by his absentee politician father. Favouring leather, jeans and boots, and posing with guns, he lives on Fentanyl patches for his pain from motorbike crashes, Viagra for his womanising, and an oxygen-booster for his few hours of sleep. A creature of the night, he revels in his nickname derived from Clint Eastwood’s movie cop. He’s surprised critics get offended when called putang ina mo (“son of a whore”).
Jonathan Miller, a veteran British television correspondent in South-East Asia, copped many such insults directly from Duterte as he painstakingly put together the president’s story, interviewing siblings, children and cronies. He illustrates that Duterte’s behaviour as president should have come as no surprise. As mayor of Davao City, Duterte openly ran a death squad. He still boasts about it, but not in enough detail for prosecution. Those willing to supply that detail, some of whom Miller tracked down, are in deep hiding. Politicians brave enough to call him out on the grand crime get jailed, named as drug traffickers, or both (such as former justice secretary Leila de Lima).
This book lays it all out in shocking colour. What’s lacking is more than cursory background on why he was elected. There had been populist clowns in the presidency before, notably former film star Joseph Estrada, but immediate predecessor Benigno Aquino’s term was marked by very high economic growth, the rise of a call-centre industry finally matching English-speaking talent with the global economy, and a judicial win over China’s maritime claims at The Hague. Duterte’s rise seems to come down to entrenched oligarchy, with slum populations reaching out to a fake saviour. As shown in Davao, still the No. 1 place for murders and No. 2 for rapes in the Philippines, he has no lasting solution for methamphetamines or any other problem. Fortunately, presidents can only serve one six-year term. But with four years to go, and Duterte talking of martial law and “revolutionary government”, Miller worries “the noose will tighten in Asia’s oldest democracy”. JF
Scribe, 352pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 9, 2018 as "Jonathan Miller, Duterte Harry". Subscribe here.