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Duterte Harry

Duterte Harry

Book Review

This review is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 4: Defending Australia. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.

Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines
Jonathan Miller
Scribe Publications

The fish canners from south-western Mindanao were puzzled when I said that we don’t bring automatic weapons to business meetings in Australia.

“But if you have a problem?” asked the driver. “What then?” His friend in the back of the SUV snapped open a briefcase containing an Armalite nestled in foam.

“Call a lawyer,” I said.

Un abogado?” said the driver, using the Spanish that comprises much of the dialect in this city. He steered us to a shooting range. “Not here. Is different here.”

This was in Zamboanga City, the “city of flowers” perched on the shores of the Sulu Sea and within sight of Basilan, a mountainous island never fully conquered by colonialists, and which gave birth to the Abu Sayyaf Group – a jihadist-cum-gangster network formerly linked to al-Qaeda and more recently pledged to Islamic State.

Further along the Sulu Archipelago lies Jolo, an even more lawless island, where the Philippines’ modern round of Muslim secessionist wars and insurgencies kicked off nearly fifty years ago. During a 2014 visit to Jolo, which ended soon after the military – scrambling to save German hostages on the eve of their scheduled beheading – ordered the police to stop protecting me, I called on one of the Philippines’ quintessential tough-guy politicians, Abdusakur Tan, vice-governor of the Sulu province.

Tan’s steely eyed, gunned-up breed of regional leadership is iconic within the Philippines – and now is known internationally through Rodrigo Duterte’s presidency. With a private army upwards of 2000 men, Tan is a powerful overlord who, like many politicians in a country of term limits, alternates in the top job with family members. He described one of the assassination attempts he has survived: an attack at Zamboanga airport by a man wearing a backpack. “When I was beside him somebody must have switched the radio transmitter so it exploded,” Tan said. “That man was like corned beef, you know. Flesh and blood all over me.” A couple of people were killed and dozens wounded, but Tan was fine, not even knocked off his feet, because the carrier had been facing the politician when detonation occurred instead of having his bomb-laden back to him.

Outside the capitol, a policeman remarked on Tan’s ability to survive attacks unscathed. “It is said that he has powers – that he cannot be harmed.”

It wasn’t my first brush with otherworldly beliefs in the Philippines. In Basilan I spent time with a police chief who trusted his survival to the warnings of jinn, supernational beings of Islam, even though he, like most Filipinos, was Catholic. Jinn spoke to his right-hand man, a Muslim from a Sulu warrior tribe. Jinn advised not only of IEDs but also of gunmen and, during shoot-outs, of directional shifts in incoming fire. The chief said that before coming under their protection he’d been shot seven times. He displayed his torso, raggedly scarred from bullets and surgery. The Philippine National Police allowed him four weeks off work.

“Is different here,” as the fish canner said.

So different, in fact, that when writing about events in the Philippines, it is hard to know how and when to start, or even what the essence of the story is, so unmoored in time, so unstable in era and outlook, so relentlessly complex is this incompletely forged nation. An encyclopaedia of modern history broods here: invasions, slave trading, colonialism, piracy, religious wars, civil wars, revolutions, insurgencies (nationalist, indigenous, Islamic and communist), paramilitarisation, social engineering via death squads, urban terrorism, and even the planning of the September 11 onslaught and its 1993 precursor bombing of New York City’s World Trade Center. And amid all this are contradictory but intermingling ethnic, spiritual, cultural and sexual identities.

Without an alchemical swirl of time and context, almost nothing in this country of 104 million people can be understood: no political or social situation; no campaign of terrorism, rebellion or military action; and certainly not the elevation of Rodrigo Roa Duterte, a bigger-city Tan, from provincial mayor and Mindanao death-squad commander to the presidential palace in Manila.

In grappling with the lurid tale of this hypermacho el jefe, Bangkok-based Channel 4 News journalist Jonathan Miller loads Duterte Harry with outrage upon outrage, lunacy upon lunacy. Miller focuses on President Duterte’s fervour for brutality: most particularly the extrajudicial slaughter of thousands of Filipinos accused of using or selling illegal drugs, chiefly methamphetamine (known locally as shabu).

As has been widely reported, when Duterte ruled Davao City in Mindanao in stints of mayoral terms dating back to the late 1980s, the signature element of his reign was the elimination of street people, drug people, bandits, thieves and other undesirables.

It bore fruit, I couldn’t help but think, when a stay in Davao proved the first time I could stroll a Philippine city without being on edge – a situation even Miller has admitted. Plus, Davao attracts relatively high levels of labour-hiring foreign investment – desirable in a nation where poverty is so widespread. As Duterte has said: “I don’t care if I burn in hell as long as the people I serve live in paradise.”

Before Duterte took the palace in 2016, friends not just in slums but also in wealthier Manila neighbourhoods expressed fear of violent robbery, citing cases near them of households butchered. Independent Filipino intelligence analysts now tell me that Duterte’s drug war has had a dramatic effect, particularly in Mindanao, where martial law has consolidated the gains of the initial waves of killings. Crime is down between 70 and 90 per cent, I am told, with long-dicey metropolitan areas such as Cotabato City in central Mindanao now transformed. Many of the killings are apparently the result of drug syndicates turning the spotlight on one another’s associates and even purging their own ranks.

Still, I don’t want the swarming urchins who mugged me in Manila one night to be shot dead, nor the shabu-smoking drivers working around the clock for razor-thin margins in a country with barely any welfare. Attacking the wretched human base of a vast pyramid of corruption and injustice may indeed “clean” the streets, but, putting aside its obvious atrocity, it also suggests an inability or unwillingness to do battle with higher-level foes.

Eminent intellectual F. Sionil José has championed Duterte as a nationalist revolutionary who has smashed the miserable torpor of recent decades, who sees Moros and Maoists alike as Filipinos craving a better country and who is finally wrenching government policy away from the influence of the Catholic Church, America and the oligarchical families who hold much of the nation’s wealth. Early in Duterte’s reign, José wrote for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, “The ramifications of Mr. Duterte’s assault on the rotten status quo, which has begun with the war on drugs, will go deeper into the matrix of our society and government as police, politicians and powerful Filipinos are subjected to the harsh scrutiny of the revolution.”

It remains to be seen how much socially empowering populism Duterte will push through – measures such as his scrapping of fees for state universities and his campaign for a federalist constitution in which provinces elect their own senators – amid the violent and repressive aspects of his rule.

Weighing up his record to date, Miller largely dismisses the notion of Duterte as revolutionary, arguing instead that the firebrand is from a production line of self-serving politicians making plenty for themselves and their cronies, albeit one who is pathologically brutal.

Duterte Harry is well informed, well attributed, and alive with the voices and colour of Filipinos. Yet it does little more than tell a shocking tale in isolation. For those interested in this particular killing spree, it is highly recommended. But to comprehend why such an explosive man holds office, we need Miller to broaden his focus and – in the vein of some of Michael Taussig’s work, perhaps – serve up a more anthropologically and sociologically aware analysis of a profoundly turbulent country, wracked with clan-centred morality and deep misgivings about democracy.

Matthew Thompson

This is a book review from Australian Foreign Affairs 4: Defending Australia. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.