Defining Duterte’s Impact in the Philippines

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has stood as a highly controversial figure. Some people see him as the savior, and others the destruction of the Republic of the Philippines. Former mayor of Davao and now in the Southeast Asian nation’s most powerful position, Duterte has received extreme scrutiny from other world leaders as well as the global public for not just his policy, but his language as well. A man of controversy and of much debated exultation and criticism, His infamous policy of Extra Judicial Killings (EJK), which are essentially killings without proper justice proceedings and usually in response to the belief of undesirable relationships with corrupted officials or individuals. In the case of the Philippines, the victims are often people believed to have had affiliations with drug dealers, regardless of whether or not those accusations were true. However, the controversy of Duterte’s presidency is more than just a question of policy, but also a symbol of what the people of the Philippines have been frustrated with for decades. Scoring a 35 on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), corruption is not of the past for the Philippines. Despite all that he is discriminated for, Duterte has an agenda in the Philippines, and many Filipinos believe he is exactly who deserves to be at the head of Filipino politics.
The revival of extrajudicial killings has led to polarized reactions. While this is not necessarily a new development on the global stage or in the Philippines, the resulting protests call for the end of unfair killings and for the return of due process. The policy was reinstated by the now president in an attempt to incite a war on drugs, as Duterte had even promised to kill his own children if they were commit the same crime he was punishing petty criminals and drug pushes for. Duterte has been compared to being “The Trump of the East”, both being known for their unruly and undiplomatic behavior. The former Davao mayor has been now associated with reformation and more popularly known for his populist course of action for the nation.
However, others have said that the two are entirely different. “The Philippines knows what it is getting. With Trump, America is looking at the unknown,” claims Charlie Campbell from Time. Amongst all the narratives surrounding Duterte, as a malicious dictator or a benevolent despot, in the shadows of colonial history an origin story of Philippines that goes unnoticed behind the curtains of modernity. With approximately a 78.4% voter turnout, Duterte won the majority vote with 16.6 million votes, 96.14% of the votes being processed. While not an overwhelming win, how does a man such as Duterte, who so outwardly made clear his unapologetic attitude towards sexual assault and his avowed hatred towards the drug dealers ravaging Philippine society win the vote of over 15 million people? Are the people of the Philippines the same way? He did not hide his agenda during his candidacy; he made it very clear that his intention was to eradicate drugs from the Philippines. And the people voted for him.
The path to independence for the Philippine islands is one wrought with blood and tribulation. Originally a territory of the Spanish empire, the United States took the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Cuba in 1898. In a show of rebellion, anti-colonial Filipino nationalists fought back against United States’ imperial occupation in a bloody struggle that would come to be known as the Philippine-American War. During this time, the Americans ran a pacification campaign that led to the destruction of property and the torture and slaughter of Filipino civilians. Only after a bloody war between Filipino nationalists and American imperialists was the Philippines subjugated, eventually leading to the movement of Filipino labor abroad. During the course of this brief but brutal war lasting from 1899 to 1902, 4,200 American and 20,000 Filipino combatants died during the battles, while 200,000 Filipinos perished from famine, disease, and the ensuing violence.
Since the United States permitted Philippine independence in 1946, the Philippine still suffers from great poverty, and has yet to make significant progress economically and in terms of human rights. Despite having been a territory of the United State and, having their government modeled after American constitutional law, the islands are ravaged by poverty. The economy especially suffered during the time of President Ferdinand Marcos, and since has not recovered from his policies. According to the Asia Development Bank, 21.1% of the Philippines lives below the poverty line. Some people are unable to afford food to eat. Entire villages and cities are often poor, especially in the city of Manilla, so poor that they rely on food from the trash of the middle class for sustenance. In consequence to debilitating poverty comes the rampant crime. In the Philippines in Figures 2017 report from the Philippines Statistics Authority, the instances of known drug or substance only in rehabilitation figures is on the rise since 2012, starting at 2,744 cases in 2012 and rising to 4,392 in 2014. The crime in the Philippines gives rise to general discontent in Filipino citizens.
This historical deficiency, perpetuated by unstable oligarchies and frequent practice of cronyism was especially emphasized on September 22, 1972, when then President Ferdinand Marcos announced that the Philippines would be under martial law, which some viewed as a deviation from the American ideals and values that were taught so avidly by American colonizers. The reason for this sudden change is that the instances of crime in the city Manila had risen so high that it required military intervention to mitigate. The result however, was more abuses of human rights. Marcos used this power to suppress freedom of speech and expression. Military often abused their authority, and participated in bribery, unjust killing, and the like. President Duterte received extreme criticism when he allowed for Marco’s body to be honored as a war hero, some viewing it as a betrayal to all the sufferings their families suffered as a result of Marcos’ martial law. Even later, some even began to think that Duterte would become much like Marcos himself, in that he would respond with martial law with the rising unrest in southern Philippines, concerning the people of Mindanao and the Moro Islamist Liberation Front (MILF). Fears became reality when Duterte finally declared that the entire island of Mindanao would fall under martial law, in the hopes of capturing the Islamist terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon.
However, the conflict reached its climax when, during the fighting in Marawi city, Hapilon and the main leaders of MILF were killed, and Duterte released Marawi city from martial law. While the fighting within the Philippines is not yet over, it is suffice to say that Duterte’s actions played a part in this culmination of events, regardless of whether one views the results of Duterte’s actions as a good or bad occurrence. Duterte represents the anger of the Philippines as a nation if not for his “war on drugs,” then for change in the Philippines. The narrative of the Philippines that stands so long forgotten is that the history of the Philippines is wrought with violence and inequality, resulting in frustrated population looking for change. Whether Duterte is, at the core, a good president or not is debatable. History may have the last word on that debate. But Duterte may not be the cause of the Philippine’s problems, but rather the answer of the people to a history of struggle and poverty.