EIGHTEEN months into office and still, Rodrigo Duterte escapes identification; well, at least as far as my little world is concerned. Whenever two or more people are gathered, and the discussion drifts into politics, there Duterte is in the midst of them. Whether it’s a casual chat between cabbie and passenger, a family reunion, or a no-holds barred exchange between friends or among media colleagues, I find myself having to articulate more seriously than I would want, an opinion about the Philippines’ 13th president.
Due perhaps to my occupation as a media person, I am always, always asked “What do you think of Duterte?” I maintain that I don’t think of Duterte at all, but an answer is expected of me just the same. Just two weeks ago, at a small gathering of religious and laypeople, the subject of Duterte inevitably sprung up; then a nun grinned and broke into song, a la Sound of Music: “How do you solve the problem of Duterteeeeee?” Aye, there’s the rub! I don’t see Du30 as a problem. Were I to join the nun in a duet, I’d change the lyrics into “How do you solve the puzzle that’s Duterteeeee?”
I love solving puzzles, from the simplest kindergarten stuff to Mensa’s mind bogglers—and the strangest chief executive that Pinas has ever had must be a puzzle somewhere in between. From everything Duterte has revealed of himself since pre-election time to the present, I see as a work in progress. Neither the man nor his work is a simple thing, and so the relationship between him and the people—as the Facebook population would say—is necessarily “complicated”. It would be imprudent (and a waste of time) to say anything conclusive about him or his work, in reaction to his actions, because he himself appears to be a bundle of contradictions.
Earlier on, when “PRRD” was just beginning to be exposed through media, I would cringe at his cussing (as we say, “Ang lutong magmura!”), being embarrassed for the Filipino people. “Gawd, what would the international community say, we have one of the most foul-mouthed leaders in the history of the world?” And I’d also frankly criticize him for his brazen display of misogyny, particularly when he joked that he should have been the first to rape the murdered Australian woman missionary. “Kadiring presidente”, I’d hiss. But as time marches on and the man reveals more and more of himself through word and deed, I—for the sake of my blood pressure—am finding it judicious to view him with a little more Christian empathy. The man seems unhinged, but being so is not without its uses.
He’s unconventional—attending important functions in T-shirt and jeans, or a barong with sleeves rolled up, with total disregard for diplomatic refinement—but so is his inaugural menu. Avoiding unnecessary burden on the national coffers he chose to feed the dignitaries with munggo and danggit. Impressive conviction—how many of us would dare do that?
He contradicts himself. He once declared, with clenched fist, that he would ride a jetski to plant a Philippine flag on a contested island grabbed by China. But now he’s playing footsies with China and tightening the noose on the United States. Does he know what he’s doing, or is it part of a clever strategy? He once said he’d kill his own children if he found out they were using drugs, but is now mum on the six-billion peso shabu shipment from China that dragged his son’s name into the controversy. Once rejecting being compared to the loose-lipped US president Donald Trump, he said “He’s a bigot, I am not.”Months later, after a friendly phone chat with Trump where the latter expressed support for his drug war, Duterte totally forgot that he might be dealing with a “bigot”.
He carelessly makes promises he can’t keep. Remember when he swore he’d stop cussing because his daughter was getting the flak in school on account of her president-father’s laughable foul mouth? He tried, his speech became bland, but only for a week or so. And also that incident when he said God talked to him on the plane, and he promised never to cuss again because “a promise to God is a promise to the Filipino people”? And that campaign trail promise to rid the country of drugs in three-to-six months? See the pattern? Same banana.
He trivializes matters. He blurts out something infuriating and then turns around and says he’s just joking. Irate over the pronouncement of US human rights experts about the drug killings being a crime under international law, Duterte exploded into expletives, called the experts “stupid”, and threatened to pull out of the UN, only to say later he was just joking. At a campaign rally he said about the raped and murdered Australian missionary: “Nakita ko ang mukha, maganda… sabi ko sayang, na rape, pinilahan nila. Galit ako dahil na-rape siya, pero maganda, naisip ko, dapat ang mayor ang pinauna nila.” (I saw her face and I thought, ‘What a pity… they raped her, they all lined up. I was mad she was raped but she was so beautiful. I thought, the mayor should have been first.) His office defended his “joke”, saying it was simply “how men talk,” but later on issued an apology to pacify furious female voters.
If people can’t tell when he’s joking and when he’s not, it’s probably because the man himself doesn’t know how to make heads or tails of the problems in his hands. He sounded funny and bragging when he said, campaigning, “If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’ll kill you…I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there.” But thousands of drug related deaths later, of mostly of drug users and pushers who “resisted arrest” by the police, we realize Duterte wasn’t joking about fattening the fish in Manila Bay, by feeding them the small fry. A funny joker president? Scary, to say the least.
Joking or not, Duterte makes brash off-the-cuff remarks that should easily earn him the title of “Pambansang Kahihiyan”. Anyone who causes him displeasure he cusses as a “son of a whore”—former US president Obama and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon (“a fool”) over human rights issues, and Pope Francis (“you son of a whore, go home and never come back”) for indirectly causing him to get stuck in a traffic jam. Du30’s mouth also spewed obscenities when the European Union urged his government to investigate human rights abuses, calling the EU hypocrites, giving them the dirty finger, and accusing them of “atoning” for their ancestors’ sins and “guilt feelings” over occupying other countries in the past.
Are his intentions noble? Is he a misguided maverick? He always says he loves his country and would get rid of anyone harming it or hurting the Filipinos. But the drug users and pushers are Filipinos, too. So why is he vowing to kill the country’s alleged three million drug addicts—“I’d be happy to slaughter them as Hitler massacred the Jews… to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation.” Or does he simply enjoy shocking polite society, as when at a meeting with businessmen, he bragged about being a womanizer thus, “I was separated from my wife. I’m not impotent. What am I supposed to do? Let this hang forever? When I take Viagra, it stands up.”
If the surveys are to be believed, PRRD seems to be still enjoying a high trust rating. Why? Is it because he pushed for free education up to college, higher salaries for soldiers and teachers, more services for the poor, the purge against corrupt officials, etc. etc.? I for one, though not a fan nor a critic of the man, think his warrior nature served the country well when he put his foot down on the terrorists during the Marawi siege. The first video I saw of it was of the ISIS recruits burning the cathedral and bashing the images inside. The fact that the terrorists are well funded from abroad shows this is a real threat to the country, and the president for once acted as a president should—with determination to fight off the invaders. I shuddered to think what could have happened had the one sitting in Malacañang then been any of his rivals—Roxas, Binay, Poe, or (RIP) Santiago?
If everything is wrong about Duterte, then not everything could be right about the 16,000,000 Filipinos who put him into office. They heard him during his campaign. They knew he was a womanizer. They enjoyed his jokes and his cussing and counted on his promises. And yet they voted for him. Lest we forget that the Philippines is not just its president, or the president and his supporters, but is each and everyone of us, we need to discern more in order to make of ourselves the best we can before the sake of our country and the future of our children. How do we solve the problem of Duterte? Accept that in spite of our purest intentions there are things we cannot change—surely not the habits of conflicted leaders that go against our grain or violate our standards of decency—and so try to focus on changing ourselves. We can help ourselves through prayer and obedience to the Father. How do we solve the puzzle that’s Duterte? How do we face the challenge that’s Duterte? Like it or not he is a challenge to our faith, our humility, our charity, and our avowed desire for God’s will to be done. And that’s the truth.