From Death Squads to Rape 'Jokes': Who Is Rodrigo Duterte?

As bodies pile up in the Philippines, many fear to talk about President Rodrigo Duterte's new war.

HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver explains who is Rodrigo Duterte.
HBO's Last Week Tonight with John Oliver explains who is Rodrigo Duterte. May 9, 2016. Credit: Screen grab
Credit: HBO.

The body of 22-year-old pedicab driver Eric Sison lies in a coffin in a Manila slum with a chick pacing across his casket, placed there in keeping with a local tradition to symbolically peck at the conscience of his killers.

Cellphone video footage circulating on social media purports to capture the moment Sison was killed last month when, according to local officials, police were looking for drug pushers in the Pasay township of the Philippines' capital.

A voice on the video, recorded by a neighbour according to newspaper reports, can be heard shouting "Don't do it, I'll surrender!". Then there is the sound of gunfire.

A poster near the coffin, which lies beside a stinking canal cut between ramshackle homes, demands "Justice for Eric Quintinita Sison". A handpainted sign reads: "OVERKILL - JUSTICE 4 ERIC."

These are rare tokens of protest against a surge of killings unleashed since Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines in 2016 and pledged to wage war on drug dealers and crush widespread addiction to methamphetamine.

Very little stands in the way of his bloody juggernaut.

Last week the number of people killed since July 1 reached 2,400: about 900 died in police operations, and the rest are "deaths under investigation", a term human rights activists say is a euphemism for vigilante and extrajudicial killings.

Duterte's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on this report.


Last week tonight with John Oliver Rodrigo Duterte Philippine, Trump of the East HBO

Reuters interviews reveal that the police's Internal Affairs Service (IAS) and the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) are so overwhelmed by the killings that they can investigate only a fraction, and there is scant hope of establishing many as unlawful because witnesses are too terrified to come forward.

Meanwhile, the immense popularity of Duterte's crusade and a climate of fear whipped up by the bloodletting have together silenced dissent from civil society. Hardly anyone turned up at candlelight vigils in Manila recently to protest against extrajudicial killings.

Even as the death toll rose, a July poll by Pulse Asia put Duterte's approval rating at 91 percent.

Anxious reminders by the Catholic Church of the commandment 'thou shalt not kill' make few headlines in the predominantly Catholic country, with newspapers preferring to carry breathless accounts of the latest slayings.

Duterte has delivered withering attacks on his chief critic, Senator Leila de Lima, accusing her of dealing in drugs herself and having an affair with her driver.

"It's only the president who can stop this," de Lima told Reuters last week, deploring what she described as the "madness" that led in one case to a five-year-old girl being shot in the head.

"How many more of these cases of collateral damage are we willing to bear before we can really start screaming about it?" she asked.

As for critics abroad, Duterte pours scorn on them in language larded with curses.

He lambasted the United Nations after it criticised the surge in killings and he turned down a meeting with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at a summit in Laos this week.

Duterte was scheduled to meet Barack Obama in Laos on Tuesday. The meeting was canclled after Duterte called the U.S. president the'son of a whore'in a news conference the day before. Prior to the comment, Duterte has made it clear he will take no lecture on human rights from the U.S. president, when in the United States he alleged "black people are being shot even if they are already lying down".

The Philippines scrambled to defuse a row with the United States on Tuesday and its new president, Rodrigo Duterte, voiced regret for calling President Barack Obama a "son of a bitch", comments that prompted Washington to call off a bilateral meeting.

The tiff between the two allies overshadowed the opening of a summit of East and Southeast Asian nations in Laos.

It also soured Obama's last swing as president through a region he has tried to make a focus of U.S. foreign policy, a strategy widely seen as a response to China's economic and military muscle-flexing.

He said in a speech as the summit got under way that his push to make the United States a key player in Asia-Pacific was not some "passing fad".

However, diplomats say strains with longtime ally the Philippines could compound Washington's difficulties in forging a united front with Southeast Asian partners on the geostrategic jostle with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Duterte has bristled repeatedly at criticism over his "war on drugs."

Activists and families of eight victims of the Philippines' "war on drugs" filed a complaint on Tuesday with the International Criminal Court (ICC), a second petition accusing President Rodrigo Duterte of murder and crimes against humanity.

The 50-page complaint calls for Duterte's indictment for what it describes as thousands of extrajudicial killings, which include "brazen" executions by police acting with impunity.

Critics of Duterte's fierce anti-narcotics campaign were being "persecuted", it said, and cases filed by the victims' families had gone nowhere.

The ICC petition, formally referred to as a communication, follows a similar complaint filed in April 2017 by a Filipino lawyer, into which the ICC in February started a preliminary examination.

The latest move is led by a network of activists, priests and members of the urban poor communities that have borne the brunt of Duterte's crackdown. The complaint includes testimony from six relatives of eight people killed by police.

"Duterte is personally liable for ordering state police to undertake mass killings," Neri Colmenares, a lawyer representing the group, told reporters, moments after he said the complaint had been sent to the ICC.

Duterte says he has told police to kill only if their lives were in danger. In his annual address to the nation last month, he said the drugs war would be as "relentless and chilling" as its first two years.

Police say the more than 4,400 killed over that time were dealers who had all resisted arrest, and deny activists' allegations of cover-ups and executions of drug users.


last week Duterte said graft and illicit drugs were so entrenched in the Philippines that if he were not around, it would be better off run by a dictator such as late strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

In a speech on Thursday, Duterte reiterated that he wanted to quit before his term ends in 2022, but was reluctant to hand power to Leni Robredo, the vice president who was elected separately and was not his running mate.

Robredo has been a critic of the president's deadly war on drugs. Duterte said there would be disorder if his crackdown was halted, and the Philippines could do with an authoritarian at the helm.

"You're better off choosing a dictator of the likes of Marcos, that's what I suggested," Duterte said. "Constitutional succession, it's Robredo. But she cannot hack it."

Duterte's expressed admiration for the much-vilified Marcos has been controversial, with many Filipinos still tormented by his brutal two-decade rule, ended in his overthrow in a popular, army-backed uprising in 1986.

Thousands of people were arrested, killed, tortured or disappeared under martial law in the 1970s.

Many survivors are reminded of that by the political influence wielded by the Marcos family, with widow Imelda a congresswoman, his son and namesake a former senator who lost to Robredo in the 2016 vice presidential election, and daughter, Imee Marcos a provincial governor.

Imee Marcos, 62, is expected to run for the senate next year and attends or speaks at many of Duterte's public events around the country, despite having no role in his administration.

She caused outrage last week when she said it was time for older Filipinos to "move on" from the martial law years, like younger ones had.

The mercurial Duterte, 73, has been talking more often about retiring, due to exasperation about corruption and narcotics. Rumours have spread that he is in declining health, which he dismissed on Thursday as "fake news".



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