Fire and Fury in the Philippines
Editor: Jonathan Miller
Published by: Scribe Publications, Victoria, 2018, 346pp, $32.99.
Few contemporary South-east Asian leaders attract much, if any, attention outside their own countries or the region as a whole. The obvious exception to this is Rodrigo Duterte, who has gained international notoriety since becoming the Philippines president in 2016.
Jonathan Miller, the Asia correspondent of the United Kingdom's Channel 4 News, has written the first biography of Duterte. It is based on what he has been told about events in the Philippines by people including not only Duterte's critics, but also family members, Cabinet ministers and other supporters. Sadly, the president himself is not one of these, although the author has had several encounters with him at late-night press conferences, including one where Miller was called 'putang ina mo' ('you son of a whore'), putting him in the same company as President Obama and Pope Francis. The author also went out at night in Manila to see Duterte's drugs war in action.
Though expletive-laden speeches and insults are a part of his notoriety, more seriously, it rests on his war on drugs and the methods employed in it. In campaigning for the presidency, Duterte declared that the national methamphetamine pandemic was a threat to national security and he 'raged and swore to kill vermin of the drugs trade'--personally. As Miller observes: 'In crime-infested shanties across the archipelago, his take-no-prisoners style made him wildly popular'. In the election, he received 16.6 million votes. This was not only 6.6 million more than the second-placed candidate, but 'more than any other president in Philippine history, bar the rigged re-election of Ferdinand Marcos in 1981'.
In a culture in which politics has always been more about style than substance, Duterte's popularity also rests on the image he has created. For Miller, this is 'the persona of the badass bugoy [boy]'. This 'version of his life ... has him raised, god-like, in the gutters of Davao. The man of the poor.'
Far from being from the poor, Rodrigo Duterte is the son of a former governor of Davao who became a minister in Marcos's Cabinet. Duterte, therefore, is from Mindanao's 'political aristocracy'. The major influences on him as he grew up, however, were the Philippines Constabulary bodyguards who protected him and his family; he thus adopted their language, 'values and mannerisms'. As a...