Australian morning show Sunrise featured a segment on presumptive Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to discuss his win in the recent presidential elections. The show had an Australian political analyst named Dr Keith Suter as guest who speculated on what a Duterte President would be like. Even before he was introduced, the two hosts of the show already had their grim faces on; meaning, they already harbored their preconceived notions about Duterte that weren’t very positive. This is most likely a result of the negative publicity Duterte got from local and other international media sites in the lead up to the presidential elections.
As usual they were comparing Duterte again with outspoken U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and even went on to say that Duterte makes Trump look like the Pope. They think that Duterte is worse than Trump, which I think is an incorrect assessment. Political analyst Suter, however, echoed their sentiments by saying that Australians should be worried about a Duterte Presidency based on Duterte’s previous statements about being in favor of gang raping a nun and telling the Australian Ambassador to shut up after she spoke out against Duterte’s rape “joke”.
While I was one of those people who disapproved of Duterte’s remarks in reference to the Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill who was taken as hostage, gang raped and killed by inmates from a detention center in Davao City in 1989, I have to say that the political analyst was wrong in his interpretation. When Duterte said “The Mayor should have been the first”, he didn’t mean that he approved of gang rape. This was quite evident in his next move during the standoff, which, according to his own narration, was to shoot the inmates. Obviously, Duterte found the actions of the convicts despicable enough to sentence them to their own deaths right there and then.
Unfortunately, Duterte’s remark about Hamill will haunt him for the rest of his term. It is not surprising that members of the international community from progressive countries such as Australia were shocked by his rape remarks. Even some Filipinos were wondering why sex would enter Duterte’s mind in the middle of a violent standoff. But it could all be a bad mix of cultural nuances and foolish bravado during a testosterone-fuelled encounter.
As a woman, it is indeed hard to defend what Duterte said. But we all have to deal with the fact that he will represent the Philippines to the world and we don’t want the international community to think that Filipinos just voted a leader who has a fetish for gang rape. I do believe the international community’s impression of Duterte is wrong, which is why I am compelled to try and make sense of his remarks.
Why do I think their impressions are wrong? Because Duterte has a daughter and granddaughter of his own. He showcased them in his last campaign sortie. I don’t think he would want them to go through what the Australian missionary did. He is also tough on crime including rape. He’s even earned the nickname “The Punisher” for it.
A male friend of mine gave his own perspective on Duterte’s remarks. He said that Duterte probably meant that he thought it was a shame that such a beautiful woman was violated and that he probably wished that she could have been his girlfriend instead – that if she was his and taken care of her, she would not have ended in such a bad way. This interpretation gives Duterte’s “rape” remark a romantic light. Duterte may have wanted to say that he acted like Maximus Decimus Meridius after seeing his wife and son murdered. Of course I’m just guessing.
At the end of the day, we can only speculate on what Duterte meant because, being mutilingual, he may have been struggling to find the right words to describe how he felt at that time. And now we are struggling to find an excuse for what he said. We can only hope that the international community will stop focusing on his remark and focus on how he will deal with the hard task of fixing the problems left behind by the outgoing administration under President Benigno Simeon Aquino. After all, a lot of Filipinos from the A and B crowd voted for Duterte. They wouldn’t have picked him if he was into gang rape, you would think. In other words, the international community should trust the Filipino people’s choice for a change particularly since Duterte did not just get sympathy votes the way BS Aquino did in 2010.
The Australian political analyst did get some things right about Philippine politics. That in the last 30 years after the late Ferdinand Marcos Sr was ousted, the Philippines has been led by people from same thin ruling elite who are just taking turns running the country. Millions of people are missing out on the wealth that is being generated because only a few benefit from the country’s economic growth. Suter was correct in saying that Duterte is the result of the voters’ anger that has been brewing since Filipinos realized that BS Aquino is part of the Philippines’ problem and that he is only looking out for his own personal interests and that of his allies.
It remains to be seen if Duterte can live up to the people’s expectations. Like Suter said, he is also part of the ruling class that people have started to hate. The only difference is, he doesn’t act like one of them.
Will Duterte be able to distribute the wealth and create a bigger middle class in Philippine society? It will take drastic reforms to do that. Duterte already said that he would open the economy to foreign investors. Members of the Philippine oligarchy who own most of the businesses that provide services and products including the supply of water, electricity and Internet access have been blocking moves to allow 100 percent foreign ownership to avoid competition for years. Filipinos have to live with bad products and services due to that lack of alternatives.
Duterte is also going to push for federalism. Being from Davao, he knows that the current centralized government neglects areas that are too far from Imperial Manila. A federal form of government that divides power between a strong national government and smaller local governments could be the solution to the full development of provinces that are currently at the mercy of the national government for funding.
A lot of Filipinos are also hoping that Duterte would shift the country’s political system to a parliamentary form of government. This could mean that the tradition of choosing from the same types of bozos during elections would end since people will be choosing based on political parties and not personalities.
It would be wise for international political analysts to understand the way local politics work before they come up with negative conclusions about Filipino politicians. After all, most of them were all praises for BS Aquino when he started. They were all beholden to his name and taken by his promise to get rid of corruption only to end up as a disappointment in the end. In other words, foreign observers got it wrong before in their analysis of BS Aquino and, therefore, they could be wrong about Duterte too.