It could have been Asiong Salonga swaggering into the slums; hair gelled and fists ready, providing the opening sequence for the presidency of a man named Joseph Estrada. It could have been Bong Revilla, Alyas Pogi, belly sucked in, bandanna wrapped around his head, half-naked women clinging to his pudgy arms. It could have been any one of them—Fernando Poe Jr., Robin Padilla, Lito Lapid riding in as Leon Guerrero. Roll the music, signal the extras, let the heroine scream, let the villain laugh. Enter the hero.
Only it wasn’t celluloid escapism that happened in a Davao slum this month, in spite of the multiple camera footage provided by competing networks. On July 1, Mayor Sara Duterte strode into Barangay Soliman in Davao’s Agdao district, flanked by bodyguards and administrative officers. The scene was chaos. A sheriff named Abe Andres had pushed on with demolitions even after Duterte requested for a two-hour stay in proceedings so she herself could be on the site to ensure no violence would ensue. Several residents and a policeman had already been injured.
The mayor did not hesitate; neither did she mince words. She gave the police a tongue-lashing, and ordered them to stop the demolition. She turned on the residents, and demanded they drop their weapons. This was the daughter of the notorious former mayor of Davao, the man marked as the “Punisher,” whose alleged Davao Death Squads had bled out the rabble from the populace and restored order to his fiefdom. It was the female Duterte who by the authority of her voice alone had angry residents literally at her feet, who demanded that the police behave according to procedure. And after she successfully brought about order, it was Duterte, new hero of Davao, her father’s daughter, who called for the sheriff and shot off four blows, one-two, one-two, against the man’s surprised face.
That Sara Duterte had found it fit to assault a constituent, in the presence of national media, is a commentary on the state of national morality. I use the word loosely, as morality in this country carries the uncomfortable image of Catholic priests howling excommunication at progressives who believe a woman’s uterus is her own. By morality I mean the basics of law and order, the questions of right and wrong taught to a society unwilling to live by the law of the gun. You do not steal. You do not kill. You do not take a van of journalists with the intent to bury them on a hill in Sitio Masalay, Ampatuan, Maguindanao. You do not beat your wife and say it is your right, you do not rape your daughter or murder your brother, you do not, for example, use your authority to call an unsuspecting man into your presence and use your fists to make a point—especially since the man has been properly cowed by your authority.
The Duterte incident is not a matter of local authority, as Sara and the citizens of Davao claim. It is a matter of national concern when a public official believes that she has the right to take out a metaphorical gun and punish somebody without the benefit of court or counsel. Sara Duterte’s assault was not an instance when a champion stands between right and wrong. It was an instance when an insulted ego finds itself unable to lash out. She said it herself. She was angry at the sheriff for dismissing her authority. She had asked for only two hours.
The danger is not limited to the rift Duterte has created between already tense groups. Duterte, in spite of her new role as savior of the people, herself supported the demolition, and was angry only because enforcement occurred without her presence. The residents worship her now, but they are residents who will still have to be evicted, the courts will still have to enforce, and the incident only increases the probability that blood will be shed on the day that happens. If another sheriff walks in, armed with the proper papers, who unlike Andres has the unequivocal backing of a judge, fists will fly, and it won’t just be one cop in the hospital with an arrow through his leg.
The reason power without limitation is dangerous is because no man is infallible, wherever his heart is. In 1972, another man claimed that authority. His name was Ferdinand Marcos
“I don’t care,” Duterte told media, saying that if she were cited for contempt, the local judiciary would find itself penniless.
“Say goodbye to your budget. You asked for additional fund? My God, I am having difficulty with the budget. They will cite me for contempt? I will also cite them for contempt. Starting tomorrow, no more gasoline for them, no allowance, no job order!”
It begins with this, and continues with her father’s declaration that if positions were reversed, he would have taken a gun to whoever threw the first punch. That Duterte fought for the right side does not matter, the same way Maj. Gen. Jovito Palparan’s claim his butchery of Central Luzon was a campaign for the security of the Filipino people. And yet the progressives, those who know better, those who have counted the bodies and watched the mothers weep, say this is all right. BagongAlyansangMakabayan-National Capital Region (Bayan-NCR) said in a statement that Duterte’s assault was a “rare showcase” of a local official showing concern for her constituents at her expense—forgetting that Andres himself was a constituent with rights. Neither does it help the legal profession when the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) offers its support to an erring colleague who has, for all intents and purposes, put herself above the law. Duterte, the group said, stood for the rights of the “poor and powerless.”
“While we must of course follow the ‘rule of law’, this is subsidiary to social and compassionate justice, equity and humanitarian considerations,” NUPL secretary general Edre Olalia said.
Assault is not humanitarian, it is assault no matter who throws the punch. And yet the divide in national sympathy may not have occurred if Duterte were a man who punched a woman, or if Duterte herself had punched a mother who ignored her authority by refusing to be evicted.
It is rare that situations are this clear-cut. It is not, as Etta Rosales of the Commission on Human Rights says, a moment with “traces of human rights violations.” Neither is it reasonable for Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo to say he “understands” Duterte. What is necessary is for the government to demand both apology and restitution, to draw its own line two years after another government allowed a yellow backhoe to rip through it. It is a case when democracy fell before one woman’s temper. Now Rody Duterte defends his daughter, and says he would have done worse. Now Sarah Duterte counts her crowd of supporters, and refuses to apologize.
This is the story. Sara Duterte was insulted. She swung out her fist, and beat up the man who made the mistake of insulting Rudy Duterte’s daughter. All over the country, other men are making other mistakes, and Sara Duterte says this is what should be done.
Cue the credits. The villain is laughing. The hero is dead.