A hard-hitting biography of Duterte
At a writers’ event held in Hong Kong’s Foreign Correspondents Club on
Nov. 5, journalist Jonathan Miller talked about his book “Duterte Harry.” Asked if he’d also launch his book in the Philippines, he said yes, but one doubts if he’ll be invited by anyone. No Manila bookshops seem to carry the book openly; certainly none do in Cebu where I live, and for sure none would in Davao. Folks like myself who have copies obtained them from abroad.
Miller’s hard-hitting, meticulously researched biography of President Duterte owes its title to the fact that the President said he enjoyed Clint Eastwood’s violent “Dirty Harry” films. Miller could be accused of detesting the subject of his book and of lacking objectivity, but it’s easy to see how one can loathe a man with a one-track mind and a mouth like a sewer, a leader who’s been dismantling his country’s liberal constitution since his election.
I myself took an instant dislike when the boorish new President gave a speech in Davao and was asked about the state of his health by an Inquirer reporter. As though this were not a valid query, Mr. Duterte flew into a rage and demanded to know the state of the reporter’s wife’s vagina.
Miller says Duterte revels in the coverage of his “bugoy” (hoodlum) style, claiming to have grown up in poverty when in fact he belongs to a wealthy political family. Describing the Philippines as “an incredibly unequal society,” Miller quotes Duterte’s old political rival Prospero Nograles, who describes Duterte as the embodiment of “l’etat c’est moi.” Indeed, the President rules the nation as his personal fiefdom. Nograles said Duterte’s time as Davao mayor wasn’t known for his infrastructure projects, but for his violent death squads that dealt with crime and drug addiction in Davao. “That’s what he brought to Manila and (became) his signature policy.”
Miller states: “Dictators have emerged through history from different corners of the world. It’s a blemish of humankind. It’s not any one particular race, it’s a character-driven form of nastiness which one sees in everyone from Hitler to Idi Amin… populist authoritarians like Trump, Erdogan, Modi or Xi Jinping. They fuel their electorates’ fears with the policy of anxiety and dread, targeting a particular trait of society.” Duterte’s narcissistic trait, he says, “is not a Filipino trait.”
In an earlier interview, Miller said he didn’t paint a picture in his book of a banana republic. “The Philippines is Asia’s oldest democracy… which has had centuries of colonial misery under Spanish priests and then the Americans for 50 years before independence… and rummaged by the Japanese very cruelly. A terribly sad and violent history.”
He says, “The Philippines has a sophisticated, educated society. I met some of the finest journalists and politicians I’ve ever met in any of my reporting anywhere… Duterte has subverted and attacked the core democratic institutions which makes… a sophisticated society. He’s attacked the judiciary, he owns Congress and the military, he owns the police and turned them into a killing machine. He’s jailed his critics… attacked the media, anybody who attacks him. These are the pillars of democracy (which he’s undermined).”
Miller was struck by what political analyst Walden Bello said about Duterte “being the fascist original, authoritarian, anti-democratic force who wants power… he’s proved that he can manipulate democratic politics like he did as mayor of Davao for 22 years and retained the governance of that city within his family.”
Miller doubts Duterte will give up power any time soon. “I think he wants to see what vultures start circling and who’s after the top job… having fired the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, he’ll find a way to subvert the judiciary to the point that he can amend the Constitution at will and change it to his advantage.”
He cites the people who were his sources, including whistleblowers Edgar Matobato and Arturo Lascañas, but says he can’t name others, feeling “scared for their safety.”
There’s good reason to be scared. The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 45 journalists have been killed worldwide so far in 2018, including Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi.
Though Mr. Duterte has bestowed on Miller his usual “p—na mo” label (thinking him an American), Jonathan Miller, who’s British, may not be afraid of going to the Philippines to talk about his book. But chances are that anyone wishing to invite him would be too scared to host him.
Isabel Escoda has been writing for the Inquirer since the 1980s.