The Globe: The Punisher

A body lies at the edge of an ally in the Philippine city of Manila. The face of the body is covered with packing tape – a feature ostensibly used to dehumanize what was once a man. He is a murder victim; his death came at the hands of armed men ridding on motorcycles. Propped up next to him is a sign that serves as a warning to others like him – that is drug pushers or drug users, mostly of methamphetamine.

This sight has become common in the Philippines; there are more than 7,000 like him. Sometimes they’re in the back alleys of slums, sometimes in front of stores, and other times in front of crowds of people. The victims range from anywhere between men across the age spectrum to seventeen-year-old girls. They are the casualties of the Philippine war on drugs; unlike the exaggerated language utilized to describe the “war “on drugs waged in the United States, the war on drugs in the Philippines is just that – a war.

The fighting in this war range from local and national police, to motorcycle riding vigilantes. Both contribute large shares to the violence, although the balance tilts towards the latter. In theory, those who come to the police and admits their guilt are to be spared the fate of those who don’t, but in practice they are often killed.

The field marshal of this war is the President of the Philippines. Rodrigo Duterte, the 71-year-old former mayor of Davao, is unapologetic towards his elimination of drug users and pushers - an attitude that has led to him being labeled “The Punisher.” Duterte is in the business of drug annihilation, and business is booming.

Rodrigo Duterte is the Philippine edition of the populist wave that has consumed the contemporary era. He has often been referred to as the “Filipino Donald Trump” though admittedly, President Trump would be justifiably insulted by such a comparison. Duterte ascended to the Philippine Presidency in 2016, under the banner of the ruling center-left Philippine Democratic Party-Power of the Nation (PDP-Lapan), a party with members such as boxer and senator Manny Pacquiao.

Before ascending the throne, Duterte served as mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines; it is in his role as mayor that he began to craft is reputation. The violence that now exists in Manila was preceded by the extrajudicial killings in Davao, where human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have accused Rodrigo Duterte of involvement of over 1,400 extrajudicial killings by vigilantes under his tenure.

These groups have been dubbed the “Davao Death Squad.” Duterte’s reactions to such accusations, both then and now, are subject to change. Duterte isn’t shy about his reputation though; the Punisher wants his citizens to know the he’s the punisher. He is often the author of violent stories, including tales of him shooting someone in law school, and another story of Duterte personally executing three criminals as mayor of Davao.

This same rhetorical flare has earned him international commendation. When examining an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and murdered in 1989, then Mayor Duterte suggested that he was disappointed because “the mayor should have gone first.” The comments were an issue in the Philippine 2016 election; in an internet post, Duterte’s daughter claimed to have been raped but stilled planned on voting for her father. The comments were later dismissed by Duterte, with the President referring to his daughter as a “drama queen.” His rhetoric has also been a source of diplomatic downfall, as we shall see.

When not encouraging citizen’s militias to go after drug pushers and drug users, Duterte encourages militias to target Islamic terrorists. Far from the dusty streets of Mosul and the heights of the Tora Bora exists Jihadist groups in the jungles of the southern islands of the Philippine islands. The problem is an old one; the United States’ first encountered it more than a century ago during the Philippine insurrection. The main terrorist faction is Abu Sayyaf, an ISIS-affiliate that joined after the latter’s rise to infamy (which is common, Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram did so as well.)

US forces have been deployed to fight the insurgency there as part of the larger Operation Enduring Eagle, which also included Afghanistan – though that involvement might now have a time limit. Rodrigo Duterte has targeted the insurgency, though he has other security threats to face. The South China Sea is arguably the most dangerous Naval hotpoint in the world today, and the Philippines is a prime contender in the competition for hegemony of the dispute islands of the South China Sea.

The Philippines possess a history of action in the region, which often manifests itself by disputing with Vietnam. Duterte has stated that he ordered the raising Philippine flag over disputed islands, though he has receded that threat. With a terrorist insurgency in the southern islands, and the prospect of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, one assumes that Rodrigo Duterte prioritizes a close relationship with the United States – but one knows what is said of those that assume.

The boundaries Duterte’s rhetoric are not, limited to the confines of national interest. It seems that Duterte has gone out of his way to alienate American Presidents and diplomats. Duterte referred to President Obama as a “son of a whore” – a comment that led to a cancellation of an official visit by the former American President. Duterte has also characterized an American ambassador to the Philippine with homophobic slurs.

President Trump invited President Duterte to the White House, to which the latter initially responded by stiffing the American President. Donald Trump’s invitation to Duterte has been a source of criticism, due to Duterte’s fondness for vigilante killings. As alluded to earlier, Duterte wants to see the explosion of US forces from the Philippines. This doesn’t originate as a nationalist act of total independence. The Punisher has shown his inner meekness to the question of China, with Duterte suggesting that it would be futile to resist China. Duterte seems to be okay with the Philippine floating into the Sinosphere’s orbit.

With a history of vigilante justice and unacceptable rhetoric, one would be inclined to believe that Duterte is not liked in the nation he leads. He has an 80% approval rating. To an extent, Duterte has cultivated a cult of personality; there is even a pro-Duterte news site that refers to him as the only one who can bring the Philippines to the “promised land.” Perhaps he is popular because he appeals to the rawest, emotion-driven impulses of the human mind. Perhaps he is popular because in the end, Rodrigo Duterte is not a statesman, but rather a comic book figure. He personifies the primitive impulses that briefly occupies the mind before being extinguished by reason and civility.