Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte may have received international criticism for his remarks about Barack Obama, but one suspects it probably didn’t bother him overmuch.
After all, Obama isn’t the first global icon Duterte has called a ‘w***re’. He used the same language to describe the Pope, who had committed the heinous crime of delaying his trip to a shopping mall.
Anyone concerned about negative publicity probably wouldn’t have slurred the most famous man in the world, especially someone running a deeply Christian country. But then they probably wouldn’t have joked about a fatal rape either. And they certainly wouldn’t have launched a bloody drugs crackdown in their backyard which has led to hundreds of deaths and accusations of gross human rights violations.
But Duterte seems unreprentant. In fact, given his previous track record, the outburst was wholly in-character.
Duterte’s rise to notoriety began long before he became Philippines president at the end of June. When he’d talked about Jacqueline Hamill, an Australian minister who’d been raped and murdered in 1989, Duterte had said he himself “should have been first” to have sexual relations with her.
The Pope, meanwhile, had incurred his ire for drawing huge amounts of traffic to the Philippines and delaying a much-needed shopping trip. There’d even been talk of mediating the stand-off between China and Japan over the South China Sea – by driving a speedboat through the disputed stretch of water and planting a Filipino flag on one of its islands.
Since then, though, Duterte’s reputation has darkened. He was always politically incorrect, occasionally offensive – but now he is associated with violence and brutality.
Duterte campaigned for the Filipino presidency on an anti-corruption ticket. He pitched himself as the antithesis of, and the antidote to, predecessor Benigno Aquino, whose reign had been characterised by meteoric growth but also a concomitant rise in corruption, and widespread concerns over drug crime.
Duterte immediately set about stamping out this problem. Police officers were told to conduct house-to-house searches. Allegations arose of summary public executions, of bodies being dumped in bags with notes reading ‘don’t follow this person, he’s a criminal.’ Due process, many suggested, had been thrown out of the window.
Just over two months into his presidency, it is estimated that over 2,000 people have died under Duterte – including hundreds mown down by vigilantes. Little wonder people have started calling him ‘Duterte Harry’.
The president, for his part, seems not for turning. A meeting with the United Nations was called off after the organisation criticised the new Filipino government. Threats have been made to ride roughshod over the legislature and invoke martial law. Duterte was even quoted by TIME magazine as saying “I don’t care about human rights.”
There have been some tangible benefits. Indeed over 600 people have already turned themselves in to police, a notable achievement given how furtive and deeply entrenched the drug sub-culture had been before.
Yet one suspects that, even if Duterte succeeds in cleaning up his Philippines, it will always be overshadowed by the dirty words emerging from his mouth – and the equally dirty images emerging from the country’s blood-stained street.