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Understanding the "Duterte Phenomenon" in the Philippines, with John Gershman

April 30, 2018

President Duterte delivers his first State of the Nation Address, July, 2016, Batasang Pambansa, Quezon City, Philippines.
CREDIT: Presidential Communications Operations Office

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I am speaking with John Gershman. He is a professor at New York University (NYU) here in New York City. He is also an active member of the New York Southeast Asia Network as well as the Association for Asian Studies.

John, great to see you again.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Great to see you again, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: Some of these Southeast Asian-themed podcasts are made somewhat possible by our connection with the New York Southeast Asia Network, so we'd like to thank that group for introducing us to many great people, including you, John.

There was recently, to my understanding, a meeting of the Association for Asian Studies. What was your impression of that meeting, particularly in regard to the Philippines and Duterte?

JOHN GERSHMAN: The Association for Asian Studies, for those who may not know, is kind of the trade association of academics and some policy people who study Asia and U.S.-Asian relations.

The New York Southeast Asia Network sponsored a panel. It was one among several panels focused on Southeast Asia that were asking the broad question about the democratic regress in Southeast Asia, democracy, authoritarianism, populism, and illiberalism. Many of them were comparative, looking at several countries in Southeast Asia, and within that, various efforts to make sense of the Duterte phenomenon: How did we understand him? How was he similar or different to other kinds of anti-liberal, anti-democratic movements or trends within Southeast Asia?

DEVIN STEWART: What do you think is the fairest comparison out there to Duterte?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I still think the comparison with Trump is unfair, with the exception of rhetoric, only because Duterte came to the presidency as someone who had a history in public service and knew how to run a government and so forth. I think I would relate him in some ways more to the anti-democratic populist movements of, say, Eastern Europe, so authoritarian, a very heavy morality dimension to his vision of nationalism, with a focus on things like drugs, very nationalistic, and with a healthy dose of misogyny in his rhetoric. I would align him some of, at least the clearest—

DEVIN STEWART: For example?

JOHN GERSHMAN: The recent victor in Hungary and a number of other, even if unsuccessful, the rise of right groups within Eastern Europe. I think they would be the closest.

DEVIN STEWART: Viktor Orbán?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Viktor Orbán. There are certainly other populists in Southeast Asia, but he is not really a populist in the mode that at least Jokowi was initially in Indonesia. It has some elements of similarity to Thaksin in Thailand but again not exactly like him as well. In a moment of very inexact analogies, I think that would be the closest alignment.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say "trying to understand the phenomenon of Duterte," what does that mean? Were there any understandings that you took away from the meeting?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I think there were several elements. One group is very much focused on the drug war and trying to understand the phenomenon of the drug war where a president who at one level is being entirely true to his promises—he promised this when he was running for election, and he has brought it, and he demonstrated as mayor of Davao that he was fully capable of supervising the mass slaughter of people in the name of a war on crime or a war on drugs.

I think what people are trying to understand is the lack of him apparently paying any significant price politically in this and his continued high-level popularity ratings. I think that is one aspect of the Duterte phenomenon.

DEVIN STEWART: Was there an answer to that?

JOHN GERSHMAN: There was no particular answer other than I think two things: One, people would say that we are probably underestimating the role of fear, that there is opposition but that people, justifiably, are fearful to come out in the open.

Some of the organizations that have traditionally been vehicles for expressing opposition—for example, the Communist Party and allied groups—were originally part of the Duterte administration, and they were relatively quiet at the period when killings began. The hierarchy of the church had been not as robustly—there were a couple of denominations, the Redemptorists in particular, who were out in front just as they had been during the Marcos and Cory Aquino periods in response for their defense of human rights violations, but the church itself clearly does not occupy the same esteem or legitimacy that it did, say, in the 1980s and 1990s that it does now, and was certainly not playing as proactive a role.

The other folks who were out there in front were journalists who were chronicling this. It is a very dangerous place, combined with the fact that the Duterte administration has run arguably the most successful fake news campaign that we have seen and has actively used social media as a means to bully and intimidate its opposition in a way that we certainly haven't seen previously in the Philippines.

DEVIN STEWART: When you say they're fearful—these opposing forces, people who oppose Duterte—and it's dangerous, can you give some detail to that? What is the threat exactly?

JOHN GERSHMAN: If we step back and put in context the latest count just in the deaths on the drug war, the official figures are 4,000. That is what the police have released. That would be a very bottom-line, conservative estimate. The most recent estimate released was 20,000, and the main distinction there is what to do with a number of homicides that the police refuse to categorize as related to drugs.

That is about 20,000 deaths right there, something far beyond a scale that we ever saw in terms of extrajudicial killings during the Marcos period. This is just a really unprecedented kind of response even though that included, for example, the murder of a Korean businessman on the grounds of the national police headquarters itself. There was some political pushback, and Duterte put a pause on the drug war for the last couple of months of 2017, but now things are back in gear in general.

DEVIN STEWART: What was the story with the Korean businessperson?

JOHN GERSHMAN: It seems like it was basically an attempted kidnap for ransom that went wrong. The police involved are being prosecuted.

DEVIN STEWART: Who were the kidnappers?

JOHN GERSHMAN: They were police. They had originally taken him for accusations of being involved in the drug trade and so forth but then attempted to ransom him from his family.

I think we're going to talk about this later, but there is a recent Netflix series called Amo that dramatizes this.

DEVIN STEWART: Amo. It means "Boss," I think.

JOHN GERSHMAN: They dramatize that in the TV show. It's a Japanese businessman rather than a Korean.

DEVIN STEWART: Oh, wow.

JOHN GERSHMAN: They incorporate that into the story line.

DEVIN STEWART: Let's get to that in a second. That series sounds fascinating, and I want to watch it as soon as possible.

What are some of the other takeaways from the meeting on the Philippines?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I think the level of violence is incredibly high. Initially part of the left was basically part of the Duterte coalition, and another part of the left was hopeful that there were going to be some positive economic policies. At least initially those were seen as borne out, and so people were supportive in that vein.

Duterte had friendships and appointed some people from across the progressive spectrum and allied with the Communist Party in his administrations, so again the traditional mechanisms for dissent and opposition were not there. The church, as I said, was not necessarily there. It was really left to journalists, and journalism is a dangerous business even in the best of times in the Philippines, and journalists are often targeted by local political elites who opposed investigations of their corruption and so forth, so we have had to rely on journalists being able to tell these stories.

Fortunately, that was acknowledged at the Pulitzers, where one of the awards went to the Reuters group that has been covering the drug war in the Philippines, both reporting and photography. I think that was a reflection not only just of the quality of that work but that journalists are telling that story.

The last aspect has been the social media dimension of this and the kind of harassment and active orchestrating. This was something that we saw even during the campaign, that Duterte used social media unlike any previous presidential campaign had used it, and that his allies are using it during the governing period in the same way to try to silence dissent.

The most recent example we've seen about this effort to link the drug war and politics, for example, there will be the most local elections—the barangay elections—in the Philippines will be coming up in May, and the administration released a list of local officials who are alleged to be involved in the drug trade.

DEVIN STEWART: Several hundred, right?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Several hundred. They had done this previously. Early on in the administration he released a list of political officials who were alleged to be part of the drug trade.

DEVIN STEWART: So-called "narco list."

JOHN GERSHMAN: The narco lists. He is telling people: "Use this as a negative list. Don't support people who are on this list for the elections." Again, this is a process of conviction without due process.

DEVIN STEWART: What is he implying with this list? Is he saying that these officials are drug sellers or users? What is the implication?

JOHN GERSHMAN: They are never so specific as to actually say that there is a name associated with an explicit charge. This is much more like indictment by damnation. The basic idea is that allegedly these are people who are either directly involved in the drug trade as dealers or so forth, or are beneficiaries of corruption from drug dealers so that they are recipients of payoffs, that they are in the pay of drug lords.

DEVIN STEWART: So, incredibly loose.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Incredibly loose.

This happened, and the state of fear was relatively high when the first edition of the list came out that many people reported themselves to the police because they were afraid of being targeted in the war because if your name goes on the list, then you're worried that this means it's okay for you to be targeted for assassination. So in addition to the potentially 20,000 people who have been killed, which is almost certainly a more accurate number than the 4,000—Human Rights Watch came in at about [12,000]—is that there are tens of thousands of people who have been incarcerated and are in prison as a result of this.

You have this convergence of using the war on drugs as a social-cleansing/morality operation, and you have it as a means of going after your political opponents because there is no provision of any data or information, it is just naming these people, and in the current context putting people on a list like that is basically giving them a death threat.

DEVIN STEWART: Duterte can do this with impunity.

JOHN GERSHMAN: He can totally do this with impunity.

DEVIN STEWART: Is it legal?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I don't know anyone who has specifically challenged the formal legality of him issuing such a statement. If you look at most of the legal commentary by people in the Philippines, they will say this is a violation of due process to basically pronounce someone guilty of a crime without going through any of the process, but I'm not aware of anyone who has specifically tried to bring them up on charges.

Ironically, some of the institutions that are key defender of things have been the military, who have tried—so far successfully—to stay out of the drug war and to not be part of that process.

The other side of this, of course, is that Duterte after the Marawi siege of last year declared martial law in Mindanao, which continues to exist. He had occasionally considered expanding martial law beyond Mindanao, and the military actually pushed back on him, saying that there was no reason for doing that and so forth.

I think it is a mix of this authoritarianism with this kind of moral panic approach to social cleansing.

DEVIN STEWART: So, authoritarian, illiberal populist.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Yes, totally.

DEVIN STEWART: Can we elaborate on that a little bit? The last time you and I spoke about Duterte and the Philippines was 2016. A lot has happened in the past two years.

If you could look at what has happened in the past two years, given everything you've just told me and the insights from your colleagues in the Association for Asian Studies, what is the Philippines becoming? Are there historical examples that you could point to, whether they're alarming or not? Is this a type of fascism?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Walden Bello, for example, who is a former congressman and a scholar and a Filipino, has written about Duterte as a fascist and written about the rise of fascism. That's why I think one of the closest analogies to Duterte is the right-wing European and Eastern European populists because I do think that there is—one of the thing that most of those have that Duterte lacks is the religious dimension, which is often very common in the East European nativist kind of populists, which he does not have. He is very dismissive of religion in general, or at least organized religion.

I think it is very much an element of this fascistic nature. It is a focus on the supreme leader so to speak, and he is not really concerned about ideological consistency in any kind of substantial sense. It's not like he has an ideological program. That would distinguish him from, say, a Nazi fascistic approach. So that is not particularly an element of it.

He has close ties to businesses. Several business groups supported his candidacy. He has pursued generally policies that have been relatively good for business. In the last couple of months, the Philippine stock market hasn't done so well.

I think he has a cavalier—one of the most recent issues that has emerged is a dust-up with Kuwait over the body of a Philippine domestic worker who was found in her employer's freezer. The Philippine ambassador from Kuwait was expelled out of accusations that they were attempting to rescue some abused Filipino domestics, and now Duterte has called for a halt on all future overseas Filipino workers to go to Kuwait and is calling for the ones who are there to come home.

It is not clear to me that this is the most effective way to actually advance the interests of overseas Filipino workers in Kuwait. So again, this is not really a clear sign of a coherent ideological approach to development.

DEVIN STEWART: What about the expulsion of the nun from the Philippines?

JOHN GERSHMAN: He is going after dissidents or opposition who he feels are inappropriate, so if he can expel you for engaging in political—

DEVIN STEWART: So he just disagrees with her?

JOHN GERSHMAN: He just disagrees with her.

DEVIN STEWART: "Get rid of all the opposition."

JOHN GERSHMAN: Right. It's about exterminating the opposition, exterminating in some cases—

DEVIN STEWART: One way or another.

JOHN GERSHMAN: One way or another, the social media side of bullying and silencing, and then just getting rid of them.

DEVIN STEWART: You mentioned that Duterte is close with businesses. He is maybe not a socialist. What do you make of his economic and social programs?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Even when he was mayor of Davao part of the idea of controlling crime was to create a better business climate in Davao.

DEVIN STEWART: What does that mean to him?

JOHN GERSHMAN: It means an active role for the private sector. There have never been serious proven accusations of his own personal corruption or enrichment, I think one of the things that probably distinguishes him from other traditional elite Filipino candidates. If he is corrupt, he is not seen as a massively corrupt traditional politician.

He was seen as pursuing a range of policies in Davao as mayor such as an anti-smoking policy, which was not particularly popular, but he has a dimension of public health commitments. He always articulated himself as in support of the goals of the Communist Party in terms of more equality and better social development but opposed to their means for achieving that.

He has tried to pursue a number of tax reforms and other things that are broadly supportive of more broad-based growth within the Philippines and so forth and certainly has not pursued policies—and certainly the drug war has not impinged on the interests of the business community in any substantial sense. When I was there last May, you go to the malls and you go places, and life is kind of going on in middle, upper-middle class society.

DEVIN STEWART: Manila is rapidly developing.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Right. So there is a lot of investment. He has recognized that one of the Philippines' key obstacles is historic under-investment in infrastructure, or more accurately ensuring that the investments that go into infrastructure actually build the infrastructure as opposed to lining the developers' pockets.

DEVIN STEWART: So, fighting corruption.

JOHN GERSHMAN: He is opposed to corruption in that sense.

That has not been a primary target of his presidency. We haven't seen large efforts at going after corrupt officials or anything like that in a wholesale—

DEVIN STEWART: Like in China.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Yes.

If you had to identify him in a political spectrum, he would be a middle-of-the-road or right-wing social democrat, somewhere in that space, so market-based growth with redistribution, has some—

DEVIN STEWART: Social safety net?

JOHN GERSHMAN: —social safety net, has some concerns around things like smoking.

He also has some interesting environmental concerns. He originally had appointed a very aggressive environmental minister, Gina Lopez, who mandated a halt, basically, to the granting of mining licenses and so forth. But when her appointment was not approved by the commission on appointments, he didn't really fight for her, he didn't expend any political capital to defend her.

He most recently declared a six-month moratorium on tourism in Boracay in the Central Philippines, which is one of its most popular tourist destinations, because development there has overrun the sanitation infrastructure. He was evidently so outraged that he has basically declared martial law in Boracay and halted six months of tourism until things are supposedly brought under control.

DEVIN STEWART: Under control in what sense?

JOHN GERSHMAN: They are supposed to be bringing infrastructure up to code and so on and so forth. Whether they can do that in six months is a little surprising. So he has a weird combination of these kinds of things.

Certainly Boracay, the business community was not overwhelmingly positive about that. We'll see if it actually is implemented to its utmost.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, John. Maybe we could end with this Netflix series, Amo. What did you learn from watching that documentary?

JOHN GERSHMAN: This has received a mixed reception in the Philippines. It is done by an independent director in the Philippines who is known for being supportive of Duterte.

DEVIN STEWART: His first name is Brillante.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Right. Brillante.

DEVIN STEWART: He is close with Duterte?

JOHN GERSHMAN: He is close with Duterte. It is not presented as a documentary, it is presented as a dramatization of the contemporary war. There are certain things that are clearly ripped from the headlines of the Philippines experience like this episode with kidnapping the Japanese businessman who is the stand-in for the Korean businessman.

While it certainly shows corruption amongst the police and it shows that police officers themselves are doing the extrajudicial executions, it is as if the police exist in a zone totally unto themselves. There is no sense that there is a broader structure that is endorsing, incentivizing, whatever. In some sense it is a kind of tragic soap opera, a tragic telenovela of the lives of poor households struggling to survive and the people who—corrupt police officials—get caught up in situations that run out of their control.

DEVIN STEWART: Is it sort of explaining the drug war?

JOHN GERSHMAN: No. A bunch of the criticism—which I would share—is that it doesn't really account for the drug war. The drug war just becomes this kind of dramatic narrative around which you have some character studies of people who are caught in difficult situations and how they do.

It is bloody, they do show people getting executed, and they don't pretend that it's not the police. For example—I don't want to give away too many spoilers—they don't pretend that the police themselves are not engaged in corrupt activity.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like it could be a defense of Duterte.

JOHN GERSHMAN: My reading is that the police in this do not come across as warriors of morality. These are not the people doing the moral cleansing of society. It is not somebody who is a vigilante in the name of a greater good. These are people who are doing things that are caught up entirely in their own kind of mixture of peer pressure and the kind of patron-client relationships that exist within communities and families and workplaces and so forth.

At the end of it, the tragedy—in my reading of it—that it presents is that the drug war is tragic because of these small-scale human tragedies but not because there is a broader force out there that is effectively endorsing this, that these tragedies would not exist without the wholesale endorsement from—so you would never hear, "The president has opened the floodgates and we're kind of game to do this." It is done at this very micro level. There are no real heroes in any particular sense.

DEVIN STEWART: So it's amoral?

JOHN GERSHMAN: So I don't see it as a defense.

DEVIN STEWART: What's the point?

JOHN GERSHMAN: According to the director, he is just trying to tell it like it is: "This is what the drug war is."

To the extent that it is a bloody and tragic phenomenon, I think, sure. He doesn't deny people plenty of gory visuals and the sense of terror that people feel when police break into their house and so forth and that the police are enmeshed in corrupt activities. He doesn't present the police as this perfect group of officers.

At the same time, there is no sense of the broader structural endorsement of this as an actual policy of government. It just seems to be like the actions of these particular groups of players disembodied, without broader political and economic forces.

DEVIN STEWART: This might be off-base—I haven't seen the series, I will probably very soon—it reminds me of this phenomenon among some of the strongmen leaders around the world of associating themselves with gangsta rap. There was this effort to put together a whole bunch of tweets by Trump, and they turned it into a rap video.

JOHN GERSHMAN: I haven't seen it.

DEVIN STEWART: Ian Bremmer has done the same thing with Kim Jong-un, for example.

I'm just wondering, is there maybe an affinity of being a tough, gunslinging gangsta. I don't know. Is that off-base?

JOHN GERSHMAN: The funny thing is that—one of the continuous themes throughout the series is a kind of a Greek chorus of rappers who punctuate the series at various points to highlight particular issues and themes.

DEVIN STEWART: In which language?

JOHN GERSHMAN: In Tagalog. It's subtitled for people who don't speak [the language].

I'm not an aficionado, but cinematographically it's very cinéma vérité style. It also gives you some reasonably accurate insights into kind of what the slums of the Philippines are like.

But back to your question. I don't know. I'm not really sure. I do think that certainly Duterte has put a particular kind of masculinity at the center of his political agenda, and this TV series is in part very much—the female characters are relatively background, minor characters—about a playing out of competing forms of masculinity in a sense. Around the gangsta rap thing, I'm not so sure, but there is a reassertion of a particular kind of masculinity that I think is definitely an archetype.

DEVIN STEWART: This centrality of masculinity, which is I think a motif in a lot of the new populist, authoritarian, strong regimes all around the world, if the movie is conveying that spirit of strength and the nation and strongmen, why is Duterte criticizing it? What does Duterte have against the movie project?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I guess I would say although the series does focus on the men primarily, they are not always portrayed in their most heroic lights. You have police officers who end up in situations that they wouldn't necessarily have chosen to end up in. There aren't a lot of heroes. There is not a clear message that these police officers are doing their heroic nationalist duty by exterminating the drug threat to the nation.

My sense is that Brillante Mendoza's series doesn't do enough hagiography, it's not a full-throated endorsement that these people are doing "the work of the nation." So I can easily see why in that side of it Duterte does not see it as the kind of piece of agitprop that he would hope it would be, which is, "These guys are the good guys."

The Philippines has a long tradition of filmmaking and movies where you have the good guys and the bad guys. The good guy may be a gangster, but he acts to defend the small people and so forth. Former President Joseph Estrada, that was the role that he brought to film in the Philippines.

In this case, you don't really have any of that. There are no real heroes in this, and there is certainly no sense that they are doing what Duterte is claiming they're doing, which is benefiting the Filipino nation by exterminating this cancer from Philippine society by murdering people. So I'm not surprised that he doesn't see it as the full-throated endorsement that he would hope.

DEVIN STEWART: John Gershman from NYU. Great to see you again, and I hope to see you again soon.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Thanks so much, Devin.

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