It’s All Fun and Games, Until Someone Unleashes Death Squads

Anyone wondering how the bare-knuckle populism of Donald Trump’s campaign would translate to office should take a look at the Philippines.

Foreign Policy

SEPT 15, 2016

Listening to Donald Trump’s outlandish pronouncements, it’s all too easy to think: “He’ll never do that once in office. He’ll be restrained by wise advisors and act much more thoughtfully as president than he does as a presidential candidate.” Maybe so, but recent events in the Philippines demonstrate the dangers of voting into office an ignorant demagogue with a big mouth.

The new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte, caught the attention of Americans recently by referring to President Barack Obama as the “son of a whore,” but, in the greater context, that is the least of his sins. There is a reason he is being called “Duterte Harry” and the “Trump of the Philippines” — and those monikers are not intended as compliments. Duterte is showing just what bare-knuckle populism looks like in action, and it’s not a pretty picture.

A few lowlights:

1) Taking advantage of the Philippine people’s understandable concern about a high crime rate, Duterte has unleashed a wave of violence against anyone suspected of being a criminal. During his campaign, he promised to kill so many outlaws that the “fish will grow fat” in Manila Bay from feasting on the remains. So far, more than 1,800 people have been killed by police and vigilantes since he came into office. No trial, no evidence: just death. Human-rights advocates are aghast, and understandably so. (It was in reaction to a journalist’s question about what he would say to Obama if the American president criticized his human-rights record that Duterte uttered his witty “son of a whore” comeback.)

Horrifying cases of misconduct are coming to light — for example, the execution of two impoverished Manila residents, Renato and Jaypee Bertes, a father and son who worked odd jobs and smoked shabu, a cheap form of methamphetamine. They were arrested by police, beaten, and shot to death. “The police said the two had tried to escape by seizing an officer’s gun,” the New York Times reported. “But a forensic examination found that the men had been incapacitated by the beatings before they were shot; Jaypee Bertes had a broken right arm.”

And just this week a self-confessed assassin testified before the Philippine Senate that he was a member of a death squad that Duterte, when he was mayor of Davao, used to kill not only “drug dealers, rapists, [purse] snatchers” but also political opponents. Some of the victims were allegedly disemboweled and dumped at sea; at least one was fed to crocodiles. In the past, Duterte has both admitted and denied running a death squad.

2) Duterte publicly accused scores of Philippine officials and military officers of involvement in the drug trade without revealing any evidence. He gave them 24 hours to surrender or be “hunted down.”

“Due process has nothing to do with my mouth,” he said. “There are no proceedings here, no lawyers.”

3) Duterte has justified the killing of journalists by saying, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.”

4) Duterte has announced plans to move the remains of Ferdinand Marcos, the country’s late dictator, to the Cemetery of Heroes, despite copious evidence that Marcos was guilty of egregious misconduct while in office and that he had faked his World War II service record. The move to enshrine this brutal and corrupt ruler has triggered protests from many Filipinos, including victims of torture and imprisonment during the Marcos era. A close friend of the late dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Duterte has often expressed admiration for Marcos senior, calling him “the brightest among the past presidents.” Many believe that Duterte hopes to emulate Marcos, who also took power vowing to crack down on crime.

5) Duterte has called for the United States to remove its remaining Special Forces from the southern Philippines, where they have been training the Philippine armed forces in the battle against Islamist terrorists. He has said the Philippine navy will no longer cooperate with the U.S. Navy in joint patrols in the South China Sea. In other words, he will make no attempt to enforce the judgment of an international tribunal in The Hague, in a case brought by the Philippines, that China is illegally claiming sovereignty over waters that are in the Philippines’s exclusive economic zone. This comes less than two months after Duterte claimed he would ride a jet ski to plant the Philippine flag on the Spratly Islands. He now appears intent on appeasing China, which represents the biggest security threat to his country, while turning his back on the United States, the Philippines’s oldest ally. “I do not like the Americans,” he has admitted.

In a stunning strategic reversal, Duterte says he will seek arms from China and Russia, rather than from the United States, thus turning his back on one of the major sources of funding for the threadbare Philippine military. According to the Rand Corp., the United States provided $441 million in security funding to the Philippines from 2002 to 2013. That security relationship has benefited both countries, but whether it will continue under Duterte is at least an open question.

6) Duterte has demanded that the United States apologize for the Bud Dajo “massacre” in 1906, which his spokesman has ludicrously likened to the Holocaust.

The Battle of Bud Dajo was part of the larger American war against Moro extremists, as Philippine Muslims were then known. Hundreds of Moros, including women and children, died in this extinct volcano. Whether U.S. forces were guilty of war crimes remains a subject of dispute. Gen. Leonard Wood, the U.S. commander, claimedthat the Moros fanatically resisted his troops, that even women fought, and that children were used as human shields. Even if U.S. troops massacred the Moros, it is pretty rich for Duterte to demand an apology for an extra-judicial killing carried out more than a century ago while he is carrying out a rampage of extra-judicial killings of his own.

Duterte also refuses to acknowledge that, by the standards of the day, American colonial rule was fairly benign. Manual Quezon, who had fought against the Americans before becoming president of the Philippine Commonwealth in 1935, famously complained of the difficulty of rousing a nationalist revolt against U.S. rule: “Damn the Americans! Why don’t they tyrannize us more?” If Duterte is going to demand that the United States apologize for a century-old massacre, will he thank the United States for vastly improving education, transportation, sanitation, and other services in the Philippines — and for liberating that country from Japanese occupation?

Duterte’s presidency is a tragedy for the long-suffering people of the Philippines. A nation of hardworking English-speakers that was one of the first democracies in Asia, thanks to America’s liberal imperialism, should be doing far better economically than it is. (Per capita GDP, $2,886, is lower than Swaziland and Guatemala.) There are many reasons for its deficiencies, but a big part of the explanation lies in terrible leadership.

In the postwar era, the Philippines has had only one great leader — Ramon Magsaysay, who tragically died in an airplane crash in 1957. For the most part, the archipelago has been ruled by corrupt and abusive presidents, the worst being Marcos, who was in office from 1965 to 1986. Of the last three presidents, two — Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo — were accused of corruption. Estrada was impeached, ousted from office in “people power” demonstrations, and sentenced to life in prison before being pardoned by Arroyo, his former vice president. After leaving office, Arroyo had been under detention in a Manila hospital since 2012 before finally having the charges against her thrown out by the Philippine Supreme Court in July. The reformist and relatively honest presidency of Benigno Aquino III, Arroyo’s successor, was a welcome exception to this trend, but now the Philippines is worse off than ever under Duterte’s erratic and violent rule.

The fate of the Philippines should make us realize how high the stakes are in our own election. America may seem far more stable than the Philippines, and it is, but we would be in for profound and disturbing changes if we elect the Rodrigo Duterte of America. Donald Trump is a demagogue who shares Duterte’s vulgarity, his ignorance, his admiration of dictators, his contempt for liberal democratic norms, and his tendency to flip-flop on the issues.

But Trump has much grander aspirations. Duterte is in charge of a poor country with scarcely any military power. Although Duterte can damage the efforts of China’s neighbors to contain Beijing’s expansionism, most of the harm he is inflicting is on his own citizens. If Trump were to win the presidency, by contrast, he would be in charge of the most powerful nation in the world, with thousands of nuclear weapons at his command. He needs to be taken seriously when he threatens, inter alia, to rip up free-trade agreements, impose costly tariffs, build a wall on the Mexico border, deport 11 million undocumented immigrants, abandon NATO, pull U.S. troops out of countries such as South Korea and Japan, recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea, and generally turn his back on decades of American international leadership. The example of rowdy “Rody” Duterte — along with countless others, from Juan Perón to Benito Mussolini —suggests that demagogues have a disturbing tendency to act in office much as they said they would do on the campaign trail, no matter how unhinged their ideas may appear to rational observers.