New York Times

What do those of us in the United States really know about the president of the Philippines?

May 4, 2017 – By Thom Haines

I know nothing; I suspect a few things. I suspect that the U.S. media is not telling the whole story about Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. I suspect that the United States is much more concerned about Duterte’s willingness to stand up to U.S. hegemony for the sake of his own people than it is about the alleged human rights abuses in the Philippine drug war. I’m not Duterte’s guy. I know nothing. I have been observing, however, that voices from the Philippines have quite a different view of their new president that what we are seeing in the U.S. media.

An April 30, 2017, New York Times article by Mark Landler methodically beats the drum we see in most U.S. portrayals of Duterte. Landler barely disguises his shock that Duterte has been invited to the White House. The only piece of substance offered about Duterte is that he is “an authoritarian leader accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in the Philippines.” The article goes on to say that Duterte’s “toxic reputation” might be grounds for denying him a visa to make his visit to the White House were he not a head of state.

I do not pretend to understand Duterte’s “drug war”; troubling accounts from respected news outlets like The Guardian, and searing critiques from trusted organizations like Amnesty International deserve close attention. That said, many in the Philippines seem to see the drug war as one piece of a complicated puzzle, rather than an issue that defines Duterte.

Cheryl Daytec is an attorney currently serving in Duterte’s Department of Justice as the Assistant Secretary of Justice, her first government appointment. Previously she was a human rights lawyer for 16 years. On Saturday, April 28, Daytec gave the commencement address, titled “A Call for a Militant Christian Ministry,” at Union Theological Seminary in the Manila metropolitan area of the Philippines.

As she put it in her address, “I went to communities, I held the hands of battered women, raped women, girls, and babies, political dissidents, the homeless, ambulant vendors, indigenous peoples, persons with disability, laborers, the LGBT community, and other marginalized sectors. I fought for environmental justice.”

Here’s what Daytec says about her boss:

“Pres. Duterte has the biggest heart for the poor among all people who became President of this country. Of course, he also has the biggest dirty, foul, uncouth mouth among them all. We hear a lot about the heaven-shaking, hell-raising statements he makes in public speeches. Frankly when he gives long speeches, I keep hoping he will not say something that will make people cringe. There is no contest that the mouth of this President is unprecedented in the history of Philippine leaders, except for Gen. Antonio Luna who was said to liberally insert expletives in his speeches. But the President has bias for the poor.

“Let us all pray that he will stop liberally spewing expletives as we continually pray that he will always remain on the side of the poor, the pariah class that the oligarchy in the current capitalist system wants to maintain to continue its supremacy. Some people may find it difficult to reconcile our strong commitment to human rights with our support for Pres. Duterte. But this support is coming from the places of poverty and wretchedness where we have been to in our human rights advocacy. It is a breath of fresh air to have a President who understands that the root cause of poverty in this country is the unequal distribution of wealth perpetuated by an unjust system that favors the rich over the poor. It is inspiring to work under a President who always stresses that we have to put the poor first, who recognizes that the poor have the right to food, the right to jobs, the right to land, the right to security in times of disaster, the right to security in times of old age, the right to housing.

“Only a President who loves the poor would appoint to the social welfare agencies in his Cabinet people who truly care for peasants, the environment, the poor and needy, the indigenous peoples, and other marginalized groups, despite the opposition of a Congress dominated by the oligarchy.”

Things are complicated in the Philippines. Many in the church in the Philippines have vigorously condemned extrajudicial killings while also continuing to generally support Duterte, a nuance very much passed over by New York Times.

I know nothing, but when I consider the positions of people I trust who live this every day, there seems to be more to the Philippines and its new president than a drug war. Where’s the truth? You tell me.

Haines at UTS

The author on a visit to Union Theological Seminary in the Philippines in August, 2016.

Thom Haines is an Assistant County Attorney in Minnesota, where he serves on the Minnesota State Bar Association Data Practices Committee and is active in his AFSCME union. He is a member of the Mayflower United Church of Christ (Minneapolis) Global Justice Advocacy Team, the UCC Minnesota Conference Global Partnerships Team, and G Project, a 501(c)(3) supporting human rights story-telling in Guatemala. He recently finished eight years on the board of Global Ministries (UCC and the Disciples of Christ), a Union Theological Seminary partner.