Wednesday, November 13, 2013


A video of a recent news interview of Rodrigo Duterte, Davao City's maverick mayor, emotionally recounting his impressions of the chaotic situation in typhoon ravaged Tacloban City after he had led a group of Davao based rescue and aid workers who were among the first responders in Leyte is going viral on YouTube and Facebook. A single posting of that same video on Facebook (one of many posted and shared on that site) that I viewed yesterday evening had already garnered more than 8,000 likes and almost 2000 comments.

In that interview, a visibly emotionally wrought Duterte struggling to keep control of himself told reporters that in his view the state of national calamity declared by President Benigno Aquino III "was not enough" and that "there has to be a state of emergency because there is no local government functioning" in the stricken areas. "The people," he insisted, "have no electricity, no food, no water... all their dead are on the streets... the survivors are looking at the heavens.. Those that they depend on, the police, the army, and even the social workers of the government, all of them are victims, all of them are dead. Even the police and the army there are dead... God must have been somewhere else ... or that He forgot that there is a planet called Earth."

The short, grim monologue punctuated on a several instances by pungent swear words and curses in both Tagalog and Bisaya (which he was clearly trying in vain to suppress) ended with a fervent plea for help in any form or manner for all the victims of Typhoon Yolanda. "We have to help," he said. "No matter what, no matter how little."

Mayor Duterte is, of course, well known for his brash, unorthodox and iron-fisted management style as chief executive of the local government in Davao City particularly in his pet areas of crime prevention and control and the maintenance of local peace and order. He is widely credited and cited for making Davao, which used to be haven for criminals and lawlessness in the 1980's, one of the safest cities in Southeast Asia yet himself remains a favorite target for condemnations and criticisms from human rights groups like Amnesty International who have accused him of tacitly encouraging if not out-rightly supporting the extrajudicial killings of criminals and crime suspects within his jurisdiction.

In the past, Duterte has been portrayed as being not adverse or hesitant to using a tart tongue, or worse, a quick fistic blow or even a series of punches to chastise and discipline in public erring officials and constituents. He is so respected (or feared, depending on who you talk to) for his public image as a overzealous, trigger happy yet thoroughly effective crime fighter by many Filipinos in and outside of Davao that he has been given the sobriquet "The Punisher" in 2002 by Time magazine in reference to the fictional vigilante anti-hero character popularized in Marvel comic books.

It also seems that this rather pugnacious and pugilistic nature has been inherited by the members of the family political dynasty with which he has ruled Davao for decades. His daughter, Sarah Duterte-Carpio, who was mayor of the city from 2010 until 2013 was thrust into the national spotlight after punching in the head a regional trial court sheriff during an altercation in connection with the demolition of a shantytown in the city during her term.

In the case of the recent news interview, however, one cannot refrain from feeling sympathy (even empathy) and grudging admiration for the man. Here is a local government official from a city far away from Tacloban, obviously with his own local concerns and problems, who responded immediately, on his own initiative, to the unfolding tragedy happening in another distant city and who quickly managed to mobilize and get a rescue and assistance team into the disaster area even before other agencies and groups from the national government (who should have been there first) could get their act together.

Obviously he was among the first public officials to actually wade into the battered and ravaged ruins of what used to be eastern Leyte and among the first to personally see and evaluate, from a first person perspective, the true horror, the depth and extent of the tragedy of the massive destruction left by Yolanda. One can forgive him for becoming emotional while recalling what must have been an searingly agonizing experience. One can also forgive and ignore the curses and the swear words. He was clearly entitled to them being the man he is and in view of the raw honesty of the emotions one can clearly see in his face and demeanor as he was speaking out.

In truth, his voice in that interview was and remains among the only few from so many other official voices, mostly blurting out lame and inane excuses or trying finger-point blame, that made clear sense and which, with brutal honesty, has publicly highlighted the same unanswered questions which the Filipino nation and the rest of world have been asking since Typhoon Yolanda had come and gone. How could the national government of this country and its local officials in the Visayas region not been able to adequately and properly prepare for the onslaught of one of the strongest storms in history in spite of clear warnings and up to date forecasts from meteorologists many days before it made landfall? 

Why was the initial response of the Philippine government to the devastation in the critically hit areas been so spotty and slow? Didn't high officials of the Aquino administration, including the President himself, made public assurances and even boasted on the national news media in the days before Yolanda hit that its agencies and personnel were already prepared and its logistical assets properly positioned to deal with the impending calamity?

Focus back on "the Punisher" from Davao who dropped everything and immediately organized and sent a relief team to go quickly into the disaster zone, the same man who, in order to make sure that his group can arrive quickly and safely in the Tacloban area, had supposedly given instructions for his rescue team members to shoot down any looters and lawless elements who may seek to harass or rob the Davao contingent.  Duterte later however clarified that the order was to merely "shoot in the legs" and not to kill but only incapacitate would-be assailants or ambushers in self-defense.

The mayor also pointed out in the same interview to what may be a valid point and something even President Aquino in an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour has acknowledged. This is the fact that the local governments in the typhoon hit communities have been virtually decimated and therefore no longer exist and has ceased to function. This means that unless the national government steps in and immediately assume de facto emergency control on the ground (for the meantime at least), there can be no quick, efficient and organized rescue, relief and rehabilitation program that can properly take off no matter how much local and foreign aid and assistance is available.

Finally, Duterte also harped in the same interview on the need for a strong local government with the political will to enforce forced evacuations of its constituents living in critically vulnerable locations in the face of a looming natural disaster such as a super typhoon. He stressed that with a proper warning from the national government and if it would be necessary, he would personally manhandle and drag residents of his city who are unwilling to evacuate from their homes to safer locations. That requires, he emphasized, that a viable contingency plan for such scenarios must already exist for local disaster preparedness officials and that a major part of it must include designated avenues and easy routes for access to already prepared and clearly identified evacuation centers and refuge areas.

There is no doubt in my mind that Davao mayor, because of the interview which has been seen by countless Filipinos all over the country, is now being seen as an admirable if not heroic figure, an exemplary leader in the face of what is perceived as a government that on all levels is coming across as inept, indecisive and incompetent. After all, he is not only making sense, he has actually done something for the victims of Yolanda and did it fearlessly well to the limits of his capability and capacity.

Why not elect this man and make him President? This is what majority of the almost two thousand comments I read to the Facebook post showing the interview video said or implied. Even those who were not so slavish in their praise had only favorable words for the man.

Why not indeed. In one sense, we do need men like Rodrigo Duterte who are strong, decisive and fearless leaders of men, leaders who are not afraid to do what must be done even if the weak-hearted and timid among us may shout caution and restraint or quibble with legalities and procedural technicalities.

In that same view, we do need charismatic and paternalistic leaders who will really lead this country and, if need be, pull us painfully by our very ears in the path and direction of the peace, progress and prosperity he envisions for us even if there are those, rightly or wrongly, who may want to go somewhere else or through a different route altogether. We need another Lee Kuan Yew (or heaven forbid, for those who are rabid Marcos apologists, another less corrupt yet no less resolute Ferdinand Marcos), a strong man with a heart of gold, a will of iron, nerves of steel and brass balls. Filipinos do still dream and fervently pray for a political savior, a Messiah, to take this country out of the clutches of the corrupt, the mediocre and the incompetent who have been misleading the nation for so long while enriching themselves and their cronies at its expense.

Rodrigo Duterte could be that man. For many he does certainly fit the bill. That is why I believe today, in my heart and mind, that the Punisher from Davao City is a very dangerous man.


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