by Paul Lin
While the world ponders what four years of Donald Trump in the White House may bring, it’s already gotten a taste of strongman leadership in the form of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.
The brash talking “Trump of the East” – like the US president-elect – rode a populist wave into power, tapping into the anger and fear of voters who felt left behind by previous administrations and looked for strong words and action.
“Similar to Trump, people feel [Duterte] says what he thinks, unlike traditional politicians who always hide behind what people feel is empty rhetoric,” says Luis Francia, a writer and professor at Hunter College and New York University. “They never get the sense that politicians are straight talkers, whereas Duterte came across as a fresh voice.”
Many world leaders and newsmakers have been on the receiving end of that voice. From the UN Secretary General being called “a devil,” to the Pope and President Obama being called “sons of bitches,” – words he sometimes regrets later in statements.
“His cabinet officials and some of his advisors are telling us journalists: ‘don’t take him too seriously when he curses, when he says these words. Sometimes he doesn’t really mean them,” says Cristina Pastor, Founding Editor of The FilAm.net and Co-Host of Makilala TV.
Far from being new to politics, Duterte has been involved for decades. Before winning the presidency last May, he had served as the mayor of Davao City, which he ruled with an iron fist, as Francia recalled. His nickname- The Punisher.
“He comes roaring in on a motorcycle, .45 caliber tucked into his belt. He was overflowing with confidence. He said ‘yeah, I can take care of this town,” remembers Francia when he first met Duterte for an interview. “If you didn’t know him or his record, he was very appealing.”
The record he’s referring to is some 14-hundred people killed during his decades as mayor. Duterte’s solution to criminals and those involved in drugs is to “kill them all.”
Organizations from the UN to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch report that death squads working with police have meted out street justice without due process. Thousands more have been killed since Duterte became president.
“He’s always denied that he had a direct hand in these but you set the tone,” says Francia. “You encourage. And he never went after the vigilantes. He did bring the crime rate down, but the question is: at what cost?”
The concession? Civil liberties come under pressure in the name of public safety, something we have heard in the US from Donald Trump and some of his supporters.
Consider Carl Higbie’s appearance on Fox News suggesting that the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II in prison camps could be seen as “a precedent” for Muslims instead of a warning that history should not repeat itself.
“There is absolutely the fear that you will be labeled a terrorist simply because of your faith, just as being a Japanese or Japanese American during World War II was enough for people to think your civil liberties should be suspended,” says Francia.
With discontent over the widening gap between haves and have-nots, a populist tide has been rising around the world, prompting political analysts to posit that more strongman leaders may come to power before long, just as in the US and the Philippines.
“Maybe it’s a sense of despair that we have been in this situation for a long time, at least in the Philippines, and nothing ever gets done,” says Pastor.
Tune into Asian American Life for more on the Filipino American’s reaction to Philippine President Duterte.
This month on Asian American Life, we start off the year with a look at religion, politics, art and entertainment.
Kyung Yoon discusses the changing face of Christianity with Asian Americans. Minnie Roh talks to author Patricia Park, whose debut novel will soon make it to the small screen. Ernabel Demillo interviews the cast of Disney’s Aladdin, the most popular musical on Broadway and give viewers a guided tour of the Guggenheim’s newest exhibit, “Tales of our Time” featuring the work of young Chinese artists.
Ernabel Demillo is the host of Asian American Life, a monthly half hour series about the fastest-growing immigrant group in the country, focusing on Asian Americans in the tri-state area from over 40 countries who speak more than 150 different languages and dialects. Every month, an Asian enclave and neighborhood within the tristate area is featured. Cutting edge issues like racial profiling and stereotyping are examined and explored. Successful Asian Americans who are forging new identities in business, politics and the arts are also be profiled. Asian American Life is reaching new frontiers in the quest for understanding and acknowledgment among tri-state Asian Americans.
Asian American Life is produced by CUNY-TV. The show airs monthly on Ch. 75 in New York and in syndication at PBS stations across the country. Check your local listings.
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