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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 49, New Delhi, November 20, 2021

When Rowdies Become Presidents | TJS George

Friday 19 November 2021, by T J S George



"If I see you, get out of my way. You son of a b–ch, I’ll slap you. Believe me, I’ll slap you in front of a lot of people. You really want to test if we really have (it)? You have a wife. You lend her to me, you son of a b–ch."

Classic street language used by rowdies. But these sentences were used by the President of a country. And in public. People in the know will say that in this case, there is not much difference between a rowdy and the President. Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is not only contemptuous of democracy, he is vulgar in his ways. The violent words he uttered were aimed at Francisco Tatad, a cabinet minister in the 1970s and now a respected columnist in the Manila Times.

Duterte represents the phenomenon of goondas in politics. In the best of times, the Philippines has been a country where gun-toting politicians ruled the roost. Duterte made his name as a gun-toter. His rise to national prominence is based on a campaign he launched against people he called drug traffickers. Thousands were killed. Of course they were not all drug traffickers. A good number of Duterte’s political opponents ended up in various cemeteries. The scandal forced the International Criminal Court to order a probe. Duterte dismissed it as foreign interference. This is a man who was proud of his record as a killer. He had repeatedly boasted that, as mayor of Davao City, he had shot dead suspected criminals without waiting for court trials.

The Philippines is an unusual country. In the largely Muslim environment of Southeast Asia, it retains a Christian identity. This leads to a double disadvantage. It makes the country an outsider in the region, and it raises questions about what Christianity is. Various nationalised Christian cults compete with more than a hundred Protestant denominations with the result that faith becomes a fad. The way some Filipino politicians have used Christianity will make Jesus Christ weep. Dictatorship flourished in the Philippines with the apparent backing of Jesus — under his disciple Ferdinand Marcos in the past, under disciple Rodrigo Duterte now.

Philippines is the only country named after a foreign monarch whose colony it was: King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598). As much as 86 percent of its population is Roman Catholic. They don’t seem excited about their religion. If Filipinos are excited about anything, it is basketball and boxing. The global profile of the country is dominated by nurses. Not only is the Philippines the world’s largest supplier of nurses; Filipino nurses are famous for their professionalism and sociability.

That the country bears the name of a foreigner has been a talking point for generations. Successive leaders have spoken about the need for a name that would be free of colonial memories. The preferred new name has been Maharlika. Duterte says: "Maharlika is a Malay word. And it means more of a concept of serenity and peace." Ferdinand Marcos, ruler of the country for 21 incredible years, was also in favour of Maharlika. But he did nothing to make it a reality. Will Duterte go beyond words into action? There is no hint yet that he would outclass Marcos.

The Marcos era had another hero no less historical than the President himself. This was Ninoy Aquino. Dynamic and handsome and always articulate, always open-minded, he was imprisoned for seven years — which made him a mass hero. Anyday he could replace Marcos in the presidency. But that day never came because, while deplaning at the Manila airport one day, he was assassinated. The crudeness with which attackers shot him in such a public space as the airport terminal confirmed the general impression that Marcos was behind the killing. It smeared Marcos’ name forever. In time people chose Aquino’s widow, Corazon, as President of the country. Their son, Acquino III also became President. The Manila airport is known as the Benigno Aquino International Airport.

No country in Asia has seen modern art flourishing as it does in the Philippines. Widespread public interest in art sustains a corpus of world-standard artists. Names like Amarsolo, Ang Kiukok, Francisco and Juan Luna represent the best in modern art. Vicente Manansala’s abstractionist scenes are as striking as they are imaginative. Amorsolo’s "Planting rice" unveils a vast field where colourfully dressed women are busy with their work. In many ways the Philippines is a blessed country despite the element of curse politics brings upon it.

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