As a follow-on from our 2018 Geopolitical Reading List, in this piece we review “Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines” by Jonathan Miller; a candid cross-examination of the controversial leader of the Philippines.
He possesses an “animal wisdom sent by God”, he provides vital support for underfunded hospitals, and he is gloriously leading millions out of a cycle of poverty and illness. Those are three perspectives offered to the BBC by reasonable-looking supporters of the President of the Philippines. But by another measure, Rodrigo Duterte has simultaneously overseen the deadliest social cleansing project in Asia since the Killing Fields. For quite some time to come, understanding this man will be at the forefront of analytical agendas that touch anything within a thousand-mile radius of Manila.
“Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines” is the English language’s first biography of Rodrigo Duterte, written by Channel 4 News’ Asia Correspondent Jonathan Miller. As a highly experienced reporter, the winner of multiple ITS and Amnesty International awards, and indeed the first foreign journalist to challenge Duterte in person, Miller is in good standing to document the bizarre life of one of Asia’s most controversial leaders. On the one hand, the book provides a gripping tale of tropical murder and corruption that will appeal to general readership. But on the other, it is a new and vital document for understanding the current wave of strongman politics hitting Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas.
As shown by Miller, the phrase ‘troubled childhood’ is a serious understatement when describing Duterte’s past, and it is this part of the author’s coverage that proves most insightful. Duterte was raised among strict Jesuits in the era of the Marcos dictatorship. He was also allegedly flogged and even molested as a young boy. On many occasions he ran away from home without consequence, and eventually – Duterte himself has confirmed – he committed his first murder on a beach at the age of 17. “The abuse he suffered has to a large extent shaped his character, his politics, and his view of the world,” writes Miller, before quoting an acclaimed psychologist on the President’s mental tendencies. Dr Natividad Dayan, former President of the International Council of Psychologists, has in a court of law diagnosed the President with ‘Narcissistic Personality Disorder’, describing his “indifference, insensitivity, self-centredness, gross sense of self and entitlement, manipulative behaviours… [and his] pervasive tendency to demean, humiliate others and violate their rights and feelings.” To this day, Duterte remains a nocturnal individual whose revelry in hostility and brute force are all too evident in his press conferences.
Having entered politics through a bloody governorship of Davao city and won a landslide national electoral victory in 2015, Duterte ascended to the Philippine premiership to the slogan: “God himself will weep.” Thus was conceived what has come to be one of the most regionally significant political minds of the 21st century. In much the same way as the other world leaders to whom he is compared – Modi, Putin, Erdogan and even Trump – Rodrigo Duterte has cut a deep social divide and, to the amazement of foreign commentators, he draws adoration and revulsion in equal measure from his domestic audience. Indeed, in chapters that will resonate particularly with American readers, Miller delves into the use of cyber tools, paid trolls and narrative-spinners that have become familiar for contemporary geopolitical analysis in the West.
Whilst building on three decade’s of journalistic experience, the book reads as impressively present. Some of its sources comment on incidents that occurred only three months ago. Moreover, its composite interviews with local drug-associates, addicts, pro-Duterte campaigners, local reporters and even family members of the President, make it highly accessible and dynamic. It should be noted that, as a journalistic work, the book’s job is not to prove an argument – it is fundamentally anecdotal. Rather, its job is to animate the contexts of an argument already being empirically supported elsewhere. It is here – in Miller’s almost Graham-Greene-like descriptions of urban poverty – where the book shines.
There is no doubt that Duterte Harry arrives at an opportune time. But its geopolitical subject matter should appeal just as much: currently, the nation of the Philippines constitutes a truly unique case study of national (in)security. Firstly, it exhibits an overt drug war of the scale only previously seen in the Americas. Secondly, it battles an Islamist insurgency that has direct ties to terrorism in the Middle East. And thirdly, these coalesce all within the contexts of electoral democracy and volatile physical climate exacerbated by the wider great game taking place across the South China Sea. It is a powerfully complex target for geopolitical operators, and one that will be helped significantly by reading Miller’s work.
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Jonny Elswood is a Scottish security analyst with expertise in counter-narcotics and non-state groups. Jonny has degrees in Political Science from St Andrews and Glasgow University, and recently completed a NATO Military Security course in Lithuania. He has contributed policy research for a political group in the Central African Republic, and currently focuses on organised crime analytics for Intelligence Fusion.
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Photo credit: Office of the President of the Philippines