Attempting to Understand Duterte

by | Dec 5, 2016 | Faith & Politics, In the News, Justice

This is a difficult article for me to write.  

As a Filipino-American, I am not used to having the Philippine president gain so much notoriety, so often. Since his June 2016 inauguration, President Rodrigo Duterte continually captures world headlines: He’s claimed to dissolve long standing U.S. Relations. He’s graphically engaged in name calling heads of state. Above all, he is accused of sponsoring extra-judicial killings involving notorious drug dealers.   

The world has responded in contradictory ways. World leaders have condemned these killings accusing Duterte for ignoring the rule of law in regards to formally prosecuting drug dealers.  Yet many Filipinos, disagree and continue to support his presidency: Duterte finds himself with high approval ratings supporting his actions.  

So what do we make of this?  

I am not completely sure how to approach it.  Full disclosure, my parents are immigrants from Davao, the city Duterte was mayor for over 30 years. My family and friends so vigorously campaigned for Duterte hoping for some change.  His election created great excitement over the possibility of social and economic progress. Earlier this spring, I visited the Philippines and sensed that people – young, old, rich, poor – really looked to Duterte to deliver a different vision for the country everyone loved.  They saw a charismatic, no-nonsense politician, who brought order, calm, and vitalization back to Davao.  Wanting that for the entire country, they elected him later that spring.

As North Americans, we are lucky enough to come from nations where the law works towards justice. But for Filipinos, the rule of law has a very different connotation. Defeatism, corruption, and woe are summarized in my family’s response to previous Philippine Presidential Elections: “Nothing will change.  Corruption is too embedded in the system.”    

It was not until this past election that Filipino people saw hope for Philippines – via Duterte.  They encountered a mayor who tackled crime, created order, and put his people before himself.  He was not the conventional candidate.   But he vowed to face his number one priority: the war on drugs and the need for safe communities.  


Sure, political decisions are difficult and there are consequences. How do I reconcile the human need for safety, law and order coupled with the seemingly disposability of some life?  Am I too far removed from the scene to truly understand the immensity of the drug situation?  

Extrajudicial killings remove any possibility of conversion or reconciliation. Yet, the quest for the rule of law and order is valued in a country plagued with non-stop corruption and despair. Is it possible to be in the in between? Must I choose a stance, or can I struggle with this a bit more?  

Are there solutions that could be taken given more thought, like the drug rehabilitation program started by Cardinal Tagle to encourage a safe recovery process?  Can justice be served in a way that dignifies the human being, but also confronts the challenges of injustice and crime?  


The total of who I am – a Jesuit, Filipino, American – carries complexities and ambiguities. So much of who I am is wrapped up in the story of an island 7,000 miles away.  I am both frustrated and sympathize with layers of unknown when communities and countries like Philippines face life and death realities. So often, it is easy to join a bandwagon of an all or nothing approach. Yet, this time, I am moved to investigate more deeply into what I can do.  

So much of the world today is looking for a response to their anger and frustration. We look to promises and rhetoric that will ease the trials and burdens of our day-to-day life.  Quick relief is not cheap or easy.  Yet, in the midst of the confusions of life, discernment is key in these situations.  Discernment forces us to slow down, reflect, and see where God is working.  

Given that being Filipino is an essential part of my identity, I continue to struggle with the decisions of President Duterte. But I turn to so many Filipinos for inspiration. In times of trauma, uncertainty, and pain, they look to faith. Devotions, pieties, and prayer run deep for those looking for comfort from the weariness of life. In fact, they are crucial in discerning how to respond for Filipinos.

Perhaps in a time of uncertainty, where decisions of life and death are made, we look to prayer in an attempt to hope for relief from a tense reality.  We use it as a tool of discernment as we decide how to actively seek true justice and peace.  



Image courtesy of FlickrCC user Prachatai.


Alex Llanera, SJ   /   All posts by Alex