January 11, 2017 8:00 am JST

Duterte plays by his own rules

Friends and colleagues of the Philippine president discuss what drives him

JUN ENDO, Nikkei staff writer

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte capitalized on his tough guy image to vault himself into the presidency in June 2016. So far, his sky-high 80% approval rating has remained unscathed by his frequent outbursts or a hard-line approach to drug crime.

It is estimated that more than 6,200 people have been killed over the last six months in connection with Duterte's high-profile drug war. Many of those suspected of involvement in the narcotics trade have been killed by vigilante groups. The United Nations and others have blasted the crackdown as an extrajudicial killing spree.

But people who know Duterte from his days in the city of Davao, in the southern Philippines, are quick to defend him, saying his actions stem from a profound sense of justice that does not allow him to overlook the deeds of influence peddlers and criminals.

Businessman Samuel Uy, who has known the 71-year-old president since high school and provided crucial financial backing for his campaign, recalled that Duterte had developed a reputation as hard-nosed some 30 years ago.

Around 1980, the dictator Ferdinand Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law under the pretext of wiping out communist rebels. A crackdown on anti-government activists by the military and police followed. The New People's Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, had killed a number of police officers and soldiers at the time. Criminal prosecutors feared chasing eye to both abuses committed by the military and police, and killings by NPA for fear of revenge.

That was when Duterte, a prosecutor in Davao in his 30s, made his name as an anti-corruption crusader, taking it upon himself to oppose graft. Despite the danger to his life, Duterte brought charges against many NPA members, as well as corrupt army and police officers, regardless of their rank. Duterte scrutinized the procedures of the military, releasing suspects when he concluded that the military had fabricated evidence against suspected communists.

Communist-turned-aide

Uy, 63, said Duterte always acted in a fair and determined manner toward everyone, winning him the trust of communists, soldiers and police alike. Such was the loyalty he inspired that police officers offered to serve as his bodyguards without compensation.

Antonina Escovilla, a 76-year-old retired judge who used to work with Duterte at the prosecutors' office in Davao City said Duterte was reserved but friendly to his subordinates and clerks. She praised Duterte's strong moral sense.

In one case, Duterte handled a man charged of being a communist rebel, Leoncio Evasco, would would later become the then mayor's chief-of-staff. Evasco was among the political prisoners who were freed.

Evasco's political abilities were clear to Duterte early on. When Duterte ran for president, he asked Evasco to serve as his campaign manager. After his election win, he named Evasco his cabinet secretary.

Another businessman, Lorenzo Te, 64, who has been friends with Duterte for about 30 years, said he remembers Duterte paying close attention to the concerns of both police officers and accused communist insurgents. Te believes Duterte is especially sensitive to poverty-driven crime in the Philippines. There are many poor people in the country, some of whom turn to crime to survive, he said.

In Davao's sharply divided community during the martial law years, Duterte came to be known as a zealous prosecutor with a strong sense of justice.

Troublemaker

Duterte was born in Southern Leyte Province, in the central Philippines, in 1945. His family soon moved to Davao in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. His father, Vicente, was a governor of Davao and a member of Marcos' cabinet early in his administration.

His mother, Soledad, had a long career as a teacher.

Although Duterte comes from a relatively affluent family, his father stripped him of privileges and lived frugally. His mother was a strict disciplinarian. This may have brought out a rebellious streak in the future president. His mother told a local newspaper in 2005 that her son ventured where others do not.

At 14, he flew a small plane around his house. He was enrolled in the prestigious Ateneo de Davao High School, but had to change schools after he allegedly threw a rock at a priest. Te said it took seven years for Duterte to graduate, whereas most students finished in four to five years.

Duterte's administration is heavily populated by friends from his hometown. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, 71, a childhood friend, said Duterte has always been firm. Once he decides to do something, he rerely change his mind.

Caesar Dulay, who lived in the same dormitory as Duterte, now serves as commissioner of the Bureau of Internal Revenue.

After graduating from university in Manila, Duterte received his law degree from the San Beda College of Law. Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre and Information and Communications Technology Secretary Rodolfo Salalima are law school classmates of Duterte.

After a teaching stint at the country's police academy, Duterte began working for the prosecutors' office in Davao in 1977, reaching the post of deputy chief prosecutor until his retirement in 1986 after he was appointed as vice-mayor upon the recommendation of his mother.

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