A street in the philippines

The Realm of the Punisher: Travels in Duterte's Philippines by Tom Sykes

  • 13 February 2020
  • 4 min read
Dr Tom Sykes is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Film, Media and Communications and is a widely published author, editor, journalist and literary historian.

His latest book, the Realm of the Punisher (Signal Books) is a 'political travelogue' of the Philippines which, according to the Times Literary Supplement, ‘conveys in an affectionate, unpatronizing tone the many layers of injustice that run through the Philippines, and uses interviews and site visits to try to explain the eccentric ways and popular appeal of its more muscular leaders.’  Tom is also the author of Ivory Coast (Bradt Publications), a commercially successful travel guide that blends reportage and political analysis with practical advice.


''Seventeen-year-old Kian Delos Santos was a shy student who liked cheese-flavoured crisps. In August 2017, he was arrested by two plain clothes policemen at his home in Caloocan, a deprived suburb of Manila. The cops beat him up and dragged him into a cul-de-sac with a disused pigsty in it. According to eyewitnesses and CCTV footage, the cops blindfolded Kian and put a loaded .45 pistol in his left hand. They didn’t know that Kian was right-handed. ‘Sir, can I go home now?’ he pleaded. ‘My father must be looking for me. I have an exam tomorrow.’

A cop told Kian to fire the gun in the air. He did so. ‘Now you start running,’ said the cop.

Kian started running. The cops shot him. They planted two sachets of crystal meth on his corpse and told their superiors Kian had fired first.''

Over the last four years, perhaps 30,000 Filipinos have died in circumstances similar to Kian. They are victims of extra-judicial murders carried out by policemen and hired assassins under the veil of a ‘war against drugs’. Through reportage, interviews and historical analysis, my book The Realm of the Punisher seeks to make sense of this unparalleled campaign of violence and the man ultimately responsible for it: President Rodrigo Duterte. The following are edited excerpts from the book.

Dr Tom Sykes, Author of The Realm of the Punisher

''On 28 March 1945, a second child was born in provincial Leyte to schoolteacher Soledad Roa Duterte and her lawyer husband Vicente Duterte. A few months before, Leyte had been the site of a fierce series of intense air, land and sea battles between the Japanese and US-Philippine forces. The Japanese hid in graveyards and foxholes, emerging only to throw satchel charges at American tanks. It took the GIs days of flamethrowing to clear them out. In late October, Japan’s countermove was to send kamikazes day and night into US beachheads, warships and cargo vessels.

It was into this war-scarred society that Rodrigo Duterte came into being. As soon as the boy could walk, Soledad was subjecting him to violent discipline. According to Rodrigo’s brother Emmanuel, his mother beat the boy so frequently with a horsewhip that she wore it out. His sister Jo recalls that Soledad would constantly scream abuse at her children and make them kneel down on prickly mung beans as punishment for minor misdeeds. In contrast, Rodrigo’s father Vicente was kind and mild, and had great affection for his offspring.

In 1949, the Dutertes moved to Mindanao and, ten years later, Vicente was elected Governor of Davao province. At school, Rody – as he was now nicknamed – was a poor student but a conscientious troublemaker, which meant he received as many thrashings from his Jesuit teachers as he did from his mother at home. The teenaged Rody drank and brawled the night away. Soledad was so infuriated that she kicked him out of the family home and made him live in a mosquito-plagued outhouse. To this day, it is said that Rody always sleeps under a mosquito net.''

''When Ferdinand Marcos became president in 1965, he appointed Vicente his Minister for General Services. A little later, Vicente returned to law in Davao and, on 21 February 1968, collapsed in court from heart failure and died.

The end of his father’s life made Rody reassess his own. He resolved that it was time to grow up, cut the mischief and take his studies – also in law – seriously.

From his teenage years up to Vicente’s passing, Rody would often say to Jo, ‘Malay mo[you never know], some day I will become mayor.’

Duterte’s prediction was accurate, at least about the first phase of his political career. He served seven terms as Mayor of Davao before going on to win the 2016 presidential election pledging to wage a ‘bloody war’ against crime. No doubt his aggressive approach was partly informed by his turbulent early years, but it was also made possible by broader social, cultural and economic forces. Penniless and marginalised Filipinos on the business end of decades of corruption, cronyism, neoliberal underdevelopment and neo-colonial exploitation were seduced by Duterte’s macho rhetoric of discipline, fortitude and tough justice. Duterte seemed to fit the popular and romanticised archetype of the hard-man enforcer found locally and globally, in real-life and in fiction, from Alfredo Lim who, as Mayor of Manila locked jaywalkers in cages and personally shut down brothels in a bid to ‘clean up’ the city, to the Magnum-waving Inspector ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan of the Hollywood films. Appropriately, both Lim and Duterte have been compared to Dirty Harry.

By the time of my next visit to the Philippines in 2018, the drug war had claimed ‘the largest loss of civilian lives in Southeast Asia since Pol Pot took Cambodia back to Year Zero,’ so journalist Jonathan Miller observed. I wondered what could be done to get rid of Duterte. A graduate student and socialist activist who wishes to remain anonymous said to me, ‘It is not as though the killings started in the Philippines the day Duterte took office. No, we had them with Aquino and Arroyo and Marcos. All our premiers, actually. The danger of personalizing the resistance, of saying “if we can only eject Duterte then things will be hunky-dory once more”, misses the structural problems of our society: the poverty, the inequality, the democratic deficit.''

''A veteran of the anti-Marcos movement quipped to me, ‘Next to Duterte Ferdinand Marcos is like Martin Luther King!’ But then she added in a sullen tone, ‘Duterte has destroyed years of progress, years of good work in human rights, in land reform, in pro-poor initiatives. We travelled so far and now we are going backward.’

‘What can be done?’ I asked.

‘As always, we will fight.’

And Filipinos are still fighting. There have been countless demos and vigils for the victims. Retired police chiefs have blown the whistle on the machinations of summary slaughter. Thousands have protested Duterte’s other oppressive policies: press censorship, persecution of political opponents, the imposition of martial law in the southern Philippines and the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility to 12 years old.

There is hope that some or all of these issues will hasten the downfall of the man known as ‘The Punisher’. ''

The book is available to buy online

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