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25 Nov 2017 18:43
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  •   Home > News > International

    What young people in the Philippines think of Rodrigo Duterte

    The Philippines' controversial war on drugs has killed more Filipinos than the Battle for Marawi. But young people in the country see Rodrigo Duterte as a strong leader with positive policies.

    "No-one cares if people are getting killed as long as they're getting free education and free Wi-Fi."

    That's how a Catholic clergyman in the Philippines sums up the public's attitude towards Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs.

    A bloody war is being waged in the streets, villages and slums of the Philippines against suspected drug dealers and addicts.

    No charge or conviction is needed. Police have been given a license to kill, and unofficially, vigilante groups too.

    So far, the death toll is upwards of 12,000 and there is no end in sight.

    But on a recent study tour through the Philippines, I discovered that populist policies and some sanitised language are helping locals turn a blind eye to the murders happening around them.

    "He's extremely charismatic," says one student.

    "A father figure with supreme power."

    That's how a group of budding journalists describe Mr Duterte, the former prosecutor and mayor turned strongman leader of the Philippines.

    Sitting in a hot and humid classroom at the Polytechnic University in Manila, 12 foreign journalists and I are getting the "next generation's perspective" from dozens of students and their tutors.

    "Duterte comes from a poor family," another student says. "He has the common touch."

    A popular leader with a 'common touch'

    If the polls are anything to go by, they're right. Mr Duterte's approval ratings are consistently above 80 per cent — something Australia's politicians could only dream about.

    A young woman stands up and becomes the spokesperson for the group. She explains that even drug addicts voted for Mr Duterte, and those just wanting a better Philippines.

    The controversial war has killed more Filipinos than the Battle for Marawi. Last month, a 17-year-old school boy was executed.

    "Well, they were warned," says one of the students blithely.

    "He warned them before the election and they didn't give up their addictions."

    It was as uncomfortable discussion. The students were trying to give context to foreigners, and we were kind of shocked that they appeared to be justifying it.

    A few others chime in and explain that the Philippines' drug problem has made their city feel unsafe. So the EJKs, as they call them, are helping.

    "What are EJKs?" we ask.

    Extra-judicial killings. It immediately struck me as a weird acronym to use, an attempt to sanitise state-sanctioned murder.

    A young guy sitting across from me peers out from behind his laptop and jokes it was probably cheaper to kill addicts than throw them in prison or build new rehab centres — most of them are over-crowded as it is.

    He says Mr Duterte has done a lot of good in introducing policies to help the poor, like free Wi-Fi and tertiary education, which has allowed him and his brother to go to university.

    Mr Duterte is more progressive in a deeply Catholic country. He's backing moves to make contraception more widely available.

    'We'll end up in chaos without a strong leader'

    So it seems the 'next generation' isn't too concerned, and to be fair there isn't much opposition outside this university either.

    Journalists who report unfavourably on the war face intimidation, while judges, politicians and police officers who question it are publicly accused of involvement in the drug trade, and could end up dead.

    Speaking out against the war cost the country's Human Rights Commission its entire budget, slashed from $17 million to just $25. Yes, $25.

    Recently, the Catholic Church has started protesting against it, calling for an end to the "reign on terror" and the "waste of human lives".

    But the once powerful institution has lost a lot of its sway, and Mr Duterte has done everything he can to undermine it.

    So in the classroom that day, we learned the rule of law doesn't exactly mean to Filipinos what it means to those of us from Western democracies.

    Hardly surprising, when you consider the country's three centuries under Spanish rule, and the authoritarian style of previous presidents like Ferdinand Marcos.

    Or as one of the tutors put it: "Filipinos are a stubborn people. We'll end up in chaos without a strong leader."

    They've got one — and they seem to like it that way.

    Jane Norman travelled to the Philippines as part of the East-West Centre's 2017 Senior Journalists Seminar.

    © 2017 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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