Musings over 2016 — and beyond

Karl Patrick Suyat
12 min readApr 6, 2021


Duterte’s 2016 campaign: the spectacle that brought us here. (Financial Times)

Writing this blog while the country’s novel coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) cases shoots up to over 800,000, to remember how things were almost five years ago is a note of pain.

Remember May 9, 2016?

It offered a great measure of hope, of something so alternatingly new, a fresh air from six years of a callous government’s wrath. A start-from-scratch restart after decades of state negligence, systemic theft, and economic oppression across different presidents. An alteration — a radical overhaul, even — of the rotting socioeconomic order.

What we are now seeing is the starkest reversal of that change.

This is denigration at the apex of a regime which was once touted to be the perfect, or the all-too-perfect, harbinger of social change. This is bastardization of the very promise that change is coming which, in the first place, allowed Rodrigo Duterte to make a soft landing in Malacañang with 16 million votes underwriting his victory.

In 2016, the battle cry was hope. And change. And a reversal of what the people commonly viewed as the ills, the rot, the pestilence plaguing the country for a long time.

Five years down the line, it’s all anguish, agony, and an anxious sense about the future.

Jeepney drivers asking for alms amidst the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown in Duterte’s fourth year in office.

Remember Duterte’s popular image of a local chief executive plying down a taxi, taking on the driver’s seat, and roaming around the streets of his mighty Davao to catch criminals on the loose? Remember Duterte’s jetski promise? Remember Duterte’s 2015 Christmas message on criminals? Remember that clip of Duterte cheering the New People’s Army, or that video of him sobbing in front of his parents’ tomb?

The country to whom Duterte vowed to provide a safe haven, an almost shamanistic salvation whose “moral” guideposts, if there are any, rely upon the most immoral and backward of methods — obedience through fear, state terror, mass murder — now finds itself in a crossroad, a pivotal juncture in the configuration of its history.

The vision of peace, the imagery of order, sold by Duterte as a candidate is paved by his “kill” order on anyone who dares to deviate from the mass of conformity. To hell with human rights, international observers, the rule of law, due process, and democratic institutions — to hell with bleeding hearts who scream at the sight of her daughter punching to bits a court sheriff, or who shriek at the words Davao Death Squad.

No one can be president if the person cannot carry out killings. That was Duterte’s law.

And so, he won on a counterfeit pledge to cleanse the country of crime bosses and corrupt officials in an unrealistic timetable of three to six months. He vowed to kill businessmen who would not regularize their workers, or to go after rice cartel syndicates. He vowed to move away from United States’ neocolonial grip, only to crawl back into Uncle Sam’s largesse for military aid and Ronald Dela Rosa’s passport.

Duterte once claimed even to become the first socialist president of the Philippines, boasting about his relations with exiled communist leader and National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) Chief Political Adviser Jose Maria Sison, who founded the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) — and of his supposed affiliation with Kabataang Makabayan during martial law. He promised to finish peace negotiations with the NDFP by the end of his term.

Quo vadis, peace talks?

The country who once bought Duterte’s sale of a redemptive chance at change now finds itself in utter shambles after five years of this madman’s change. In Duterte’s worldview, change entails mass murder. Change gives a leeway for policemen to kill suspects under a dubious nanlaban script. Change allows “friends” such as China to gobble up what is left of our national territory and transgress our sovereignty in exchange for onerous loan contracts that, if not paid within a few years, would covet our patrimonial riches to serve as collateral payment.

In Duterte’s marshland, change empowers military officials to conduct red-tagging across universities, hang tarpaulins whose graphics screams of anything but a thorough edit, and kill or detain outright dissenters for the “crime” of being activists and union leaders. Change entails the recycling and pardon for corrupt government officials, from Gloria Arroyo to Nicanor Faeldon to Vitaliano Aguirre II, while hoisting a perfidious anti-corruption banner whenever it becomes convenient.

Who would have thought?

Rody’s Cube — a cube-sized effigy featuring Marcos, Duterte, Hitler, and a puppy — while burning up in flames during an anti-martial law mobilization in 2017.

But maybe, in a time of some profound contemplation that the challenge of today’s pandemic offers to us, that’s the question we should be throwing off to ourselves now: who would have thought that Duterte’s banner of change was a road to perdition? A backward route?

In hindsight, another question rises: did no one really anticipate this scale of predicament under Duterte’s iron fist? Or, have we become too blinded by Duterte’s spectacle, perhaps even dazzled by his bombast against the “evils” of society, to even ponder over the ramifications of his rough-and-tumble, even violent, leadership?

In 2016, The New York Times came out with an enticing piece tackling how societies such as ours “fall into vigilante violence.” It was published, locally, by the Philippine Daily Inquirer — which of course was “warmly” met by Duterte’s troll armies and fanatics.

The article’s thesis was as simple as it was too complicated: “a weak state and a population desperate for security… push everyone to bad decisions that culminate in violence that, once it has reached a level as bloody as that in the Philippines, can be nearly impossible to stop.”

But that’s the thing, if we look at it more truthfully: that desperation for change, which included an overreaching gamble for almost criminal and vigilante means of achieving a peaceful societal order, in sheer irony, has led us to the similar quicksand — where crime, injustice, and poverty thrive — from which Duterte’s bloodied fist once vowed to lift the people, in his five years in the presidential throne.

And not only that — Duterte’s incoherent and equally callous regime has opened more ways to die, than to live, in this benighted country: by the bullet, by a plague, or by hunger. Thousands upon thousands have been killed by extrajudicial killings ordered, emboldened, or inspired by Duterte himself, while thousands more perish because of his COVID-19 pandemic response mishandling. Consecutively, millions more live on the edge of death because of poverty and hunger.

Didn’t this guy, for all his bluster and “jokes” about killing a person, promise to inspire redemption? This image of a country with a floundering economy, where millions are mired in starvation, under whose thumb thousands have been annihilated by senseless and unabated killings, in which jobs are an illusion, and in whose farmlands the blood of peasants are splattered by violence or economic turmoil, stand too far, too isolated, from Duterte’s golden rhetoric of change.

This isn’t change; this is the most backward, the farthest extremes, of a corrupt and authoritarian regime.

How did we reach this point? And, yet again, who would have thought?

Duterte’s stunts in 2016. (New York Times)

But, of course, there were voices who hollered against Duterte’s ascension in 2016.

On the frontlines of the early opposition to Duterte, particularly his worldview that killings solve all social problems afflicting this archipelagic nation, were human rights organizations. Into the words of Human Rights Watch, “Duterte Harry” has always been dirty.

A few days after the May 9 elections, HRW came out with this warning about Duterte: “Duterte’s statements both before and during the presidential election have raised grave concerns that his administration will result in a serious regression of human rights.” They were not wrong, after all. But it was a confirmation that came with a sad note: thousands of killings, which means thousands of lives snuffed out and thousands of families dealing with grief and rage, were what it took before HRW’s notion has become an out-of-the-edge paradigm among many.

Duterte (and his handlers) positioned him to be adorned with the hallmarks of a socialist president: the antipathy against United States clad with the veil of an independent foreign policy, the promise of land for the landless and jobs, a social-democratic philosophy (as one analyst claimed in 2016) that would mean “more equitable economics” on Duterte’s side. Throw in the ring his “openness” to see through the end of peace negotiations with the communist and Bangsamoro rebellious movements.

But what has happened since?

On June 5, 2016, Philippine Daily Inquirer came out with a report on five executions in three days’ time across different provinces. Just before Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address, Inquirer bannered that famous photo of a slain drug suspect’s wife cradling his husband’s cadaver in a Pieta-like iconography in Pasay City. Along the way, killings had started to rise in numbers, until it became too normal a news item that it takes new forms of savagery now to sensitize a numbed people.

Did we fail to take notice?

Perhaps, among Duterte’s ramshackle of diatribe, this one was drowned out with the din of his presidency: in February 2016, the presidential candidate himself warned that he would kill union leaders — particularly addressing Kilusang Mayo Uno. Some trade unions called foul, but many remained complacent, especially after Duterte issued a “clarification” that he was only referring to abusive unions, as if workers who toil under exploitative conditions can even “abuse.”

Five years after he went out with his threat, on March 28, 2021, the vice-chair of Southern Luzon’s regional trade union affiliated with KMU, Dandy Miguel, was shot dead — while he was going home. He wore a red shirt that calls for jobs, wages, and rights. Was this dastardly murder of a progressive union leader part of Duterte’s “change?” Was Dandy’s murder a direct consequence of Duterte’s threat to kill unionists way before the presidential elections? Anyone can make their intelligent guess. But the dots are there, waiting to be connected into a coherent web of stories.

In October 2016, Duterte came out with a bold statement: he was “separating” from the United States. That signaled a tough break from the country’s oldest neocolonial power, whose generosity funded some of the most violent and corrupt Philippine presidents — from Roxas to Marcos to Gloria Arroyo — and maintained a systematic plunder of the country’s natural resources, while making a doormat out of Philippine sovereignty itself. But there was one caveat: Duterte announced his “break” from one imperialist power… in China.

It wasn’t a top-secret across the country’s Defense tables that the government Duterte’s own had succeeded challenged China’s aggression in Philippine waters and islands through the legal avenue. On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration awarded the legal ownership of the islands and waters the country was claiming to Manila. It would have been a huge win, but not with Duterte himself doing a Manchurian engagement on Manila’s territorial rift with Beijing: on one hand, he invoked the jetski icon; on the other, he offered concessions to China, ostensibly to avoid any war or confrontation with the rising superpower.

And his supposed break with the United States was everything but genuine. Duterte’s military remained dependent on Pentagon’s magnanimity, especially in the military’s bloody counter-insurgency drive and in the war on terror which made Marawi a spectacle for Duterte and the American government’s horrid wars. Even with the change of wind in the Oval Office, Duterte’s servile relations with the United States is still earmarked with arms deals that give the military their toys. He once threatened to cut off the Americans’ Visiting Forces Agreement in early 2020, but only to bargain the return of his former police chief and butcher’s visa that the American Embassy had denied. Duterte had since walked back on this chest-thumping, as he also did before.

Meanwhile, on the Chinese neocolonial front, it’s a much worse predicament: far from jetski politics, Duterte has even went to the stretch of practically disowning Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s own incensed riposte to the Chinese Embassy’s insulting statements on China’s illegal snatching and take-over of the Julian Felipe reef, which is situated within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

Land for the landless? More than 300 farmers were slaughtered under this regime precisely because of fighting for the very same land that Duterte promised the peasant class to return. While his appointment of peasant leader Rafael “Ka Paeng” Mariano into the agrarian reform portfolio was applauded, Duterte’s supermajority allies eventually got rid of Ka Paeng. And think-tank IBON Foundation had this to say about Duterte’s sham “land reform,” the slowest in almost 32 years: in February 2020, only 3,400 hectares of land were distributed by Duterte’s regime. It was even way lower than the previous haciendero president’s own record.

Social democracy, or whatever remnants of it that were ephemerally lit during his election, was no more than an illusion under Duterte. Not only was this a scintillating illusion under Duterte because the bourgeoisie perpetuated their hold sway over the government, but because what this government had done are the precise anti-thesis of social democracy — and of democracy, socialism, and justice itself.

The thousands of killings in his fraudulent drug war do not speak of socialist principles. Duterte’s deceptive schemes in education, healthcare, transportation, labor, and the economy as a whole — which was still under a neoliberal framework championed by Duterte’s neoliberal economic managers — certainly do not speak of that “equitable economics” and “wealth redistribution” for which he was initially credited in 2016. And with millions going hungry, jobless, and impoverished during Duterte’s mismanaged COVID-19 response, his regime is certainly out of touch with even remotely socialist tenets or realities.

Which brings everything back to that fundamental question posited here: Who would have thought?

As drug war killings wore on, this was an explicit show of violent repression during Duterte’s first months in the presidential throne: when his own police rammed through and clamped down, in another show of Dutertian irony, on indigenous peoples who were actually up in arms to support his “anti-American” posturing. This occurred in October 2016.

Who should be blamed for this mess?

Since the unfolding of the reality that Duterte is not the repudiation — but an actual consecration — of the rotten socioeconomic, political, and cultural order that has rendered the Philippines a stunted, backward, and oppressed nation for decades, many from his former legions of fanatics have disowned him and his bloodied banner of change.

When the killings started to skyrocket, when Duterte chose to glorify Marcos with a remorseless burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani despite a law recognizing — even indemnifying — the late dictator’s victims, when he chose to honor corrupt and thieving politicians with rewards, perks, and positions, and even liberty from prison, when economic conditions started to hover in a complete disarray and crisis because Duterte was favoring the big business, as was his predecessors, over “pro-people” economics, and when the destruction, death, and desperation that once catapulted Duterte to the throne had become the resplendent symbols of how he and his cohorts have been facing off the pandemic, a huge number of people started to fight back. But, admittedly, a huge number of the electorate continue to live under his dangerous fold.

Who should we blame? The millions of “clueless,” expectant, anxiously anticipating, hopeful, optimistic, even gullible, citizens who gave Duterte the consent by vote in 2016 out of resignation from the outgoing government’s callousness? The thousands who, without giving him a vote, festooned his entrance with benefit of the doubt? Those who cheered and celebrated him on as he raised his voice to stentorian levels with each of his “kill, kill, kill” statements? Those who partook in his far-reaching propaganda army and troll farms, and spread false information on his behalf? Those who exercised their right to a belief in the same democracy that citizens now defend from Duterte’s dictatorial encroachments?

Should we blame the Aquino brand for rendering an entire populace hopeless because of hollow promises that it heaped when it was their bloc who was vying for the presidency? Should the media be at fault for, at least in the view of a few pundits, giving Duterte the spotlight? Should we train our guns at Washington and Beijing, for making the country a nation of docile citizens who, in the words of nationalist historian Renato Constatino, was not even prepared for self-rule?

Sometimes, we don’t need to look far beyond to answer the question of blame. But should we even blame?

It is with a sad note, screaming of pain, reeking of evident and palpable regret, that we revisit the optimism that shrouded the myth of Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 — and witness the real state of affairs under the madman, or strongman, who once promised an impoverished nation a quick way to salvation; with the death, devastation, and decimation decorating Duterte’s final years in Malacañang.

Perhaps, the only sad note left in this rickety recollection is a pained reminder for 2022: do not, do not ever, give in to a crowd heaping paeans to a grand spectacle of change. And this thrust, this clarion call, is requiring a painstaking review of our own history — of how things unfolded before the citizenry’s eyes in that not-so-distant past, how factors made an obnoxious unraveling of the Great Pretender, and how one man’s longstanding and grand show of deceit killed thousands of lives in one fell swoop.

There are historical lesions, but there is also an ever-present call to remember and learn from history’s wisdom.

Unless, as in the case of Marcos, there would be attempts to airbrush history? (But that’s a separate issue altogether.)

As it is, “never again” now screams against two faces, two surnames, that wrought devastating afflictions on this nation.



Karl Patrick Suyat

editor-in-chief, up journalism club • institute for nationalist studies • bookworm