Hit Man Recalls Violent Past of Philippine President as Wave of Killings Raises Human Rights Concerns

Rodrigo Duterte vowed during his campaign to crack down on drug users just like he did as the longtime mayor of the city of Davao, where his strongman tactics prompted Human Rights Watch to call him the "death squad mayor." His promises to end crime during his presidential campaign earned him a new nickname: "Filipino Trump." A former hit man testified Wednesday that while Duterte was mayor, he personally ordered him to carry out assassinations. This comes after President Obama canceled a meeting with Duterte during his trip to Laos after he called him a "son of a whore" and warned him not to ask about his so-called drug war. We speak with Ninotchka Rosca, a Filipina activist, feminist and author of “State of War,” a novel set in the Philippines during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to the Philippines, where a wave of extrajudicial killings has claimed thousands of lives since Rodrigo Duterte became president in June. During his campaign, Duterte vowed to crack down on drug users just like he did as the longtime mayor of the city of Davao, where his strongman tactics prompted Human Rights Watch to call him the "death squad mayor." His promises to end crime during his presidential campaign earned him a new nickname: "Filipino Trump." Well, on Thursday, a former hit man testified that while Duterte was mayor, he personally ordered him to carry out assassinations.

EDGAR MATOBATO: [translated] The killings in Davao City started from 1988 to 2013. I think we have killed over a thousand people in Davao City alone.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The self-confessed hit man told senators that while Duterte was mayor, he once ordered him to kill Senator Leila de Lima, one of his outspoken critics.

EDGAR MATOBATO: [translated] They decided and ordered to ambush you.

SEN. LEILA DE LIMA: [translated] Who decided to ambush me?

EDGAR MATOBATO: [translated] Mayor Duterte.

SEN. LEILA DE LIMA: [translated] How did you know?

EDGAR MATOBATO: [translated] We were told about it inside the office. So we just stayed there, waiting for you. But you did not go up, and just stayed at the entrance. So we just stayed there waiting.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: During the same hearing, a Philippine police chief said at least 1,500 people have been killed in police operations against illegal drugs.

Another 2,000, murdered by unknown assailants, are under investigation. That brings the total to more than 3,500 people killed during Duterte’s 78 days as president.

AMY GOODMAN: Before he was elected, Duterte admitted he was linked to a death squad in Davao. He spoke on a local TV show in a mix of English and Visayan.

MAYOR RODRIGO DUTERTE: [translated] Me. They are saying I’m part of a death squad. HOST: So, how do you react to that?

MAYOR RODRIGO DUTERTE: [translated] True. That’s true. You know, when I become president, I warn you—I don’t covet the position, but if I become president, the 1,000 will become 50,000. I will kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable. I will really kill you. I won because of the breakdown in law and order.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as President Barack Obama was slated to meet with the controversial Philippine president during his three-day trip to Laos. But Obama canceled the meeting after Duterte called him a "son of a whore" and warned him not to ask about his so-called drug war. They later had a brief exchange behind closed doors. This is President Duterte.

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: I am a president of a sovereign state, and we have long ceased to be a colony. I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. [translated] Son of a whore, I will swear at you in that forum.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, for more, we’re joined by Ninotchka Rosca, a Filipina activist, feminist and writer, author of State of War, a novel set in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship. In 1993, she received the American Book Award for her novel Twice Blessed. It’s an honor to have you with us, Ninotchka.

NINOTCHKA ROSCA: Hi. Good morning.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain who your president is.

NINOTCHKA ROSCA: Rodrigo Duterte is actually a compound of all of the contradictions in Philippine society, contradictions which are now surfacing in very vicious ways. His father was a Marcos crony, but his mother organized demonstrations against the Marcos dictatorship, so you had these two. And he was actually appointed during the reign of Cory Aquino to be vice mayor of Davao, Davao City. So, he comes from the two main contending factions in Philippine politics. But this is very normal for politicians in the Philippines. They will align themselves with one faction and change affiliation the next day, because the truth of the matter is we don’t really have a political party, as political parties are understood in the West.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But how was he able to cobble together a victory to win the presidency, being so openly willing to say, "I’m going to kill people if I feel it’s necessary"?

NINOTCHKA ROSCA: I think there was an overwhelming sense of the effeteness of the traditional groups of—what would you call it?—the traditional oligarchs. Duterte’s alliance is built up of the left, Marcos cronies and everybody else whom the Aquino faction had offended—Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Estrada and so on. So, I think people were just tired of the constant roiling, of these contradictions being postponed, the resolution of contradictions being postponed.

AMY GOODMAN: So, during Thursday’s Senate hearing—


AMY GOODMAN: —you have this hit man who said that Duterte paid him to carry out summary executions while he was the Davao mayor. The Senate hearing was held to investigate this wave of extrajudicial killings that’s claimed more than 3,000 lives during President Duterte’s very short term here.

NINOTCHKA ROSCA: Three months, yes. Senator de Lima, who was—who used to be with the Commission on Human Rights in the Philippines, tried to investigate the reports of the Davao death squad, but she couldn’t make headway on this, because the witnesses would disappear or—not die, but run away and hide. I think she decided to open this, partly because she has a certain amount of power now as a senator, and because the president, Duterte, went after her in a really vicious manner, coming out with revelations about her sex life, her love life, and trying to link her to drugs in the Philippines.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: President Duterte has also called for the removal of U.S. troops from the island of Mindanao.


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A lot of our viewers and listeners, especially the younger ones, may not be that familiar with the historical relationship of the Philippines to—the special relationship that the Philippines has had with the United States since it was originally a colony or after the Spanish-American War. NINOTCHKA ROSCA: Yes.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Could you talk about that relationship, and to the U.S. troops, especially?

NINOTCHKA ROSCA: Sure. We were the only colony of the United States in the Far East. It used to be called the Far East. And despite the fact that independence had been granted in 1946 to the Philippines, the United States kept control of two very important aspects of the Philippine governance. One is the military, because the Philippine armed forces grew out of the Philippine Scouts, which had been set up by the U.S. occupation, occupying troops, to run after the revolutionary forces in the 1800s. So, we have a military that is totally under the control of the United States. That’s one. And then the United States has also kept control over our foreign policy. It’s always been staunchly anti-communist, pro-United States. And so, so these two things. This has persisted to this day. There was a point around 1993 when the U.S. military bases were thrown out of the Philippines in the aftermath of the Marcos dictatorship, because people were so disgusted with the 20 years of support that the United States gave to the dictatorship that people said, "Throw out the bases." So that was thrown out.

AMY GOODMAN: After Marcos.

NINOTCHKA ROSCA: After Marcos. And then, what happened was this Abu Sayyaf came up in Mindanao and started launching raids and bombings, Davao included.

AMY GOODMAN: So, as we wrap up—


AMY GOODMAN: —what will happen with Duterte? I mean, he’s been called the Philippines Trump. Why? And are people organizing? And do you think he’ll make it to the end of his term?

NINOTCHKA ROSCA: It has been a very volatile beginning. It’s only been three months. And what he has done is strengthen the police as a counterbalance to the military. So this is problematic. We actually cannot tell what’s going to happen. There are too many large forces operating around this question, yeah.


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