Dinner with Rodrigo Duterte

Steve Chao returns to the Philippines to get a behind-the-scenes look at a leader who’s gone from relative obscurity to international notoriety.

Rodrigo Duterte has long been a night owl.

It’s little surprise then that it’s late in the evening when we’re summoned for a meeting with the president of the Philippines.

Driving through the dark streets of the southern city of Davao, I wonder how much the new job has changed the man – whether the power that comes with the highest office in the land has gone to his head.

In his first few months in office, the unconventional leader has drawn international condemnation for his violent war on drugs, for his swearing, and for his sudden foreign policy shifts away from western allies.

Looking at the headlines, he seems very much the same tough-talking, profane-uttering, leader we first met in April when we filmed him on the presidential campaign trail.

Back then, he was fourth in the polls – a long-shot to win the presidency, having only served at the local level, as mayor of the southern city of Davao.

But, his promises to end years of crime, corruption and the political elitism that has plagued Philippines’ politics made him a unique candidate, and we decided at that early stage of the campaign to take an in-depth look at this unlikely presidential outsider.

His campaign pledges convinced the masses, and the Filipino public gave Duterte a landslide victory.

So, we decided to return to the Philippines, to get a behind-the-scenes look at a leader who has gone from relative obscurity to international notoriety.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte swears in new government appointees at Malacanang Palace in Manila [101 East/Al Jazeera] 

So … now I’m a human rights violator’ 

Our exclusive access to the president begins with a private dinner. Always unpredictable, we’re unsure what he’ll share with us, now that he’s president.

If you threaten my country, I will kill you. And I have told my officers to shoot to kill, if they are threatened.

Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines

As we approach the venue – a large house in one of Davao’s wealthier neighbourhoods – the first thing we notice is that his security detail has mushroomed. Previously, he had just a handful of bodyguards, but tonight, police have sealed off the entire block.

It turns out that this is the home of his trusted right-hand man, known as “Bongo”.

Inside, Duterte is waiting.

On the table is a spread of noodles, barbecued meats and steamed buns – simple fare, served in simple containers – not the kind of meal one would expect a president to be served – but Duterte has always preferred what he calls “plain living”.

On that front, things haven’t changed. But Duterte is now known on the world stage, and it hasn’t all been plain sailing.

“So … now I’m a human rights violator,” chuckles Duterte.

The leader was recently warned by the European Parliament that he could be tried in an international court for alleged extrajudicial killings of drug dealers and users.

In his four months as president, more than 3,500 people – some innocent bystanders, many suspected drug dealers and users – have been murdered, often by masked gunmen. A similar pattern of violence played out years ago, when Duterte declared a war on drugs in the city of Davao.

And like back then, he insists he has broken no law.

“I’ve only threatened to kill drugs dealers,” he says. “What is wrong with that? I have said, ‘If you threaten my country, I will kill you’. And I have told my officers to shoot to kill if they are threatened.”

We join Duterte in private meetings, in convoys, on military choppers, and in his private jet – shadowing a leader that much of the world has likened to US President-elect, Donald Trump, for his outlandish statements.

But, as we find in our time with him, he is a very different man from his American counterpart. After spending more than two decades as a city mayor, Duterte has had a great deal of experience governing, and every statement he makes is a calculated one.

Is he presidential material? Is he, as he says, truly there to serve the people, with no “designs” on turning a democracy into an autocracy?

As we go behind the scenes and into the president’s inner circle, this is the story of Rodrigo Duterte.

Rodrigo Duterte holds a lunch meeting in Malacanang Palace in Manila. He says the worst part of his job are mundane meetings [101 East/Al Jazeera] 
Source : Al Jazeera


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