Jonathan Miller’s no-holds-barred biography of the Philippines leader is absorbing and action-packed, but lacks balanced corroboration
Book review: 'Duterte Harry: Fire and Fury in the Philippines'
There are some biographers who don’t actually hate their subjects, but who certainly set out to dish any dirt they can find. Others come to detest the person whose life they are covering during the course of their research.
Jonathan Miller comes into a third category. He loathes Rodrigo Duterte so much that he wants the terrible truth – as he sees it – about the president of the Philippines to be properly exposed; and that is what he sets out to do within this pacey and dramatic new biography.
Everyone knows about Duterte, and no wonder. In his typically colourful language he has insulted the pope, former United States president Barack Obama, the European Union and, we learn, even Miller, who as a foreign correspondent for British television has covered South-East Asia for many years.
The Philippines’ leader made his name as the crime-fighting mayor of the city of Davao on the southern island of Mindanao, long troubled by extremist and communist insurgencies, where he boasted in his campaign of shooting criminal suspects and even throwing one out of a helicopter alive.
His war on drugs has unleashed a wave of killings – up to 20,000 according to the opposition senator Antonio Trillanes, although the government says it is about 4,000 – and the International Criminal Court has announced it is going to investigate the president for crimes against humanity. At the same time, 73-year-old Duterte is wildly popular. His approval rating is currently 88 per cent – the highest since he took office in July 2016 – while his trust rating is 87 per cent.
Poor Filipinos, fed up with being ruled by elites disconnected from the misery of their lives, love him. But have they happily elected a monster? Miller evidently thinks so.
By the end of his first year in office – and this is only on page two – Miller has already accused Duterte of “presiding over the largest loss of civilian lives in South-East Asia since Pol Pot took Cambodia back to Year Zero”. Later comparisons are to Slobodan Milosevic, “the Butcher of the Balkans”, Syria’s Bashar Al Assad and Harvey Weinstein (who is accused of sexual assault, although Miller does not suggest Duterte harassed anyone in this way).
Miller quotes a 1998 report from a clinical psychologist that said Davao’s mayor suffered from narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), which constituted a “serious, incurable … psychological incapacity”. The lack of sympathy Miller feels for his subject even extends to criticising him for minor slips in English. Singling out such tiny errors comes across as excessive.
What makes Miller so angry? It is that he believes Duterte and the gang of old pals from school, university and Davao he brought with him to the Malacanang Palace in Manila, are behind and responsible for the whole range of extrajudicial killings taking place under the cover of the war on drugs; and that the president was also the real leader of the “Davao Death Squad” who similarly targeted supposed criminals during his numerous terms as mayor (resulting in innocent people dying, Miller says).
He reckons that as both president and mayor, Duterte had a slush fund that allowed him to pay people off while looking incorruptible himself. And he quotes Edgar Matobato, a former hitman, who claimed not only that he had been ordered by Duterte to assassinate the opposition senator Leila de Lima, but that he had personally seen the mayor shoot people in the head eight times.
The charges are remarkable and, if true, would indeed constitute a “vast alleged criminal conspiracy”, as Miller describes the details of a dossier he is handed at one point.
The trouble is that none of this is proven, and most if not all of it is denied – even if Duterte hones his tough guy image by constantly making outrageous boasts that no one is quite sure are true or not.
Miller recounts some harrowing stories of people whose loved ones have been killed. There is also humour among the grim recollections. When he asks a repentant Matobato how he felt after feeding a live captive to a crocodile, he says he is floored by the answer. “Well, when I saw him being eaten I was happy actually, because the crocodile was full.”
But in all his interviews with family and close associates of Duterte, Miller is keen to cast them in the worst light, painting them as shifty, amoral, lascivious or slightly unhinged. Even former president Fidel Ramos, an ex-army chief who in 1986 played a key role in the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos – a real dictator – is described as an “ageing turncoat”.
Miller writes of the population of Davao: “Today, the city’s 1.6 million residents are too timid to admit what they know to be the truth of Rodrigo Duterte’s lengthy reign of terror because, for three decades, they blindly acquiesced and kept their heads down.”
That stretches credulity. Miller does acknowledge that Duterte is much adored; that he authored many progressive policies as mayor; and that parts of the crime crackdown narrative are definitely true. Duterte’s sister Jocelyn recalls being given a fine for a traffic offence by the mayor, who was personally supervising on the street. On another occasion he forced a man caught selling fake land titles to eat them in front of TV cameras. “Reporters remember him instructing the cameramen to zoom in on him chewing.”
But overall there is no real attempt at balance. As a “J’accuse”, Duterte Harry is a terrific read. Those who would like a more rounded biography of the intriguing Philippines president will have to wait.