The one big difference between Philippines’ Duterte and Donald Trump

Photo: Facebook of Rodrigo Duterte

By Loke Hoe Yeong

The Philippines’ president-elect Rodrigo Duterte has been compared to Donald Trump in many ways – for their outrageous public remarks on women, making rape jokes. They have been flippant on foreign policy too.

But one major difference exists between them.

Donald Trump has infamously said that he would ban all Muslims from entering the US, in the wake of the San Bernardino shootings in December 2015.

Duterte, however, enjoys excellent support among Muslim Filipinos. In fact, he has been openly cultivating their support, in the midst of a vastly predominantly Catholic country.

Duterte and Muslim Filipinos

During the presidential campaign, Duterte had presented himself as the “Moro people’s president”, using the term for Muslim Filipino. His supporters chant “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) at his rallies. This is almost unheard of for a candidate for the President of the Philippines, let alone the frontrunner in the presidential race for a long time before the actual polls. His Muslim supporters have reacted in kind.

At various times during his political career, he has declared himself to be “both Moro and Christian” or “both Muslim and Christian”. He has claimed to have Moro blood through his grandmother, although he was raised nominally Catholic. (He has been described as a lapsed Catholic at times.)

There are indeed both Muslims and Christians among his children and his wider family. His eldest son Paulo, also in politics, converted to Islam when he married a Muslim Tausug woman.

Duterte has, after all, been the long-time mayor of Davao City, the capital and largest city in Mindanao, the region in the Philippines with the largest concentration of Muslim Filipinos. Mindanao was part of the historical Sultanate of Sulu, until it eventually capitulated to the American colonialists in 1915, ceding to them all sovereignty over their former lands.

So it would seem entirely natural that the self made man and politician who built his career in Davao City would cultivate good relations with Muslims, who would provide a support base for Duterte.

But that does not make pure numerical sense though. Only about 20% of the inhabitants of Mindanao today adhere to Islam. The height of Islamic religious and cultural dominance in the region during the days of the Sultanate of Sulu are long over. The Muslim majority was long ago eroded, especially during the 20th century with the American colonialists and missionaries, and the settlement of Catholic Filipinos from the other islands and regions of the country.

The Moro-Islamic Filipino identity does indeed seem genuinely intrinsic to the man that is Duterte, rather than just a political stunt.

The question then is, how did a supposedly regional politician with regional interests managed to capture the imagination of Filipino voters throughout the whole country?


But more notably, there has been an ethnic conflict in Mindanao, which has manifested itself most violently in the form of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In March 2014, the MILF signed a peace deal with the government that brought to a close 17 years of negotiations and ended a decades-old armed conflict in the country’s south.

As a result, the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) was proposed and drafted, to establish new autonomous political entity known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, with greater autonomy for the region now operating under the framework of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

But the BBL, which had been criticised by some as unconstitutional, was stalled earlier this year. Then the Philippine Congress adjourned for campaigning for the presidential election held on 9 May.

As a result, the peace deal with MILF is not considered to have been sealed.

Duterte has promised to “correct the historical injustice committed against the Moro people.”

In his rallies, he had charged that the “people of Roxas” – which has become a shorthand for the national elites in Manila, who ostensibly support the establishment candidate for president Manuel “Mar” Roxas” – are “sweeping off” mineral resources from Mindanao, and leaving the Moros poor.

His plan is to introduce federalism to the entire Philippines, in place of the stalled BBL. If implemented, this would be a radical change in the political structure of the country, which is current administered by a highly unitary government.

This is a message that resonates way beyond the Filipino Muslim community in Davao and Mindanao.

Muslims in the new Cabinet

A spokesman for Duterte said in the wake of his victory that the president-elect would form a cabinet that would be representative of the country. Muslims will also form part of the Duterte administration, along with women and indigenous peoples.

Perhaps it is in Duterte’s relations with Muslim Filipinos, and especially in how he will enact change in Manila, that we may begin to see beyond the veneer of the foul-mouth president-elect.