Manny Pacquiao, Duterte’s perfect match in the drug war?

Philippine President Rodrigo DutertePhoto: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

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By Dung Phan

Far away from the boxing ring in the United States where Manny Pacquiao had his first fight, to the stage in the Philippines where Duterte first delivered his inauguration speech, there was one unifying thread between sheer momentum: their popularity.

Pacquiao, known as “the destroyer” or “Fist of Nation” embodied the country’s struggles and triumphs, becoming the public face of the Philippines. Duterte, nicknamed as “the punisher” emerged beyond the ruling elites with a very modest lifestyle but a strong commitment to transforming the country. And behind their friendship which dates back at least 15 years is a mutual support, political wills and a question over its influence on the Philippines’ future.

When Pacquiao admitted for the first time he had used and experimented all kinds of drugs as a teenager last week, he also proudly praised his friendship with Duterte, stressing that the Philippine President provided him financial support. “He helped me a lot. He helped me with the promotion when I started in boxing. One of my fights held in Davao, he sponsored it,” he told Reuters.

Both Pacquiao and Duterte shared the initials of a group called Guardians Mindanao Brotherhood tattooed on their hand, meaning “a fraternity” as Pacquiao called. It set off in 1976 during the Dictator Marcos’ Martial Law as an informal military group. Being allegedly anti-communist and pro-Marcos, “guardians have been in nearly each coup attempt since July 1986”, reported in a fact-finding commission chaired by Hilario Davide, former chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines.

Shield from human rights critics

Although Pacquiao first supported Jejomar Binay, Duterte’s rival in the presidential campaign, he then switched his allegiance to Duterte and also tried to reinstate the death penalty for “heinous crimes,” including drug dealing and trafficking. This, of course, is part of Duterte’s plan to combat his antinarcotic campaign. To express his utter support for Duterte, Pacquiao who even talks more about his trust in God than Ted Cruz said: “God put him there for a reason, for purpose – to discipline the people,” adding that the people had to respect the authority and “the anointed one.”

This echoed the way the boxing icon used the Bible to defend his attempt to restore the death sentence for drug traffickers as “approved by God.” “Having read the Bible on a regular basis, I am convinced that God is not just a God of mercy but he is also a God of justice,” he said, citing that Bible quotes supposedly back the death penalty. He also believes hanging is more “humane” than lethal injection.

Pacquiao’s call for the death penalty drew criticism from one of the Catholic Church’s leading Bible scholars, Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, for using the Bible to justify his personal opinion. “The Bible has been used much too often to justify even the most inhuman and ungodly things,” he said.
Pacquiao became a rare born-again Christian in 2012 in a predominantly Catholic nation. Even though he admitted the conversion changed his life in a way that “he and his wife are happier than ever,” his faith was called into question after he made a controversial statement comparing LGBT individuals to “animals.”

Meanwhile, Duterte has recently faced many allegations in which he is using his drug war to attack government critics as well as reviving the martial law. And it seems more evident when Pacquiao ousted one of the chief domestic critics of Duterte’s bloody war, Senator Leila de Lima as chairperson of the committee on justice and human rights a few weeks ago.

A product of overwhelming support

There is nothing wrong with fully supporting the duo Pacquiao and Duterte. In a country where nearly 20% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, an image of a penniless boy who had to stow away on a boat to the capital, transforming from nothing to everything through hard work, or a president whose personal collections are spy novels and unbranded shoes can provide the Filipinos inspirations and hopes for an escape from poverty.

However, a tough talker who shows no regard for diplomatic behaviours and hostility toward foreign leaders is indeed a product of the overwhelming support among the Filipinos. It is the popular support that gives him space to exercise his loud-mouthed habits. Rather than learning lessons after a number of times expressing regrets, he is trying hard to maintain his tough image.

Last week, Duterte likened himself to the Nazi leader, recalling that “Hitler massacred 3 million Jews”. “Now there is three million, what is it, three million drug addicts (in the Philippines), there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have (me),” he said in a speech after returning to the Philippines from a trip to Vietnam.

He then received a public outburst from the world. While World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder called these statements “revolting,” the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish group based in the US said the comments were “shocking for their tone-deafness.” And the remarks not only caused outrage among the Jewish Communities. The US Defence Secretary Ash Carter told a news conference that he personally found them “deeply troubling.” Meanwhile Brussels is now considering whether or not to push through with its scheduled royal visit to the Philippines. The consequences seem to be continued.

When Pacquiao called Duterte “the anointed one,” he added that the president “always gives a chance to people who want to be changed.” But with a supermajority support he now enjoys in the country, who will be critical enough to justify that more than 3,100 people did not deserve the second chance? A wide range of international criticism is not enough.