'Dirty Harry' Duterte calls the shots

It is difficult to keep tabs on just how many times Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has said he personally killed someone.

It is just integral to the "Dirty Harry", take-no-prisoners mythos he has been cultivating to bolster his political capital. His aides say most of it is just bluster or "hyperbole".

But even when foreign governments and human rights activists call him out, Mr Duterte does not recoil. He, in fact, doubles down.

Last week, he told a group of businessmen that when he was mayor of the southern city of Davao, he would roam the streets on his motorcycle "looking for trouble".

"I was really looking for a confrontation, so I could kill," he said.

Two senators said his admission was grounds for impeachment.

"That is a betrayal of public trust, and that constitutes high crime… That is grounds for impeachment," said Senator Leila de Lima, Mr Duterte's long-time critic.

But did the Philippines' mercurial leader wince? No.

He instead later recounted, while on a state visit in Singapore, that he had in fact emptied an entire magazine of an M16 assault rifle on three men who abducted a woman in 1988.

"I don't really know how many bullets from my gun went inside their bodies, but it happened," he said.

On Monday, he retold that story, which he first recounted last year.

on SPH Brightcove

President Duterte meets the Filipino community in Singapore

Read also: I burned the flag of Singapore: 10 of Philippine's Duterte's most undiplomatic remarks

When he was running for president early this year, he would regale his supporters with tales of death and mayhem.

He recalled a prison riot in Davao in 1989. Inmates had taken an Australian missionary hostage. They later raped and killed her.

Mr Duterte said he was so angry he grabbed his Uzi submachine gun and stormed into the prison.

"I emptied one magazine clip. There was a firefight, and then every one of them was dead," he said.

When asked during the election campaign if he would own up to killing 700 criminal suspects, he replied: "No, they got it wrong. It was 1,700." These killings had been attributed to "death squads" purportedly under his sway when he was Davao mayor.

Read also: 'Barbaric' Duterte wants daily executions in Philippines

In an interview with Esquire magazine last year, he said the first time he killed a man was at 17.

"There was a tumultuous fight (on) the beach. We were young men, and we went to this beach. We were drinking. Suddenly there was this… I may have stabbed somebody to death. Something like that," he said.

So, why this air of nonchalance over killing? One reason is accountability, or the lack of it.

Except for an illiterate assassin who, in a testimony before the Senate, said he witnessed Mr Duterte unloading two magazines of an Uzi submachine gun on a government agent, no one has lodged a case formally accusing Mr Duterte of murder.

Not even the threat of impeachment unsettles him. He has even dared his critics: "Go ahead. Impeach me. I don't need this job."

In any case, almost no one in Congress, where Mr Duterte enjoys a "supermajority", is taking calls for his impeachment seriously.

Meanwhile, a majority of Filipinos are cheering him on, reserving their loudest applause for when he quotes his favourite refrain: "Do not destroy my country, or I will kill you."

Never mind that four in five of them worry that they, or someone they know, may end up dead in some alley, their heads wrapped in packing tape, mistaken for a drug addict.

In a speech on Monday, Mr Duterte said he believes there will be a time of reckoning, even for him. "I believe in karma. I'm 72, and I'm paying for all the bad things that I committed in the past... I know somehow that I am repaying my debts to God for doing something, sometimes the wrong thing," he said.

That may include killing. But he has always said that whatever he has done, he did so to save his country.

rdancel@sph.com.sg

Read also: Philippines defends Duterte killings as UN seeks probe
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This article was first published on Dec 22, 2016.
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