So much has been said about President Rodrigo R. Duterte’s all out war against illegal drugs, crime, and corruption. But I believe his real mission, the reason why he was destined to become president, is to provide the strong leadership to finally end the war that has divided many Filipinos for many decades.
Addressing the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) for the first time as President, during the AFP Change of Command last July 1, Duterte’s message was very clear: “The first job of a president is not to go to war, but rather, to bring peace to his land…My job is to bring peace. My job is to talk to the enemies of the state…And see if I can make a difference in our lives.”
“We cannot fight forever. We can only take so much,” he added later. He said that what he will spend on bombs and weapons, he would rather spend on what our people really need — housing, food, healthcare, education.
During his first State of the Nation Address (SONA), the first Mindanawon President was passionate and heartfelt as he reached out to both the Moro and the communist rebels: “Let us end the centuries of mistrust and war…let us end these decades of ambuscades and skirmishes. We are going nowhere and it is getting bloodier by the day.”
He talked about “our willingness and readiness to go to the negotiating table and yet we load our guns, fix our sights, pull the trigger.” He talked about the widows and the orphans and about feeling their pain and grief. He talked about how no amount of medals or money can compensate the loss of human lives.
These words were spoken by a man who, as a young prosecutor, tried cases involving both sides — the soldiers and the rebels — at the time when Davao City was dubbed as the “Nicaragua of Asia” or “killing fields.” This message comes from a mayor who had to govern a diverse city and balance the various interests of people with different identities, political and religious beliefs. This is a leader who forged a delicate truce with the Moro and communist rebels in his city and at the same time convinced the military and police to see things from a wider, more strategic perspective of peace and development.
Duterte understands the cost of violence and sees how pointless it is. He has responded to terrorist attacks, negotiated release of prisoners from opposing camps, provided and cared for the victims of violence from both sides, opened his city to evacuees from conflict-affected areas in Mindanao.
He never gets tired of explaining the difference between a common criminal and a true revolutionary. He is tough on the former and sympathetic on the latter. Because he claims to be “a leftist,” saying that he identifies with the poor and marginalized and recognizes the validity of their struggle for genuine liberation.
For a government official, he is comfortable talking about colonialism and imperialism. He understands the root causes of conflict and bravely declares that historical injustices were committed and they must be addressed. He is a rare politician who is not afraid to start his speeches, even while campaigning, with a lesson in history pointing out our people’s oppression and colonization even in front of diplomats of our former colonizers.
Because he knows our history, he recognizes the need to have constitutional and legal reforms to resolve our conflicts. His creative solutions are not bound within the limits of our current constitution and laws. He is aware of the structural injustices and the inherent bias of the current system in favor of the rich and powerful and against the poor and marginalized. So he thinks it is absurd to preserve the status quo that caused the conflict in the first place.
During the campaign, Duterte was always seen kissing the Philippine flag and stating proudly that he is a Filipino and he loves his country. He cannot bear to see fellow Filipinos suffering, especially in their own country. Ending that suffering is what motivates him to get up and work hard even at 71.
In Davao City, acceptance of diverse identities is a cherished cultural value. Duterte, when he was mayor, insisted that we all must live together harmoniously and learn to celebrate our diversity. Davao is a melting pot of various cultures. We all came from different places and belonged to different ethnolinguistic groups. But when we chose Davao as our home, we started embracing a new identity as Davaoeños and working collectively to develop and care for our shared community.
Duterte hopes to bring peace in the Philippines the way he did in Davao City. Instead of looking at diversity as a cause of conflict, he views it as a source of our strength. We may have different backgrounds, beliefs, and identities, but we have a shared identity as Filipinos and one country we all call our home. We all have a stake in it and a common desire for it to succeed.
Our survival as a nation and as a people depends on our ability to resolve our differences without killing each other. After all, we do not have to like each other to creatively and nonviolently solve our problems together. As President Duterte said, “If we cannot, as of yet, love one another, then, in God’s name, let us not hate each other too much.”
If President Duterte is able to end the war once and for all during his term, then I believe that not only was he destined to be our president, he may also be destined to get a Nobel Peace Prize.