Last night an SBS TV news report on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte triggered for me a difficult memory from my own stay in Davao City in 1983-84. Duterte was quoted telling business executives that he personally killed people while he was serving as mayor of Davao City several times from 1988.
The memory is consistent with Duterte's narrative about the lawlessness that existed in the city at the time and is now fostered by Duterte himself. It is from my stay with a poor family in a squatter area of the city as part of a three month exposure or immersion program that I did as part of my Jesuit formation.
The family lived in what I recall was a two room hut that was one of many built on a wooden platform over a swamp next the Jesuits' Ateneo de Davao University High School, the school Duterte had earlier been expelled from for misconduct. One of their sons had been killed days before in gun violence. I remember noting that he was about my age (23), or perhaps younger.
I vividly recall seeing the body laid out in a glass top coffin in one of the two rooms. I remember thinking that it looked peaceful and dignified even though he would have died in violent circumstances. It was only the second time I had seen a dead body (the other being my father four years earlier). For the duration of my two day stay, mourners would come by to pay their respects, as was the custom.
I guessed that the family must have agreed to having me stay, some time before this tragedy occurred, and felt that they could not withdraw from their commitment. But they did not seem particularly embarrassed or concerned about this circumstance of my visit. They played it down. I'm not sure if that was because they were embarrassed or in some kind of denial, or if - unthinkably - it was nothing out of the ordinary.
It could not have been true, but I couldn't help thinking that they regarded my visit as more important than the need to honour their own son in the wake if his killing. There was so much I did not know about what had happened. They did not give details and I did not ask.
In fact I was struck dumb by it and did not want to know any more. After saying goodbye to the family, I did not mention it to anyone. It was an experience unlike any I'd had before, and I could not process it. The Jesuits in the university community where I was based would have offered me good support, but my instinct was to repress it. It was something that I just put in a drawer like other souvenirs of my three month experience, and I have never spoken about it since.
There was another experience that I did talk about frequently because it involved a minor shock that I could handle much more easily. I even used it as an anecdote to report generally on my Philippines experience after my return to Australia. I was staying with somebody elsewhere in the country and observed a pistol in the drawer of his bedside table when he opened it. He saw that I noticed and was shocked, and explained that it was necessary to have a gun handy. That was a memory I could process and in fact dined out on it.
Both of these memories are consistent with the violence and lawlessness we are now hearing about during the Duterte presidency. I spent quite a lot of time visiting tribal peoples with the articulate and outspoken Irish Columban missionary Father Sean McDonagh, who would generously and helpfully interpret Philippine society and politics for me. Central to his narrative was the refrain 'life is cheap' in the Philippines.
Another socially aware figure who would share his analysis with me was a young Jesuit Joel Tabora. I noticed from a Google search this morning that he is now 69 and currently President of the Ateneo de Davao University. He has a long and very balanced interview from six months ago in a national newspaper, in which he goes a fair way towards justifying what Duterte is doing.
The interview does add some perspective to what is occuring in the Philippines. I took it as a suggestion that our rush to criticise Duterte's encouragement of extrajudicial killings requires more nuance than we as outsiders tend to give it. It helps me to begin to make sense of my freshly triggered memory of the slain son of my 1983 host family.