The legend called Digong

Muslim supporters capture a moment with Pres. Duterte. Malacanang Photo

Muslim supporters capture a moment with Pres. Duterte. Malacanang Photo

By Cristina DC Pastor

TAGUM City, Davao del Norte — At the rambling Hijo Resorts in this city dotted with graceful coconut trees, Rodrigo Duterte used to frequent the firing range every Sunday before he became president of the Philippines.

He would fire a few shots, usually with his best friend, relax a bit before heading out, according to a resident. He was nondescript, not flashy at all. There was nothing to indicate he would one day make history as the first president to come from the island of Mindanao.

“No more,” the resident replied when asked if Duterte, who had bragged to a BBC journalist he had shot three men dead when he was mayor, still frequented Hijo. “Busy na.”

That’s one tale passed on to visiting Filipino American journalists from New York who were invited to the Philippines on a familiarization tour of the Davao region.

Tourism Director for Region 11 Roberto Alabado said Duterte would always emphasize to his police officers to apply city ordinances equitably. No separate laws for the rich and the poor. One day, he said, Duterte dared his cops to issue him a traffic ticket.

“Sabi ni Digong, wag kayo matakot, basta lumabag ng batas tikitan niyo,” he said chuckling. “Sige, tikitan niyo ako.”

The Davao Night Market is back in business after September bombing. The FilAm photos

The Davao Night Market is back in business after the September bombing. The FilAm photos

Manila newspapers reported in September 2009 how Duterte received a ticket for driving his motorcycle without a helmet as required by law. According to Philippine Star, the then mayor’s security aide also received a ticket for the same violation.

No doubt Duterte – known by his nickname Digong — is well loved throughout the Davao region, also known as Southern Mindanao or Region 11. He was seen as fair, tough on crime, and he restored order in the city known during Martial Law as a hotbed of communist death squads. Residents say they felt safe under his leadership. There was a 9 p.m. curfew for loud karaoke singing, and an alcohol curfew at 2 a.m.

“We’re not telling them to stop drinking, just telling that if they want to continue they can do it in their homes,” said tour guide Ervin Bansot.

There’s another reason: “Usually employees who stay out late from drinking come to work feeling tired and sleepy, and cannot work efficiently. It’s just that,” Bansot explained to the visiting journalists. “It has nothing to do with curtailing human rights.”

Administrative region
In 1972, the Philippines was sliced into 11 regions, three days after Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law ostensibly for administrative efficiency. Critics believe it was to reward local politicians with their own fiefdoms. Today, there are 17 regions, including Davao, which are independent and which elect their own leaders.

Region 11 has five provinces – namely, Compostela Valley, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur, Davao Oriental and Davao Occidental. Davao City, the largest city in Mindanao, became the regional center. Duterte had been its mayor for seven terms beginning 1988 all the way through 2016 until he ran for president.

Durian is one of Davao’s top money earners.

Durian is one of Davao’s top money earners.

‘Charming, compassionate’
Cultivating his image as a “promdi” — provincial not city-bred – Duterte’s manner of speaking sits just well with Davaoenos. He does not sugarcoat but tells it like it is. He is known to crack green jokes, and expresses frustration using curses and expletives. “He is just like us” is a common sentiment.

By now, the story of Duterte ordering a cocky tourist to eat his cigarette when caught smoking in a public place is known around the world. The people we spoke to were not too sure if that incident actually happened but they were proud to weave it among the folk tales that cast Duterte as a fearless defender of law and order.

“You have to understand,” continued Bansot. “Digong is the first president to come out of Mindanao and the Visayas,” bringing the two regions together because Duterte was born in Maasin, Southern Leyte, a province in Eastern Visayas. His election was historic. “People from Mindanao were saying ‘it’s about time,’” he said. “There’s a lot of pride there.”

They shrugged off reports of extra-judicial killings of drug suspects committed by his police officers and their supposed henchmen. The Human Rights Watch said Duterte is engaged in a “systematic” and “abusive” campaign against drug dealers and addicts. Reports said as many as 7,000 to 9,000 suspects have been killed in the so-called ‘war on drugs.’

“Davaoeños generally don’t want killings, however, when the lives of the innocent are in jeopardy, then it’s a different story,” said Bansot, who described Duterte as “compassionate.”

“Duterte is very charming, wise and honest,” said travel agency executive Jobelle Co of Belle Horizon. “Despite him being ruthless and tactless sometimes, we can see how he truly loves Davao and the Philippines. I am not a Dabawenyo but I love him.”

“A tough man for criminals with a soft heart for good people,” said resident Samuel Alboro Libre.

Davaoeno teen with his traditional lute.

Davaoeno teen with his traditional lute.

Marawi aftermath
Davao leaders and officials are trying to pick up the pieces of disappointing tourism numbers following the months-long siege in Marawi City that led President Duterte to declare Martial Law across Mindanao.

Said Ralph Kristoffer Porio, a manager at Hijo Resorts Davao, “Just because something happened in Marawi City does not meant it will happen in Davao. Marawi is eight to 10 hours away from Davao!”

Last September, however, Davao’s Night Market was hit by a bomb attack which killed 14 people. Three suspects with ties to the rebel Maute Group were arrested. When we dropped by, there was security at the Night Market, where bags were inspected.

The leaders echoed how the declaration of Martial Law has made the region even more safe.

“Except for some checkpoints, you don’t hear any curtailment of freedom,” said one local leader. “We still see foreign tourists going to bars.”

© The FilAm 2017

The FilAm magazine was among the news organizations invited to a November 20-28 familiarization tour organized by the Philippine Consulate in New York, the Philippine Department of Tourism, and Philippine Airlines. Davao was the tour’s centerpiece destination.

The tranquil waters of Samal Island

The tranquil waters of Samal Island

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