On October 26, 2002, Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao who was then at the threshold of superstar status, fought a Thai challenger for the World Superbantamweight title of the International Boxing Federation (IBF) before a jampacked Rizal Memorial Coliseum in Davao City.
That world title fight was spectacular not only because of the three knockdowns scored by Pacquiao over the hapless Fahprakorb Rakkiatgym who was ultimately knocked out in the first round and rushed to a Davao City hospital with a broken jaw.
The first world title fight to be held in Davao City which was supported by its colorful Mayor Rody Duterte was remarkable because it was the first time in the history of Philippine sports when soldiers, policemen, Moro rebels and members of the New People’s Army (NPA) gathered in one small venue to watch a boxing championship.
Coming to the fight on the invitation of Duterte, the warring groups who could have shot and killed each other had they been in the battlefield, enjoyed Pacquiao’s quick demolition of the challenger, a fight which helped propel him to stardom in the world of boxing following his classic match with Mexican boxing legend Marco Antonio Barrera.
The gathering of the warring groups in that event also provided people a glimpse into the mindset of Duterte, a leader who wants to embrace and unify all of his people.
“The NPAs and the Moro rebels are our brothers. They are fighting for a cause they believe in,” he said.
While he condemns the attacks made by rebels on civilians and government forces, Duterte said people have to understand that violence is inevitable in a rebellion.
“Violence is the main weapon of a rebellion. To stop the violence, we have to end the rebellion,” he said.
A former student activist who took to the streets during the Martial Law years, Duterte was molded by a very strict and strong-willed mother who not only taught her children to fight for what was right and just but to understand the meaning of compassion.
“We only have two options in dealing with these rebels: we talk to them or we kill them,” Duterte said when I asked him what how he would handle rebel groups in the country should he agree to run and become President.
“The second option will never be acceptable to me, not when it deals with people fighting for what they believe is right,” said the city mayor who is known for his tough and sometimes brutal dealings with drug dealers and criminals in his city earning him the Time Magazine monicker “The Punisher.”
Duterte’s relationship with the communists was adversarial at the start because as a public prosecutor, he handled the cases against suspected New People’s Army (NPA) commanders, including those accused of involvement with the hit squad Sparrow Unit which wreaked havoc in the city through a bloody assassination operation which targeted policemen and government officials.
When Duterte entered politics shortly after the EDSA Revolution, he organized a group of political mavericks in the city some of who were identified with the so-called “progressive groups,” a euphemism for those allied with the Left.
As his relationship with the Left-wing politicians strengthened, Duterte found a way to establish a modus vivendi with the armed group New People’s Army (NPA).
In the years when he served as Mayor for 18 years which was interrupted only by a 3-year stint as Congressman, Duterte befriended a feared NPA Commander, Leoncio Pitao, alias Kumander Parago, who was responsible for the abduction of several policemen and soldiers assigned in areas outside of Davao City.
The NPA under Parago showed so much respect for Duterte that Davao City policemen were never harassed by the communist cadres even when they penetrated the mountainous areas of the city.
Duterte also became an effective negotiator for the release of abducted soldiers and policemen, the last of which involved two Philippine Army soldiers who were released to the City Mayor before Christmas.
“I have been accused of giving the NPAs revolutionary tax. That’s ridiculous. Where will I get the money? I give them food and medicines if they need food and medicines just like my other constituents in the city because they are after all residents of Davao City,” he said reacting to accusations by anti-communist groups that he paid the NPAs over P100-M so that Davao City will not be harassed.
“It’s live and let live. We in the local governments have to devise our own way of dealing with the Communist insurgency because the national government has failed to end this problem,” he said.
Asked how he would handle the Communist insurgency should he agree to run and become President, Duterte said he would be willing to talk with communist leader Jose Maria Sison.
“I will personally go to the Netherlands and ask him what is it that he wants,” he said adding that protocols and official arrogance should be set aside in the search for peace.
Duterte said he would be willing to work with Sison and his group. This will be the same position he will adopt in dealing with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
“They really like to serve the people? As President, I can give them the social welfare, agrarian reform and even the environment and natural resources portfolios.” he said.
“But the President will have full control of the police and the military,” he added.
As part of the compromise to achieve peace, Duterte said he will demand that the NPAs disarm.
“Those who are qualified could join the police force or even the army. But those who will not disarm will be treated as common criminals and I will run after them with all the might of government,” he said.
Duterte said this would mean the end of the NPAs taxation in the countryside and this would also unmask the plain extortionists who claim to be communist rebels who are extorting money from businessmen, farmers and even teachers.
Adding that there will be no concessions on disarmament, Duterte said as President he will make sure that all para-military groups will be disbanded.
“Only soldiers, policemen and agents of the law will be allowed to carry firearms,” he said.
Duterte said he had been warned of the risks of dealing with the communists by well-meaning friends who cited the failed experiments in Indonesia and Nepal.
“We have to take the risk so that we could embark on a fresh start. If we do not do this in our generation, who will have the courage to end this rebellion?” he asked.
“If by God’s will I would become President, I do not want to face the Filipino people after six years and tell them “Sorry, I tried my best but I failed”. I would rather die than tell the people that I failed,” Duterte said.
Stressing that while he has not yet made up his mind on the issue of the Presidency, he would like the Filipino people to understand that a Duterte Presidency will employ practical leadership.
“Governance is not complicated. It only requires common sense,” he said.
(Note: A longer and more detailed version of this story will appear in the book “The Mind of Rody Duterte” which is expected to be launched in March this year. Manny Piñol)