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Why It Matters

Rodrigo Duterte will have his way

For the past week, Filipinos have been hearing hair-raising testimony from a self-confessed hitman that, in terms of sheer horror and plot complexity, can rival any Martin Scorsese mafia movie.

Mr Edgar Matobato told a Senate inquiry, with the calmness of a man reading a grocery list, how in 2002 he garrotted a suspect, then hacked his body to pieces. The hitman, now 57, said he was not acting on his own. He said he and his militia of six other men began killing in 1988. They disembowelled their "marks", or torched them, or fed them alive to crocodiles. By the mid-1990s, their small band would grow to squads of over 500.

When he walked away from it all in 2013, he said he probably had taken part in more than 1,000 murders. Mr Matobato said the goal was to strike fear into the hearts of criminals and chase them out of Davao city. And the man who gave the orders to kill, he said, was the city's then Mayor, Mr Rodrigo Duterte, who is now the country's President.

Despite the damning details, Mr Duterte remains as popular as ever. His allies in Congress tore at Mr Matobato's story, and promptly unseated the senator who presented him as her star witness, Ms Leila de Lima, who has been a stone in Mr Duterte's shoes since she began probing the Davao killings in 2009.

They then set in motion their own probe into Ms de Lima's supposed links to drug kingpins serving time at the national penitentiary.

 
 
 

It is unlikely Mr Matobato will be called to testify again, as the Senate committee on justice, now sans Ms de Lima as chair, resumes today its hearings on over 3,000 extrajudicial killings by police and vigilantes since Mr Duterte took office on June 30. In remarks often laced with invective, Mr Duterte has insisted that his war against drugs trumps human rights. On Tuesday alone, 13 drug suspects turned up dead across Manila.

Mr Duterte will have his way - and he wants the world to know it will just have to get used to it.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte will have his way'. Print Edition | Subscribe