Move over Manny, Duterte is Thais' new fave

President Rodrigo Duterte has become the new icon of the Philippines for many Thais.
President Rodrigo Duterte has become the new icon of the Philippines for many Thais. PHOTO: REUTERS

Until the early 2000s, it was the folk song Anak. Then boxer Manny Pacquiao. These days, President Rodrigo Duterte is the icon for the Philippines as far as Thais are concerned. From taxi drivers to businessmen, Thais are generally curious about the tough-talking president and are keen to know if he is really solving crimes and if he is better than previous presidents. Mr Duterte will arrive in Thailand on Monday (March 20) for a three-day state visit and will meet Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha.

In Thailand, I'm often mistaken as a local. Once people find out I'm Filipino, they usually take one good look at me and blurt out "Duterte"!

Mr Rodrigo Duterte, the former mayor of a southern Philippine city who was elected president in May last year, has become well-known among Thais.

This has not always been the case though.

The point of reference until the early 2000s was Anak, a folk song that was released in 1978 and became so popular worldwide that it has been translated into 26 languages, including Thai. Taxi drivers would spontaneously sing parts of the song to show that they know something about the Philippines as a way of making conversation while mendearing through Bangkok's notorious traffic jam.

But Anak was soon replaced in the popularity meter by Mr Manny Pacquiao, the world-renowned boxing champ turned senator. Thailand, a boxing-loving country, had a lot of affection for the Filipino boxer that they'd even watch his matches live. Local media has followed his foray into politics as well. To Thais, Mr Pacquiao represented the Philippines.

Until Mr Duterte came along, that is.

Indeed, it's no longer strange to be sitting in a taxi with the driver saying: "Khon Filipin? (You're Filipino?) I know your president...Du-te-te."

Even before his election victory, Mr Duterte already captured the imagination of Thais because of his curse-riddled speeches. Many were curious if such a politician could win the presidency.

He also reminded some people of Mr Chuwit Kamolvisit, one of Thailand's most colourful politicians, because both have a tough guy image. Mr Chuwit is a massage-parlour tycoon and a former parliament member.

They would often ask in a mix of amusement and disbelief if Mr Duterte was really how he was portrayed in the media. And when he won, garnering 38 per cent of the votes in an election that saw 81 per cent of registered voters turning up, not a few colleagues and friends were torn between saying congratulations and wishing my country good luck.

When Mr Duterte called then US president Barack Obama "son of a whore", fellow journalists wanted to clarify if that was what he really said. To many, not just Thais, it was an unthinkable thing to do, name-calling the president of the world's top superpower. But Mr Duterte did that and it has won him not a few admirers.

Nation Multimedia group editor-in-chief Thepchai Yong observed that Mr Duterte in a way became the unwitting voice of smaller countries, especially in Southeast Asia, that were usually too timid to say anything against the United States, let alone its head of state. Mr Duterte was the David that dared to fight Goliath.

But Mr Thepchai said he did not agree with Mr Duterte's use of profanity.

Mr Champ Surapon, 36, a police officer, gave Mr Duterte a thumbs-up, saying "he's a tough guy to fight the US". Mr Surapon was especially curious if Mr Duterte's drug war was successful. "Drugs are bad for society, if he succeeds, then it's good. Less crime."

Businessman Veerachai Vachirakamtorn, 64, thinks Mr Duterte is better than other Filipino politicians. "It's good that you have a strong president, the others were corrupt," he said. He remembers "that woman president" who was charged with graft, referring to Mrs Gloria Arroyo - who took power after mass protests, was later elected president, charged with corruption, jailed and is now back in politics as a congresswoman, all in 15 years.

"I hope it's not just in the beginning, and he does not end up like the others," Mr Vachirakamtorn mused.

Surprisingly, many Thais are familiar with several other Filipino leaders: the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the first woman president Cory Aquino, the actor Joseph Estrada and Mrs Aquino's son, Mr Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III.

This interest in the Philippines may be attributed to how Thais strongly identify with their Southeast Asian neighbours. "Same same," they would often say.

And as political analyst Richard Heydarian noted, parallelisms can be drawn between the Philippines and Thailand especially under recent political circumstances. "Both are US Treaty allies that have had problematic relations with the US in the past three years. They belong to the same basket and I won't be surprised if there is a lingering sense of solidarity between the two," he told The Straits Times.

Both Mr Duterte and junta leader General Prayut Chan-o-Cha are tough-talking leaders, which is why many pundits are curious about how their meeting next week will turn out.

Mr Duterte will arrive in Bangkok from Myanmar on Monday evening for a three-day official visit. He will meet with General Prayut on Tuesday and the Filipino community on Wednesday before he flies back to Manila.

Thailand and Myanmar are the two remaining countries in the region that Mr Duterte has not officially visited yet as part of his introductory trips to Asean members. The Philippines is this year's Asean chairman.

Analysts believe that Mr Duterte and Gen Prayut would have a lot to discuss, although it is not expected to include the South China Sea territorial dispute. Several Asean countries have overlapping claims with China to parts of the resource-rich sea.

Professor Heydarian said he doesn't see Mr Duterte being on a "missionary mode to evangelise the region against China".

Analyst Kan Yuenyong, executive director of the Siam Intelligence Unit, said it is also highly unlikely that Thailand can commit to the issue since the junta has no clear international policy and it is more preoccupied with domestic issues.

This is Mr Duterte's second visit to Bangkok in four months. He came in November for a two-hour stopover to pay his respects to the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej before proceeding to Kuala Lumpur for an official visit.

He and Gen Prayut are set to sign three memorandums of understanding on science and technology, tourism and livestock. Gen Prayut will host dinner for the Philippine president at the Government House on Tuesday night.

"They have a similar style," said Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies. "When they see each other, they have a lot to talk about for sure."

yamleega@sph.com.sg