“The Realm of the Punisher, Travels in Duterte’s Philippines” by Tom Sykes
BOOK & EVENT REVIEW IT WAS A DARK, stormy afternoon when Carmen, my other half, and I drove down to Portsmouth on the southern coast of England from London. It took us around two hours; we stopped for coffee along the way. But even a warm, foamy latte could not distract us from the corruptive regime that Duterte continues to inflict the Philippines with. It is a thought that plagues me, plagues many of my kababayans, day in and day out. As a leading member of the resistance in the UK and Europe, my colleagues and I – from DAMPi* and GAHDS** – are constantly finding new ways to publicise the continuous atrocities afflicting the Philippines. Beyond hosting public rallies in various European cities, we were searching for a new voice that could help continue to explain what was happening in the country. A chain of events Several months ago, browsing Facebook, I came across someone who did exactly that. An Englishman, Tom Sykes, had been writing about Duterte's Philippines and was on the cusp of publishing what he called a travelogue, chronicling his nine visits to the country into one book: “The Realm of the Punisher”. The book had been recommended on its sleeve by my favourite foreign writer on the Philippines, James Hamilton Paterson (Playing with Water,Ghosts of Manila and America’s Boy), and with an introduction by Professor Walden Bello, a leftist academic whose own personal political history is fascinating. It was impossible not to take notice of the book – so I did. By reading Tom’s words, something was ignited and illuminated within me. I realised: This was it. Everything collected in this book is what we have been trying to express. So it was with pleasure that I accepted Tom's invitation to his book launch at the University of Portsmouth, where he is a Lecturer. And more than this I accepted the invitation to speak at the book launch. (NB: I refer to him as Tom as I believe we have become friends.)
Thus, there we were, driving in stormy rain towards Portsmouth. Thankfully our hotel was a five minute walk from Eldon Hall, where the book launch was set to take place. We had a power nap, some coffee, then rushed to Eldon Hall. People were starting to come in. We bumped into Tom on the way in, and were introduced to everyone performing on the night: Dan McCabe, Louis Netter, Olly Gruner, Richard Peirce, David Angus and a young British-Filipina, Angel Mika Kemp (one of Tom’s students) who told us her story in Manila. On a nearby desk, copies of Tom’s book stood for sale along with other books that he had written or edited previously. With glasses of red wine in hand, the audience took to their seats, and the event got underway. I was surprised to find after the introductions that I was first in line to speak. So I did. First I spoke about “The Realm of the Punisher”, its revealing contents and the fascinating interviews with all sorts of personalities, and then I spoke a bit about what people like myself have been doing to expose Duterte and his troll army that spouts fake news. Then, I read my poem, entitled “I am a Filipino”.
Corruption never dies I composed “I am a Filipino” in 1983. I recited it in venues all over London, up until the fall of the Marcos regime. It felt poignant, incredibly poignant, to recite the poem again. Three, almost four decades had passed since I last did – and with the People Power Revolt in 1986, I thought my job was done. Alas not. Rodrigo Roa Duterte was brought to power, and the need for revolution became seemingly in vogue again. Which brings me back to Tom’s book. It’s a revelation. I liked the way it started, with a very apt quotation from his grandfather: “All went to shit in Manila”. It refers to the Japanese invasion, really, but in the context of today’s political climate, could easily refer to the creeping invasion by China. I prefer to think it encapsulates the rise of the killer Mayor from Davao, since it’s true that the Philippines is now in deep shit because of him – politically, economically, socially, psychologically and spiritually. Things come back around.
The book is full of cultural anecdotes. I thoroughly enjoyed his humorous touristic take on cultural aspects like cockfighting, sad things like comfort women (of the Japanese period), the rich and the poor divide – and even families that practically live in cemeteries. His attempts at educating Filipinos on things British were interesting too. For one, people were surprised to find out he was English, and to learn more about the UK's geographical composition. Tom’s poet friend Joel thought that the only thing Filipinos knew about England was Harry Potter and Mr Bean. Not quite true, of course – with almost half a million Filipinos across the United Kingdom sending financial and social remittances back home, their families would at least be quite knowledgeable about this country now beset by Brexit issues.
There are also gems of interviews with ordinary citizens, as well as noted personalities: a serious talk with the novelist Jose ‘Butch’ Dalisay whose nephew’s girlfriend was a victim of extra judicial killing; the novelist F Sionil Jose who still does his writing with a manual typewriter; a rather comical interview with communist revolutionary Joma Sison, still in exile in Utrecht; and surprisingly, a written interview with the poet Rebecca Anonuevo. For me, this last interview was the saddest of them all. Anonuevo is an award-winning poet I used to admire for her Tagalog poetry. I had the pleasure of meeting her in London and listen to her poetry recitals back in the 1990s, at the poet/writer Jun Terra’s residence in London. Reading the interview, I learned that she has become an ardent supporter of the president. I find it incredibly hard to understand – and indeed reconcile – how one who was a staunch feminist decades ago seems to now be supporting Duterte’s extreme misogyny. (In case you are not aware, Duterte has said some vile things about women, including that he wanted to be first in line to rape a missionary Australian, and giving orders to his soldiers to shoot female guerrillas in the vagina.) As for the revelations made about Rodrigo Roa Duterte himself, I value everything expressed in the book. Tom’s words document how the old man from Davao managed to hoodwink every Filipino. He would run, he would not. He even told Senator Sonny Trillanes apparently prior to the elections that he would not run as it might kill him (with his medical conditions then). And yet he still ran for the presidency, apparently all part of the strategy to get people wanting him to run. Sixteen million voted for him (I did not) – and the extra-judicial killings (abbreviated as EJKs) conducted in the name of what turned out to be a fake "war on drugs" were solemnly set in motion from the day he took his seat in Malacanang Palace. From the ashes With near death experiences involving jeepneys and a reversing Subaru, and who has suffered food poisoning during one trip, Tom has surely earned his stripes. He’s written an almost encylopaedic collection of facts and anecdotes about the Philippines which anyone can dip into, from historical times to the wartime era, from heroes to dictators, up until today, the period of Duterte. It is the first book, as far as I know, that details the current Philippines, warts and all, centering on Duterte’s impact on Filipinos.
The story is of course far from over. Tom will be in a good position to document the inevitable fall of Duterte – whether it turns out to be illness, assassination, or ignominious arrest by the International Criminal Court that claims him in the end. When the anticipated phoenix-rising of Filipinos from this dark chapter in Philippine history takes place, I hope Tom will be there, pen at the ready. *** You can purchase “The Realm of Punisher” online from Amazon, Signal, Wordery, Blackwell's, eBay and Book People. [Gene Alcantara, London]
DAMPi – Democratic Alliance Movement Philippines International (based in the Philippines), with DAMPi Gentle Touch being its UK/European counterpart
GAHDS – Global Alliance for a Humane Democratic Society