Tom Sykes, The Realm of Punisher: Travels in Duterte’s Philippines, Signal Books, November 2019, pp. 288, £12.99

The Realm of the Punisher is an accessible and meticulously researched travelogue based on lucid, first-hand reporting, interviews with a profusion of notable people and close readings of textual sources dating back centuries. It leaves a strong impression of the Philippines’ social and political situation, which has grown more perilous since President Rodrigo ‘The Punisher’ Duterte came to power three years ago.

Sykes’ first inkling of the Philippines came from his grandfather who stayed in Manila, the capital city, just before the outbreak of the Second World War. Grandad contrasts the city before the war – an exotic paradise of “acacia-lined boulevards” and “handsome villas with capiz (oyster shell) windows” – with the city “[gone] to shit” after the Japanese had invaded. But we soon learn from this book that Japan was not the only foreign empire to have oppressed the Philippines; the Spanish ruled it through fear and religious authoritarianism until 1898, after which the United States brutally subdued a struggle for national liberation and occupied the islands for decades.

The US continues to exercise tremendous cultural and economic influence over the Philippines, a fact that Sykes discusses explicitly and addresses implicitly through images such as the men “selling helium balloons of Disney characters” who roam Katipunan, the neighbourhood he lived in from 2009 to 2010. But it doesn’t seem as if this closeness to American power has provided many material benefits to Filipinos, as the same neighbourhood is plagued with homeless “street kids” and chronically polluted with “acrid exhaust smoke”. Evocatively, Sykes equates Katipunan’s racket of drills, car horns and motorbike engines to instruments in an “avant-garde orchestra”.

Cleaner, quieter and less crowded is Davao City, in the far south of the archipelago. When Sykes visits in 2014, officials tell him that its peace and quiet is thanks, ironically, to Mayor Rodrigo Duterte’s “draconian” laws on smoking and licensing, not to say the regular state-sanctioned killings of methamphetamine dealers and underage petty criminals. When Sykes mentions the sheer number of journalists who have been murdered in this part of the Philippines, the reader starts to worry that he is getting embroiled in risky business.    

Other kinds of victims are amply represented in The Realm of the Punisher. After Duterte has been elected president of the Philippines and is rolling out his assassination programme at the national level, Sykes interviews an indigenous people’s rights activist who has been placed on a “death list” by the regime. Sykes also meets an aged female survivor of Second World War “sexual slavery” and a transgender rights advocate who says that abusers of LGBT+ people have a “deep hatred of anyone that is different”.

While visiting a huge Manila graveyard on the Day of the Dead, where “relatives [place] ribbons, tissues and lucky red envelopes of money on marble coffins and memorial stones”, Sykes considers the ambiguous role of Chinese-Filipinos within Philippine society. The embattled community, he writes, has a quality of “in-betweenness”, for it has “long occupied an unstable space amid opposites: hero and villain, native and expat, powerful and powerless”.

Equally as absorbing is an encounter (via Skype) with Jose-Maria Sison, an old-school, blowhard Marxist-Leninist dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of the Philippine state, and now exiled for his troubles in the Netherlands. After finding out that the US has designated Sison a “person supporting terrorism”, Sykes frantically phones the UK police to tell them that, should his communication with Sison be intercepted by the security services, he is not in any way a supporter of the old man’s violent methods.

Another intriguing personality is Frankie Salazar, a small-town politico on the opposite side of the political spectrum to Sison. His very first question to Sykes is, “Have you ever held a dying child in your arms?” For the sake of balance, Sykes is prepared to give space to those with whom he personally disagrees. An example is Rebecca T. Añonuevo, one of the few well-known Filipino writers who broadly supports Duterte’s mission to, as she puts it, “rid Philippine society of three things: illegal drugs; corruption; criminality.”

Sykes’ only regret – and it is the reader’s too – is that he did not manage to get an interview with ‘The Punisher’ himself. However, the other material Sykes has gathered helps to construct a jigsaw image of Duterte the man and the mythology around him, as well as what it is like to live in a country under his rule.

The Realm of the Punisher is published by Signal Books.

Words by Georgina Monk.

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