The underlying tension of Duterte's carefree Philippines

The Filipino businessman was in effusive mode, extolling the many virtues of Rodrigo Duterte???, controversial president of the Philippines since mid-2016 and rivalling Donald Trump for the sheer unorthodoxy of both the style and substance of his rule.

"He's brought a sense of purpose and confidence - just look at the investment flowing in," he said with a flourish of his hands, adding that his own import-export business had never known better times.

We are sitting in an airport bar in Singapore waiting for the flight to Manila, and I tell him I am going on a short visit for some academic work. Things have changed since my last visit, pre-Duterte, in 2015, and I venture some concerns about rising levels of violence.

A brief frown clouds his face and he asks me where I am staying in Manila. I tell him and he smiles. "You really don't have to worry about EJK there. Just relax and enjoy," he says, raising his glass in salutation.

EJK, I quickly learn, is an abbreviation of extra- judicial killing - the name given to the Duterte-led offensive against suspected drug dealers and other criminal elements.

Campaigning for the presidency, the former lawyer and long-serving mayor of Davao City pledged, if elected, to wage war on drugs, crime and corruption and vowed to "kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable." At his inauguration, he promised that his administration would be "sensitive to the state's obligation to promote and protect" the human rights of citizens and uphold the rule of law.

In his mayoral role, Duterte's political success has been attributed to his vocal support for the extra-judicial killing of drug dealers and users and other suspected criminals, with human rights groups documenting more than 1400 killings allegedly by "death squads" operating in Davao between 1998 and May 2016. In 2009, the Philippine Commission on Human Rights confirmed the "systematic practice of extrajudicial killings" in Davao, with Duterte, at various times, both confirming and denying his involvement.

However, in January last year, just months before Duterte became president, the Office of the Ombudsman closed an investigation, stating it had found no evidence that the Davao "death squads" existed, and no evidence to connect the police or Duterte with the killings. That decision to close the investigation is now being reviewed

Once Duterte became president, the Davao pattern became a national pattern. The NGO, Human Rights Watch, reported at the end of 2016, just six months into his presidency, there had been "an unprecedented level of killing" by law enforcement as well as "unknown vigilantes," constituting a 20-fold increase over the six months before he took office.

According to the Philippine National Police, the death total from extra-judicial killings passed 7000 in January 2017, after which the police stopped publishing data. In a wave of condemnation from United Nations human rights experts, Duterte threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the UN and form a new organisation with China and African nations.

The Catholic Church in this predominantly Catholic country has added its voice to the international concern, having organised a commemorative bell-ringing at churches in August as a prayer for those who have died. This Sunday, (November 5) a new campaign will be launched to start a healing process.

Auxiliary Bishop Jose Elmer Mangalinao from Dagupan City said in a television interview that the healing campaign following on from the "stop the killing" campaign would aim for a deeper interaction with those who have a role in stopping the violence, a reference to both law enforcement personnel and politicians.

Meanwhile, international criticism has done little to dent Duterte's undoubted popularity at home.

A taxi driver on the way from Manila airport told me Duterte had promised to make life better for ordinary people - and that was already happening at street level on a daily basis.

"Look around here - no beggars. Once they were everywhere, bothering people, making a nuisance, but now they have all gone." Where to? I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. But maybe they were just afraid to stay," he said with a nervous laugh. Another thing, he said, was that smoking in public places had stopped with strict enforcement of smoking only in designated areas.

A senior teacher at an elementary school said he had not voted for Duterte, but acknowledged he was giving the people what they wanted - a sense of empowerment.

"I was part of the people power rallies in the 1980s, opposing [former dictator] Marcos. Filipinos like a strong leader, and there is now some nostalgia for Marcos, even though Marcos was corrupt. Duterte has promised to end corruption, but that might take a long time - and he is now 72. In any case, he has broken the cycle of the same old faces and families running things, and I think he is making people feel better."

How does he feel about the killings? "I am not sure what to think, and I sometimes wonder if these are the big guys or just the little ones. But what I know is that he is doing what he said he would do, and people admire that. He is not like other politicians."

Walking through the airport-style metal detector at the heavily guarded shopping mall next to my hotel and eyeing the young policeman outside the hotel with his tightly clutched military assault rifle, I am aware of an underlying tension that contrasts with the carefree looking and smiling people going about their lives.

What is frightening, most of all, is how the extraordinary is quickly assimilated into the ordinary; how the abnormal becomes the normal. The term "EJK" has entered the vernacular; you hear it on the radio; it is in newspaper headlines.

Something quite terrible has happened.

Dr Norman Abjorensen, of the Australian National University's Crawford school of public policy, is a visiting professor at the Ateneo school of government at Ateneo de Manila University.

This story The underlying tension of Duterte's carefree Philippines first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.