Yesterday, a Fort Lauderdale woman became a pivotal figure in Asia when she critiqued a controversial Filipino politician. Like a certain American candidate, Rodrigo Duterte is running for president while saying and doing outlandish things — and yet, is dominating polls and drawing huge crowds to rallies. But Duterte makes Donald Trump seem like a harmless clown. The Filipino has bragged about having people murdered and wished aloud that he'd had sex with a rape victim.
Robin Haines Merrill says she's amazed that a Facebook post she made about Duterte has gone viral and become international news. "It may really rock his candidacy," she said Sunday night.
Duterte, 71, has been the mayor of Davao City for more than 20 years. He has been credited with turning the city around, from having one of the highest murder rates in the world to being called the fourth-safest city in the world. But he has also faced criticism for encouraging vigilantes to execute criminals; about 1,000 people have been murdered in such fashion during his tenure. Duterte's nickname is "The Punisher," and he has repeatedly made comments like, "If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal... you are a legitimate target of assassination." He also boasts of sexual prowess, having said that he has two wives and two girlfriends.
On Saturday, video surfaced of Duterte talking about an incident in 1989, when inmates at a jail took hostage and murdered five missionaries, and he in turn ordered that troops storm the jail, where they killed 16 men. Duterte said that when he saw the corpse of a young Australian missionary, Jacqueline Hammill, he thought she was "so beautiful" that he "should have been first."
According to translated video posted by the Sydney Morning Herald, Duterte said onstage during an event, "I looked at her face, son of a bitch, she looked like a beautiful American actress. Son of a bitch, what a waste. What came to mind was, they raped her, they lined up. I was angry because she was raped, that's one thing. But she was so beautiful, the mayor should have been first." The audience laughed and whooped at his speech.
Merrill, who once was a missionary in the Philippines herself, dared to denounce Duterte on Facebook, launching headlines and forcing him to respond.
When Merrill was growing up in Detroit in the 1970s and early ’80s, she partied. She smoked and sold marijuana and went to art school. Her media training led her to work on a TV show, Faith for Miracles, that was run by a local evangelical preacher and aired on a UHF channel. She was skeptical, but in the course of that work, she says, she witnessed miracles and became born again.
She went on to work as a Christian missionary in the Philippines from 1985 until 2000, when the severe air pollution made her too sick to remain. She was there during the People Power Revolution, when demonstrations led to the ouster of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the institution of democracy. During her service there with a group called Action International Ministries, Merrill hung around brothels, helping women and transvestites leave lives of prostitution by offering them job training, financial help, and spiritual guidance. She remembers being shaken when Hammill was raped and murdered. Though the two women worked in different regions and never met, Merrill felt a kinship.
So this weekend, Merrill was furious when she saw the video of Duterte.
She moved to Florida in the early 2000s but still follows Filipino news and knew of his appeal. "There was savagery down [in the region where he is mayor]," Merrill explains. "He got stuff under control, vigilante-style. The Philippines is in distress now, and a lot of people want a strong-arm leader to go in, Dirty Harry-style, and wipe people out. He's winning."
He draws fervent crowds to rallies and has said that if he is elected, he will bring his harsh style of justice to the whole country. More criminals will be shot, hung, or drowned, he has promised: "It's going to be bloody," he said of his proposed presidency. "People will die."
Saturday night, Merrill was cleaning her home and found a photo of herself from the 1980s playing flute to inmates in a jail while they watched her from behind bars like caged zoo animals. Hours later, coincidentally, she heard Duterte's speech in the Tagalog language, which she understands. She posted the photo and the following message on Facebook:
ON BEHALF OF MY SISTER IN CHRIST, MISSIONARY JACQUELINE HAMILL, I PUBLICALLY DENOUNCE THE PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACY OF DUERTE, IN THE PHILIPPINES. Jacqueline was raped and had her throat slit while ministering in the jails in southern Philippines in a 1989 hostage taking. Duerte was recorded this week saying in his political rally that while he ordered the killing of the hostage takers while he was mayor, he wished he could have raped her first, since she was so beautiful. Looking back on this photo, I realize ministering in jails as a woman is very risky and looks outright naive, like the "you got what was coming to you" mentality that is prevalent today. But all ministry and everyday LIFE is a big risk, and we must be obedient to the voice of the spirit of God, even if it leads us to death. Jacqueline's death affected me deeply personally, as I had been visiting just about every jail in Manila with the ACTION/CGM teams from 1986-89. I couldn't yet speak the language but I could play the flute and just show love to people in horrible situations. LOVE TRUMPS HATE. DON'T STOP LOVING. DON'T VOTE FOR PEOPLE who speak vile things against WOMEN!! We are ALL made in the Image of God!!
Merrill's words were reported by news outlets throughout Asia and the world, forcing Duterte to respond. Alas, his response was, "I'm not joking... If it brings me down, let it bring me down. If it brings me up to the presidency, then well and good. I will serve you, but I will not as a matter of honor apologize for it."
Representatives of the current president, Benigno Aquino, said the comments reflected Duterte's "lack of fitness for the presidency" and his "utter lack of respect for women."
Merrill said she felt compelled to comment because "I'm over it right now — the way people treat women. The way the church represses women. The way society represses women. And I'm sick of the way men think it's just a joke."
She says she's amazed that her comments went viral — "I'm sitting here in Fort Lauderdale, and it's all over the freaking international news. It might tumble the elections. He was winning — he was like Donald Trump."
But ultimately, she says, she wasn't acting from a political standpoint but a human one. "It's about honor and respect for a person killed, defending the honor and memory of a sister in Christ. I wasn't doing any kind of personal attack."