June 19, 2016

Philippines: Strong Man Emerges

Yohannan Chemarapally

THE Philippines, long used to dynastic politics, has for a change elected as president a grassroots politician, Rodrigo Duterte from Mindanao. The two previous occupants of the Malacanang Presidential Palace, Gloria Macapagal and Benigno Aquino, were children of former presidents. The candidate who stood second in the elections, Mar Roxas, is also the son of a former president of the Phillipines. Rodrigo Duterte, the tough talking long serving mayor of Davao City, who will be the new president of the Philippines rose from a much humbler environment. He will be the first mayor and the first resident from Mindanao to occupy the highest office in the country. In a crowded field of candidates, he won more than 38 percent of the votes polled, leaving his rivals far behind. The outgoing president had backed Roxas, saying that electing Duterte would be akin to the return of the authoritarian Marcos era. He had openly called on the other candidates to unite against the 71 year old Duterte. There were of course no takers for his appeal. Under Aquino, the country's foreign and security policies had taken a pronounced pro-American and anti-China tilt. He strengthened relations with the US by signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The Americans were allowed back into the bases from which they were kicked out in 1992. Under the Agreement signed last year between Washington and Manila, the American military will also gain access to other key military, naval and air force bases in the country. The Aquino administration embraced Washington's military pivot to the East and along with Japan, playing a key role as America's main allies in the South China Sea territorial dispute. Even by the raucous standards of elections in the country, Duterte ran a no holds barred campaign. He vowed to eliminate crime using unconventional means. He had said last year that his crime fighting strategy was “kill them all”. In a recent campaign speech, he said that he personally would hunt down those who break the law. Rising crime, unemployment and poverty were the emotive issues of the 2016 presidential campaign. On the campaign trail, Duterte said that if elected, he would prioritise these issues. 25 percent of the population in the Philippine is below the poverty line. Only 58 percent of the population has full time employment. Another of his top priorities is the ending of the war that has been going on in southern Philippines since the late 1980's. Duterte is known to have good relations with Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New Peoples Army (NPA). The leader of the CPP, Jose Maria Sison and the new president elect have known each other for a long time. Duterte was Sison's student in the University of Manila. Sison, who taught political science at the university is the founder of the CPP. The veteran communist leader who has been in exile since the mid-eighties has said that he is willing to return to the Philippines if peace talks start in earnest. More than 30,000 people have been killed since the NPA insurgency started. Duterte has already re-established contact with his old teacher. He was shown talking to Sison who is based in Netherlands via Skype. In the transcript of the video, Duterte is seen telling Sison that he would follow the “path of socialism”. He went on to add that though he was not a CPP member, he “belonged to the Left”. Sison had earlier praised Duterte' s determination “to wipe out corruption and criminality.” Some observers of the Philippine political scene are of the opinion that the support of the CPP played a big role in ensuring a sweeping victory for Duterte. A right wing senator, Antonio Trillanes, who once was part of a failed right wing army coup has warned Dutarte that sections of the army view his relations with Communists with a great deal of suspicion. Some right wing politicians and elements in the army are accusing the president elect of planning to form a coalition government with the CPP. The president elect has said that he plans to meet with Sison before formally taking office. He has already said that he is not averse to the idea of releasing long incarcerated Communist prisoners and kick starting peace talks with the CPP once again. The peace talks were restarted after President Aquino took over in 2010. The talks were called off in 2013 with both sides accusing each other of insincerity. TACKLING CRIME AND CORRUPTION But it was his tough stance on tackling crime and corruption that seems to have struck a responsive chord among the voters. In many of his speeches, he vowed to launch an all-out drive against criminals in the first six months of his presidency. He said that the streets of Manila will “be very bloody”. Human Rights Groups have been very critical of his extra-judicial methods in Davao City but it has not stopped him from promising more of the same on a grander scale covering the whole country. As mayor of Davao City, his tough approach eliminated violent crime from the streets. Before he took over, the city had the reputation of being the most violence prone in the whole of the Philippines. Today it is considered as among the safest cities in the world. Duterte has been accused of using vigilante death squads to eliminate hundreds of criminals as mayor in the two decades he has been running Davao City. At the same time, he has been given credit for being a good administrator by many women rights groups. Under Duterte, Davao City developed a “gender and development code” that tried to create equal opportunities for women in government. As mayor, he also set up a Crisis Center for female victims of violence. Duterte, whose jokes on women and sensitive issues like rape may sound jarring and off-putting for an outsider, uses them as a ploy to distinguish himself from the other presidential candidates who were from elite backgrounds. Though, he himself is a law graduate from a top law school. It will be interesting to watch the shape of the country's foreign and security under the Duterte presidency. The president elect has taken a tough stance on the issue of Philippine sovereignty over the South China Sea dispute. In his typical style, he said that he would take a jet ski to the Spratly islands and plant a Philippine flag there. The CPP too, which professes to a Maoist ideology, in a statement released after the Duterte victory, “challenged Duterte to assert the national sovereignty of the Filipino people and defend the territorial integrity of the Philippines.” Duterte however is hedging his bets. He has said that if the multilateral talks supported by Washington on the dispute fail, then he is open to direct negotiations with Beijing. President Aquino had taken the dispute to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS). Beijing has said that it would not accept the judgment of the Court on the maritime dispute. Duterte has said that he too has a similar position. “I don't believe in solving a conflict through an international tribunal”, he told the media. China has been a proponent of direct talks between the affected countries without outside involvement. Duterte said that if talks with China materialise and are successful, he would invite Chinese companies to invest heavily in infrastructural projects in the Philippines. One of his dream projects is to build a railway connecting Manila to Mindanao. “Build us a railway just like you built in Africa, and lets set aside disagreements for a while”, the president elect said in what is viewed as a conciliatory message to Beijing. Duterte has also said that he is open to collaboration with China on oil and gas exploration in the disputed area. Duterte would in all probability seek to balance ties between the two superpowers in the region, the US and China. Many Filipinos are justifiably of the view that they are caught in the middle of a conflict essentially pitting Washington against Beijing. Duterte has expressed doubts about Washington's sincerity in its commitment to protect Philippine sovereignty. He said that the warships Washington has deployed in the area could have prevented the Chinese takeover of the Spratly and the Paracel islands. The Americans have reasons to be worried about the Duterte presidency. If Manila walks out of the military alliance with Washington, the Obama administration's military re-balancing to the East will be in jeopardy. The Philippines is the lynchpin of America's military pivot to the Asia Pacific. GRIEVANCE AGAINST WASHINGTON On an individual basis, Duterte has a long standing grievance against Washington. More than fourteen years ago an American, Michael Terrence Meiring was found injured after an explosion in his hotel room in Davao City. A suitcase full of explosives he had checked in with had exploded in his hotel room. He was charged by the Davao police of illegally importing explosives. Meiring however did not have to face justice in the Philippines. As he was being treated in the hospital, a couple of Americans, showing FBI badges barged into the hospital and spirited him away first to Manila and then out of the country. It was an affront to the tough guy image that Duterte had cultivated in Davao City. He was angered by the fact than a criminal suspect was allowed to escape under American protection. Duterte acknowledges feelings of “hatred” towards the US, stemming from that episode. American officials have never denied that they helped Meiring to flee the country. It is being speculated that Meiring was on a clandestine mission in Mindanao. Around the time he was there, the island of Mindanao was rocked by mysterious explosions. An explosion in the city of General Santos, 150 km south of Davao City had killed 15 civilians. The government forces were fighting the NPA as well as insurgent Islamic groups, like the Abu Sayyaf during that period. The Bush administration was itching to deploy American special forces in the conflict. The mysterious bomb explosions helped persuade the Philippine government to openly call for American military help. Many Filipinos believe that Meiring was behind the mysterious bombings. Duterte has not been in favor of the American military presence in Mindanao. In 2013, he had refused permission to the Americans to base military drones in Davao City. He said at the time that American drones have had a reputation for targeting civilians. American special forces are now actively engaged in the fight against the Abu Sayyaf and other militant groups. The Abu Sayyaf has recently sworn allegiance to the Islamic State. For relations to continue as before between the two countries, Duterte would first of all expect a full revelation of what exactly transpired in the Meiring episode. Terrence Meiring died some years ago in the United States, taking his secret to the grave. The United States historically has been the main ally of the Philippines. The ruling class and the oligarchs who control the economy have a pronounced pro-American bias. At the same time, they also know that there are economic benefits by engaging with their next door neighbour, China.