A coup of his own

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Is President Rodrigo Duterte preparing a coup d’etat ala Marcos against the Republic and himself as a democratically elected president?

It was a joke, but like Mr. Duterte’s other off-hand remarks and past one-liners, it had an edge of seriousness in it.

Announcing that he would appoint Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff General Eduardo Ano to head the Department of Interior and Local Governments (DILG) once the latter retires from the military, Mr. Duterte said in Filipino that he would fill a still vacant post in the Cabinet with another military man to complete “my junta.”

He went on to say that the military would then have no need to launch a coup d’etat because “they’re already in the government; they would be in charge.” “As for me,” Mr. Duterte went on, “I’m tired,” which could mean he’s tired of being president, or tired of the legal limits to his power that prevent him from doing what he wants.

The Duterte joke would have passed into the growing collection of his puzzling and outrageous, apparently unrehearsed remarks during similar public occasions if it weren’t so close to describing how militarized his regime is turning out to be. If Ano and the still unnamed, other military nominee were indeed appointed to the Cabinet, they will be the ninth and tenth government officials with military backgrounds in the Duterte administration.

In a distressingly rightward, calculated shift in his environmental policies, Mr. Duterte earlier named Roy Cimatu, who was AFP chief of staff from 2001-2002, to replace Gina Lopez as Secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). His National Security Adviser, Hermogenes Esperon, was also AFP chief of staff. So was National Irrigation Administration chief Ricardo Visaya.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana is a retired Army general. The head of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, Ricardo Jalad, is also an Army retiree. Occupying less prominent government posts are Customs Commissioner Nicanor Faeldon, who incidentally was once involved in a coup attempt during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo regime; Sweepstakes General Manager Alexander Balutan; and National Food Authority Administrator Jason Aquino. All were also in the military.

These appointments are consistent with Mr. Duterte’s declaration, made on several occasions, that he prefers to appoint officials who’re former military men, on the assumption that they’re as ruthlessly efficient as he fancies himself to be. But these appointments also suggest how seriously he’s taking rumors of an impending coup — and even more significantly, seem part of a preemptive strategy to prevent military attempts to oust him from power.

As astute as that strategy may be, its implications are nevertheless serious enough for Mr. Duterte to reconsider further packing his administration with officials with a military background. Trained and ideologized by a military establishment that has evolved into a major power broker in Philippine governance and politics, his appointees already constitute a formidable force for social and political stasis — for keeping things the way they are, or even restoring long discredited public policies and practices.

But to expect Mr. Duterte to stop appointing human rights violators, defenders of dynastic rule and agents of imperial hegemony to critical posts may be a misplaced hope. No general has publicly declared disdain for human rights, but Mr. Duterte has done so. No general will declare a preference for restoring the death penalty and for hanging, but Mr. Duterte has said so on numerous occasions. No Philippine president since Ferdinand Marcos has ever openly declared that he might place the country under martial law, but Mr. Duterte has several times said he would do it despite Constitutional limits — he has even threatened to “disobey” the Supreme Court if it rules against his policies — if it will halt what he claims is the country’s descent to imminent ruin due to the drug problem.

Mr. Duterte sounds more and more like a herald of the soon to be restored past rather than the socialist visionary he once claimed to be. It leads to suspicions that he’s not only preempting a military coup, but even preparing for a coup of his own in the manner of Ferdinand Marcos, who did it by declaring martial law — and who also militarized the bureaucracy and packed the military with his appointees in preparation for 1972.

Otherwise known as martial law, the 1972 Marcos coup d’etat was a putsch against both the Republic as well as himself as a duly elected president under the 1936 Constitution. It was the only successful coup in Philippine history for several reasons.

The first is his having prepared for it from the moment he was elected to a second term in 1969. He made sure that he had the support of the military by putting retired officers in government and by appointing to the general staffs of the armed services only those he could trust. He also packed the Supreme Court with conservative, pliant justices.

But it succeeded primarily because he was at the head of his own coup against himself. Unlike the military establishments of neighboring countries such as Indonesia and Thailand, the Philippine military needs politician-patrons to invest attempts to seize power with any sign of legitimacy. The Philippine military is not a class in itself, but merely an appendage of the ruling elite. Events subsequent to the overthrow of the Marcos terror regime bear this out. Every coup attempt by military groups during and after the Corazon Aquino regime had politicians behind it, with the putschists acting under their orders and direction.

By appointing enough military men to complete his junta, Mr. Duterte is also putting himself at its head as its creator and prime mover, and he need only declare martial law once everything else is in place. He has already said that he can solve all of Mindanao’s problems by declaring martial law there, and has implied that he can do the same for the entire country through the same means. He will need total military support to do either.

By suspending the Bill of Rights and putting the military in command, such a declaration will open the floodgates to even worse military abuses than those already happening even without martial law. Despite whatever illusions Mr. Duterte may be entertaining, it will also keep the country in the same pit of poverty and underdevelopment that has been its lot for decades. The experience of the Philippines and other countries has established that authoritarian rule has never been the instrument of real change, only of the illusion of it.

Marcos claimed he wanted “to save the Republic and reform society” in an attempt to show how well intentioned he was when he declared martial law. Instead he destroyed the Republic and savaged the awakened Filipino people’s efforts to democratize political power to further the country’s growth. What happened during the 14 years he was dictator not only proved the opposite of his claims; their consequences — the poverty and injustice, the human rights violations and the lawlessness of those charged with lawmaking and law enforcement — also haunt the country still.

First published in BusinessWorld. Images from Gov.ph.

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