Just for laughs

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The gulf between what President Rodrigo Duterte says and what he does is raising already dangerous levels of cynicism about government and governance even among those who supported him in the 2016 presidential elections. But he doesn’t seem to be aware of it. Even if he were, it’s doubtful if he would at all be concerned, secure as he is in the conviction that his loyalists will continue to support him, anyway.

One can nevertheless sense the rising tides of doubt and uncertainty in the desperate attempts to keep alive their hopes for a better future among those who sincerely believed — these do not include the regime’s bought-and-paid-for trolls and media mercenaries — that he would bring about the changes he promised. But they’re having a difficult time holding on to those hopes in the context of Mr. Duterte’s backtracking on, and even contradicting, his pre- and post-election promises.

Imagine his more discerning partisans’ discomfort over his declaration that he means only two out of every five statements he makes, apparently including those he dispensed so freely during the 2016 campaign. He said precisely that in Manila, during the 115th anniversary of the corruption-ridden Bureau of Customs last year.

“Out of five statements I make, only two are serious; the others are pure nonsense,” he said then in Filipino, and proceeded to blame the media for believing that he means everything he says. Most of his statements, he continued, are just jokes to make his audience and himself laugh.

Apparently it was also for laughs, and he didn’t mean it either, when he said he would end labor contracting (“endo”) once elected to the presidency, despite assurances from his office this year that he would issue an executive order to that effect by May 1.

He has instead left it to Congress, from which he is so confident of enough support that he urged the House of Representatives to rush the impeachment of Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, after repeatedly denying that he was orchestrating that process. Despite the House majority’s being his personal rubber stamp, he stopped short of ordering his collaborators to end “endo” through legislation.

He didn’t mean it, and he indeed said so, when he promised the Filipino electorate in 2016 that he would take a jet ski to the West Philippine Sea to plant the Philippine flag on the islands China has occupied and the man-made ones it has built military bases on.

Few if any citizens expected him to literally do what he said. But many believed that he would defend and uphold Philippine sovereignty over its exclusive economic zone and territorial waters. Instead he has done exactly the opposite by allowing China free rein over what is undoubtedly Philippine territory, while he laughed at those who believed him.

Neither did he mean it when he said in 2016 that the US-Philippines military exercise in September that year would be “the last.” The exercise was nevertheless held again in May 2017. He reiterated the same thing early this year. But “Balikatan” is still going to be held this May.

The inevitable consequence of Mr. Duterte’s saying one thing and doing another, and his treating the responsibility of his office to inform the citizenry on what the government is planning and doing as one big joke, is to erode his credibility, question his capacity to lead this country to anything resembling authentic development, and encourage the belief that nothing can ever change.

The chaos in Mr. Duterte’s government may not be due only to the absence of any master plan to seriously address the country’s problems. It is also because of an erratic, often contradictory approach to policy-making that’s mostly shaped by self, family and class interests.

The Boracay issue is a case in point. To assuage public outrage, when asked about the possibility that a Macau-based group with one of his Filipino congressman-allies as local partner would construct a casino on the island, Mr. Duterte denied knowing anything about it despite photographs and a video that showed him meeting the company’s representatives in Malacanang last December. His spokesman also declared that no casino will be built in Boracay, after Mr. Duterte said he would designate it a land reform area.

Not only are those statements difficult to believe, given Mr. Duterte’s shoddy record of trustworthiness. There is also the island’s being closed by the Department of Tourism (DOT) not only to tourists but also to anyone else who may want to see for themselves what’s going on there during the next six months.

The same agency is putting together an accreditation scheme that will limit coverage of the supposed clean-up only to those journalists and media organizations the regime approves of. An accreditation system means that some applications will be approved and others denied. The DOT “Media Accreditation Guidelines” do not specify what the bases for accrediting journalists will be. But what is likely is that the scheme will prevent those journalists the regime regards as “sometimes partisan” from coverage. In addition, even those accredited can, and are likely to be, subjected to surveillance by the huge police and military contingents that have been deployed in Boracay.

As unconstitutional as these restrictions are, they provoke the suspicion that the regime has something to hide, among them the possibility that despite Mr. Duterte’s assurances, a casino will be constructed on the island by his friends from China’s Macau Special Administrative Region in exchange for who-knows-what
“considerations.”

That possibility is further reinforced by the fact that casino proponent Galaxy Entertainment Group already has a license from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corporation (PAGCOR) for the construction of a $500 million casino. According to a local government official, the company is also purchasing more land in Boracay through its Filipino partner in addition to what it already owns there.

A casino’s materializing in Boracay once it is re-opened to tourists despite Mr. Duterte and company’s assurances to the contrary will be one more brick in the edifice of citizen non-involvement in public affairs that’s evident in most Filipinos’ shrugging their shoulders rather than protesting or doing anything else about it whenever confronted by government incompetence, corruption, lawlessness, and lies.

The cynicism that drives political non-engagement, that is in turn based on public awareness of, and weariness with, the failings of the rule of an irresponsible, incompetent and self-aggrandizing political class, is the single, most ruinous factor that has made democratization so problematic since Philippine independence was supposedly restored in 1946.

To its advantage and to the detriment of the Filipino millions mired in poverty, injustice and underdevelopment, every regime since then has contributed to, and abetted, political apathy and non-involvement. Those millions’ only hope of realizing their aspirations lies in themselves: in their collective power as makers of history. But most have retreated into precisely the indifference that keeps things the way they have been for decades.

Many of them did believe in 2016 that Rodrigo Duterte was of a breed different from the Aquinos, the Roxases, the Marcoses and all those other dynasties that have made the Philippines the development laggard of Southeast Asia and the laughing stock of its neighbors.

They were wrong. The only thing that sets him apart from those other burdens on the Filipino fraction of humanity is that, through his far from amusing “jokes,” Mr. Duterte openly flaunts his contempt for the people and their hopes and aspirations, unlike his fellow autocrats who have long been successful in concealing it.

The Philippine government has always been a big joke. But only the current president has made that truth so distressingly obvious.

First published in BusinessWorld.

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