His defenders and partisans, as well as the trolls his regime pays out of public funds, describe President Rodrigo Duterte’s “leadership” as “decisive.”
They’re referring to the speed with which he tried to address the drug problem — the extent of which his minions, among them Alan Peter Cayetano, and he himself, exaggerate — and his promise to end it within six months. (Cayetano told the United Nations last year that seven million Filipinos are drug addicts, while Mr. Duterte pegs the number at four million. PDEA, the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency, put it at less than two million in 2016.)
They probably also have in mind his signing in record time the misnamed Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion Act (TRAIN), and his mobilizing his allies in the House of Representatives to rush Constitutional amendments and the shift to a federal form of government.
There’s also his decision, after calling the resort island of Boracay a cesspool, to keep tourists out of it for six months.
He allowed the bombing of Marawi City to dislodge the allegedly terrorist Maute Group. He also initiated peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) upon his election to the Presidency, and just as quickly terminated the talks, and officially labeled the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA) terrorist organizations.
At about the same time in 2016, he announced the adoption of an independent foreign policy, and recalled the US record of intervention in the Philippines. Supposedly to clear the way for the changes he wants to put in place, he set in motion a campaign to remove the Chief Justice, and challenged the impartiality of the ombudsman.
All are clear indications, his partisans say, of his concern for the country and its future and his readiness to make the decisions needed to realize the changes he promised during the 2016 campaign for the presidency.
These acts and policy decisions are proof enough that he has the will to make them. But it has since become clear that these were made with hardly any understanding of, or regard for, the consequences — and without any preparation or plan in place to cushion their impact on the little that’s left of Philippine democracy, the country’s institutions, and even on much of the population.
The anti-drug campaign has foundered on the exemption from prosecution of some of the biggest drug lords in the country and their collaborators in government, some of whom have even been promoted. It has also hardened the culture of impunity dominant in an already abusive, barely competent police force. Worst of all is the human cost of the campaign: the barbaric extrajudicial killing of some 14,000 individuals including women and children, whose humanity Mr. Duterte and his accomplices in Congress and the executive branch have denied to justify the violation of their rights to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.
The killing of breadwinners in poor communities has also left behind scores of widows and orphans whose very survival is uncertain — a largely ignored humanitarian crisis whose dimensions are likely to grow as the killings continue.
TRAIN reduced taxes among the wealthier classes, but is wreaking havoc among the very same poor communities whose residents have been the most numerous victims of what has turned out to be a war, not against drugs, but against the poor. Despite assurances from government economists, TRAIN has so raised the prices of basic commodities and other needs that it has become another weapon in the regime war against them.
The Boracay decision has not only cost thousands their livelihood. It has also severely damaged the country’s standing as a tourist destination. And yet Mr. Duterte had earlier approved Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) Secretary Martin Andanar’s multi-million peso “nation branding” project to attract tourists and foreign investors — and discussed with a Chinese gambling magnate the possibility of the latter’s building a casino or two in Boracay.
Marawi City is in ruins, with some 300,000 residents displaced by the mindless destruction the regime unleashed on that once proud community. But while it desperately needs reconstruction, the building of a military installation in that city has taken precedence over the resettlement of displaced families. The whole of Mindanao is still under martial law, and human rights violations including extrajudicial killings multiplying.
As if to demonstrate that peace and meaningful change are far from his concerns, Mr. Duterte ended the peace talks with the NDFP when the government and NDFP peace panels were on the verge of discussing the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER), to which concurrence by both parties could have led to the end of hostilities.
Despite his terrorist tag on the CPP and NPA, Mr. Duterte, in what looks like a public relations ploy to assuage international criticism, has announced the conditional resumption of peace talks between the government and the NDFP.
The regime attacks on the Chief Justice and the ombudsman have meanwhile demonstrated that it is not the desire for unencumbered power to achieve change that drives them, but mere hostility to the system of checks and balances crucial to preventing the abuse of executive privilege.
As for Mr. Duterte’s “independent foreign policy,” what has most characterized it is the virtual surrender of the country’s sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea to the strategic interests of China, which has constructed military bases in what is indisputably Philippine waters and its exclusive economic zone. Despite his rants against United States intervention, and his sourcing guns from China and Russia, the country remains a US economic and military dependency. It was in the context of the regime failure to protect Philippine sovereignty that Mr. Duterte, in another display of unintended irony, urged Filipinos last April 9 to defend it.
What’s evident in all these is not only an anti-democratic mindset. Even more obvious is the lack of consistency, the contradictions, and the outright chaos in the utterances, declarations and rants that assume the form of official policies under the Duterte regime. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,” and “the ceremony of innocence…drowned.” (W.B.Yeats)
Rather than deserving of the term “decisive,” what passes for the “leadership” the country is afflicted with is more aptly described as lawless, inept, and divisive. It has made democratic discourse almost impossible through its dominant use of invective, harassment and hate speech to silence independent journalists, dissenters and regime critics. No other administration has made killing as acceptable as policy among its supporters, and human rights and the rule of law as despised. Its enshrinement of the use of force as the solution to every problem has made it the most dangerous regime of all that this land of fear has had to endure since that of Ferdinand Marcos’.
If the Marcos terror regime politicized the police and military, the Duterte regime has further empowered them. If the Marcos kleptocracy divided the country between the poor and powerless on one hand and the wealthy and powerful on the other, the Duterte regime has further sharpened mass unawareness of the difference between truth and falsehood by making ignorance a virtue and knowledge a crime. And if the Marcos abomination made self-interest and corruption the ruling ideology in government, so has the Duterte regime made opportunism, mendacity and complicit silence in the face of the worst abuses the only paths to survival and advancement at the highest levels of the bureaucracy.
But even more distressing is the willingness among vast sections of the population to ignore, tolerate, or even cheer the abuses and killings that are now the staples of Philippine reality. The anarchy and violence of the regime are bringing out the worst in a people so long inured to perennial injustice, fear, and their own miseries that they have become uncaring of the plight of others. The loss of the sense of common humanity among many in that fraction of mankind known as Filipinos is among the Duterte regime’s sorriest legacies to the uncertain future.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.