Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Duterte (PCOO)

Barely three months in office, President Rodrigo Duterte has shocked, surprised, and outraged groups as diverse as human rights defenders, journalists and media advocacy organizations as well as those individuals who expect presidents to be more circumspect in both speech and manner.

While he has continued to enjoy the support of those citizens convinced that there’s a crime and illegal drug crisis desperate enough to require the most draconian solutions, in the same three months he has managed to offend the US government, the United Nations and the European Union for his profanity-laden response to their criticism of the human rights violations that have defined his lethal campaign against the illegal drug trade.

Among the country’s more thoughtful journalists, there is an emerging sense that this president is at heart even more hostile to the news media than the past two administrations given his declaration that journalists are being killed because they’re corrupt, and his subjecting individual journalists to uncalled for, even personal attacks. Initially cheered by several newspapers and broadcast networks, the Duterte executive order on freedom of information supposedly mandating citizen access to information held by agencies under the executive department, is also earning criticism because of its exceptions, which actually limit access.

There is as well the increasing concern among human rights lawyers and advocates that the rule of law is being steadily undermined and the most basic rights being violated as an even more empowered police force rides roughshod over such constitutional protocols as the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial.

But through his declarations that he would pursue an independent foreign policy and would prefer the withdrawal of US troops from Philippine territory, he has also earned the approval of those Filipinos who regard Philippine-US relations as unequal, and US power over the country’s economy, its considerable influence over its governance, and the presence of its troops as the bases of the country’s neo-colonial status.

His appointment of progressives to government posts including the Departments of Social Work and Development and Agrarian Reform has been regarded as a game changer that could herald the implementation of authentic reforms, together with his resumption of peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP), which among others could lead to the adoption of such progressive economic and social initiatives as national industrialization and authentic land reform. His release of political prisoners was a major factor in the resumption of talks between the Philippine government and the NDFP.

He has also reached out to the Bangsamoro, emphasizing the need for peace in Mindanao as well as in the rest of the country. He has reminded the country of the atrocities committed against Moro communities by US forces during their occupation of the Philippines. But he has also declared, despite his tirades against the US, that he will strengthen US Philippine relations.

Duterte’s contradictory, and often off the cuff remarks, as well as his policies have puzzled many observers, most of whom are convinced that they’re no more than the rants and improvisations of an official without any coherent political philosophy. But while there seem to be only chaos and conflicting statements and even seeming disparities in announced State policies, there is a discernible pattern in these clutch of contradictions: it is a focus on eliminating what he perceives to be the crippling weaknesses of the Philippine “soft” State.

From the campaign onwards Duterte has in fact emphasized the use of State power in addressing what he insists is the Philippines’ transformation into a narco-State. His seeming obsession with the supposed capture of the Philippine State by drug lords is the most telling indication of Duterte’s sense of State weakness. Although it is not so articulated — at least not yet — it has found expression in such other initiatives as his attack on officials, whether in the Senate, the police or local governments, whom he claims are transforming, if they have not already done so, the Philippine State itself into the creature and protector of the drug syndicates.

Inevitably this focus has led to the further empowerment to the point of immunity from accountability of the coercive instruments of State power: the police and the military.

Duterte apparently realizes that one of the fundamental weaknesses of the Philippine State is its inability to fully enforce the law, specially in, but not limited to, those communities where dynasties rule. This weakness is also evident in the persistence of such armed groups as criminal gangs, warlord armies, and the guerrilla forces of political and social movements.

Duterte has not yet addressed warlordism, but he has recognized the legitimacy of the advocacies of the Bangsamoro movements and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines as well as the futility of attempts to subdue them through armed means.

To the latter groups he has extended the promise of peace based on negotiated settlements including agreements on social and economic reforms. By doing so he would remove what he and his advisers see as the most enduring threats to the State — and this initiative could even lead to these insurgent groups’ transformation into State partners. The expected result of freeing them from their decades-long function as internal pacification forces, is the enhancement of police and military capacity to address crime, especially those related to the drug problem, as well as external threats.

Meanwhile, the seeming hostility to the media can be interpreted as impatience with the press’ supposedly fomenting criticism of government and the often contentious debates over policy that not only Duterte but past presidents as well have inveighed against.

There is, in short, order in this seeming chaos — or, if you will, reason in this madness.

Far beyond State empowerment to address crime, however, is the much more urgent imperative of reforming Philippine society, which in the context of the conflicting interests and limited capacity of the private sector in this third world country only a strong State can initiate and see to its realization.

So far we have not heard of any coherent critique of the state of Philippine society and how an empowered State can address its problems beyond the usual paeans to the supposed aim to minimize poverty.

While addressing crime is a necessary plank in any administration’s policies, a reasoned analysis of the roots of Philippine underdevelopment, and the proposed means to address them, is in the end the only valid justification for an empowered State.

Such a State after all contains within it both opportunity as well as peril in the form of the abuse of power that during the martial law period ran rampant throughout the country. Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of martial law was, after all, also an attempt to empower the State, but at the expense of citizen rights. From that period also comes another lesson: the citizenry should be forewarned that a strong state does not necessarily lead to reforms. On the contrary: it can also strengthen the power of the ruling dynasties and prevent rather than advance those social, economic and political changes that have long been overdue in the country of our contradictions.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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