Rodrigo Duterte with rifle
President Rodrigo Duterte looks through the scope as he takes aim using one of the sniper rifles donated by China during the ceremonial handover of the military assistance gratis at the Clark Air Base in Pampanga on June 28, 2017. (PCOO)

The latest rants from the perplexing region of Duterte Land have understandably provoked the same outrage, anger and exasperation as most of their antecedents have been doing during the last twelve months.

One of them was an open threat to imprison the critics of the declaration of martial law in Mindanao. Despite claims to the contrary by unrepentant Duterte devotees, that’s a fairly large community, and we may safely assume that Mr. Duterte includes among the martial law oppositors he would jail the petitioners who questioned before the Supreme Court the legality and wisdom of his placing the whole of Mindanao under martial rule last May 23, and those commentators and critics from the media, the political opposition, the legal profession and academia.

In a speech before local officials last Sunday, Mr. Duterte also said in so many words that he would ignore the Supreme Court should it find the declaration of martial law in Mindanao illegal. (Perhaps to avoid a Constitutional crisis, the Court upheld the Constitutionality of the declaration last Tuesday, July 4.) He will listen only to the police and military, he went on. Only when they say it’s “safe” to lift martial law will he lift it.

Even Justice Secretary and sometime fake news transmitter Vitaliano Aguirre should have enough legal acumen to know what’s wrong with those remarks. Among other absurdities, they imply that like an African warlord or any other third world despot, Mr. Duterte has the power to imprison anyone he pleases.

Aguirre should remind his patron that the only time he can do that with some measure of legality is when the entire country is under martial rule and the Bill of Rights, which protects the right to free expression, is in suspended animation. Only Mindanao is under martial rule, and the Bill of Rights is still operational in the rest of the country, which means that anyone has the right and even the duty to criticize, and if necessary oppose, what the government is doing.

But that’s small comfort to anyone in the context of Mr. Duterte’s often stated, always affirmed dependence on the police and military establishments, the support of which he thinks he has assured by promising them immunity from prosecution and such perks as higher salaries, housing and better weapons, and by regularly reminding them that they occupy a special place in his heart, so deeply concerned is he for their well-being.

Nevertheless, Mr. Duterte certainly understands that as corrupt and brutal organizations that have resisted reforms since the Marcos terror regime and whose contempt for life and human rights is well-documented, the police and military have an interest in the opportunities for pelf and the abuse of power that martial law necessarily endows them with. Apparently, however, behind Mr. Duterte’s declarations of undying faith in these damaged and damaging institutions is a street-smart understanding that force is the foundation of political power, the use of unaccountable violence being the particular expertise of the police and military in this country and elsewhere.

The chilling implication of Mr. Duterte’s past and current utterances emphasizing his commitment to the preeminence of the police and military in his pantheon of trusted allies and advisers is that anyone in office can do what he wants so long as these institutions, with their legal monopoly over the use of coercion and violence, are behind him.

The bad news is that Mr. Duterte might well be right. The reality that political power isn’t based on legal precepts but grows out of the barrel of a gun has been amply demonstrated time and again in this alleged democracy, and most especially during the criminal rule of his idol and mentor, Ferdinand Marcos. That explains why he has dismissed human rights, the media and Supreme Court rulings and displeasure as of no moment. The Duterte mental landscape is not so mysterious after all.

In another speech last week, Mr. Duterte came close to revealing the secret behind his often outrageous, always belligerent harangues on such issues as the country’s supposedly rampant drug problem, and the government’s off-again on-again talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).

What was notable in his latest rant against the NDFP wasn’t his repeating his earlier description of that organization as “two-faced” for its forces’ continuing to attack government troops while talking peace with his administration, but his declaration — call it a confession — that, in an apparent reference to the military, he doesn’t control everything, as he practically implored the NDFP to please declare a truce, so the military, he said, “will continue to support” the peace talks.

The military does support the talks, although only in words and hardly in deeds. Despite Mr. Duterte’s assurances otherwise, Defense and military leaders’ declarations that martial law in Mindanao was also directed against the New People’s Army (NPA) triggered the Communist Party of the Philippines’ order, prior to the fifth aborted round of peace talks, for it to intensify tactical offensives. When the government peace panel declared that there would be a temporary end to government military offensives against the NPA until the Marawi crisis is resolved, Defense and military spokesmen pointedly said no, the offensives will continue.

The inevitable conclusion is that the military can go either way, whether with or against the Commander-in-Chief who apparently commands only in name and has to periodically win its allegiance and goodwill by pandering to its worst prejudices, of which resistance to change and the defense of dynastic and imperial dominance are primary.

Mr. Duterte nevertheless listens to the military because he needs its support to stay in power if not to survive, hence his echoing its decades-long demand that the NPA lay down its arms as a condition for the continuance of the peace talks.

Fortunately for the vast legions of the poor, the dispossessed and the oppressed, the NDFP has said often and in no uncertain terms that an agreement on social and economic reforms as well as constitutional and political changes should come first before a ceasefire, declaring that only when such reforms are implemented can there be a final end to hostilities.

Mr. Duterte nevertheless insists on, as it were, putting the cart before the horse, either because he doesn’t really want reforms, or because, should there be an agreement between the NDFP and the government of the Philippines on far-ranging reforms, he fears that the military and its imperialist patrons will remove him from power — or worse.

These and other considerations help explain Mr. Duterte’s impatience over the niceties of law and the complexities of negotiations with authentic revolutionary organizations. They also account for his short-circuiting due process in his stubborn belief that eliminating the drug problem quickly can be achieved by just as quickly eliminating drug pushers and users. But this isn’t due only to his sense that time is running out on him, but also to his expectation that the entire country will yield as readily to his wishes as Davao City did when he was its mayor.

Mr. Duterte was the mayor of instant gratification for some twenty years, and he’s been trying to be the President of the quick fix within the six years the electorate gave him. Unfortunately for him and his regime of similarly-inclined, mostly clueless bureaucrats, there’s no such thing as a quick fix for this unfortunate country’s many problems. That is why, as he marked his first year in office, poverty, hunger and homelessness are still the lot of millions, Marawi is in ruins, and China tightening its hold on the Spratlys and the West Philippine Sea.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo 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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