President Duterte’s speech last Wednesday at the change-of-command ceremony of the Presidential Security Command at Malacanang Park carried a sense of lightness, even of goodwill throughout. He let out his usual curse only once, in passing reference to illegal drug users (durugistas).
But what I particularly noticed in the speech was that, as he greeted his audience, he referred to the “men and women” of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) as “the best armed forces in the entire world” and ended with this heightened paean – “the best armed forces of the world and of the universe.”
One is free to interpret his fulsome plaudit for the AFP, whether it’s hyperbolic or sincere. What can be said with certainty is that, from the start of his presidency Duterte hopped from one military camp to another, seeking to win over the support and loyalty of the AFP. He promised officers and soldiers (as well as those of the Philippine National Police) that he would double their salaries; and he delivered on that promise. He visited wounded soldiers in hospitals, handing out gifts of handguns, watches, cash, plus offers of pleasure trips to Hong Kong.
Since February 2017, Duterte repeatedly disrupted (subsequently resuming, then cancelling again) the GRP-NDFP formal peace negotiations that had been moving well forward in Europe since their resumption in August 2016. Why? Because he raged over the NPA’s killing of AFP soldiers, under various circumstances, in the ongoing armed conflict. Meantime, his regime has furiously pursued the “all-out war” against the CPP-NPA it declared over a year ago, capped by his order to the armed forces to use all their warmaking resources to “flatten the hills.” The counterinsurgency operations have spurred ever-increasing human rights violations, victimizing mainly poor farmers and indigenous people, and justified retributory counteroffensives by the NPA.
So protective is he that he obdurately refuses to use “the best armed forces in the entire world” in what he conjures or dreads will be a war with China, if he vigorously asserts – as our country ought to – Philippine sovereignty and sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea. He keeps on saying that the Filipinos would be “massacred” if such an assertion would provoke a war with the Chinese.
Going back to his speech, Duterte sought to explain why he preferred to rely largely on the military even in the civilian bureaucracy. He remarked that “almost half of the Cabinet are now ex-military officers.”
He acknowledged that he had “the predilection of engaging the services of ex-military men,” which he said he shared with other previous presidents, including Gloria Arroyo and Benigno Aquino III. He omitted to state that the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, whom he so idolized as to have his mortal remains buried in the Libingan ng mga Bayani against widespread public protests, started the militarization of the civilian bureaucracy.
From his long experience in government, Duterte pointed out, “I have been wary about engaging [with the] bureaucracy,” making allusions to inefficiency and corruption. “To the credit of military men,” he observed, “[they are] structural. And they are always conscious of accomplishments, fulfillment of duty.”
He cited as an example, retired Gen. Eduardo del Rosario, former head of Task Force Davao (when Duterte was city mayor) whom he has designated to head the Task Force Marawi Rehabilitation. Recalling a Cabinet discussion on the reconstruction of Marawi (devastated by AFP aerial and artillery bombardments in its five-month war against the Maute-Abu Sayyaf groups last year), the president admitted he was overwhelmed by the experts’ presentation of a “matrix” for the reconstruction. He then summoned del Rosario and forthwith directed him to take full charge of implementing the matrix.
“I would like houses built next month and you have to give me a good number so that I shall go to the people [and tell them] that we have done our duty,” he recalled telling del Rosario. “And he’s still there. Now you can take a look at Marawi.” Alas, the people of Marawi – with thousands of them still staying in evacuation centers or living with relatives elsewhere in Lanao – complain that del Rosario hasn’t included them in planning and implementing the reconstruction, which they want to do their own way. They are also protesting Duterte’s having gifted the AFP with another military camp, costing P400 million, in the former city hall site.
As for the sense of goodwill in his speech, Duterte reiterated his invitation to Jose Ma. Sison, the NDFP peace panel’s chief political consultant, to “come home” and have peace talks with him, assuring the latter’s safety. “Do not worry about being killed, I will not do that,” he said, harking back to his earlier publicly-stated message to Sison that should they fail to reach an agreement: “Don’t ever come back, I’ll kill you.”
“I’m giving you my word of honor… Umuwi ka, mag-usap tayo (come home, we’ll talk) earnestly, sincerely,” Duterte said, addressing Sison. “As long as you do not ask [for] a coalition government, which I cannot give and will never give, you can come home and talk to me and the others, and maybe in the fullness of God’s time we can achieve peace in the land.” (Fact checked: Sison hasn’t asked for a coalition government.)
While welcoming Duterte’s assurance of his safety (“it is much better that there is such an assurance”), Sison however replied through the media that he would come to the Philippines only after the signing of an “interim peace agreement (IPA), which would pave the way” for resuming the talks. The IPA is being prepared, he said, in ongoing informal/backchannel discussions, for signing during the fifth round of formal negotiations scheduled later this month. He also said that the approval by both panels of the Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) has been set for July or August.
Will these positive expectations be realized in the weeks ahead? Will these current manifestations of goodwill hold for long, and lead to the continued progression of the formal negotiations, which both sides had committed to pursue to conclusion in previously signed agreements and joint statements? Failure in this regard would mainly be attributable to Duterte’s volatile, erratic handling of the peace talks and his attitude toward the Left revolutionary forces, which he has interchangeably considered as friend and as enemy.
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Published in Philippine Star
June 2, 2018