Duterte’s Teflon Starting to Fade?

Confluence of ugly events cuts into Philippine president’s aura of invincibility

The ambush and murder of four Philippine military intelligence soldiers by national police at a roadblock on the southern island of Jolo on June 30 has suddenly cast the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte in a new and unbecoming light, exacerbated by the government’s inability to get on top of the continuing fight against the Covid-19 coronavirus and by a growing series of other problems that have unmasked the president’s constant claims of progress.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the four army intelligence operatives, including two officers, were seeking to locate a potential suicide bomber but were suspected by the police of being criminals. Although the initial report accused the soldiers of pointing their weapons at the police, the army chief, in an angry statement, accused the police of a “rubout.” 

The shootings call attention to a violent police force that far too often seeks to solve social problems by shooting first and asking questions later.  July 1 marks the end of the president’s fourth year in office, with human rights organizations calling for prosecution over his drug war and the United Nations Human Rights Council issuing a devastating report over the campaign’s widespread impunity and systematic use of violence.

 To be sure, the president’s popularity remains at stratospheric levels, built partly on an army of Facebook and other social media trolls that stage rabid attacks on critics, and on continuing approval of his Duterte Harry approach to drug use and street crime.

But in recent weeks, dozens of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations, or POGOs have departed from Manila, cutting into a major foreign exchange earner that has propped up office property in Manila and Alabang and leaving hundreds of empty offices and apartments. Inward remittances from overseas workers have declined by as much as 20 percent, a major hardship because the money goes directly to the families of those overseas, raising questions how long the president’s Teflon covering can hold.  The World Bank estimates that after a decade of plus 6.0 percent-plus gross domestic product growth, the economy will shrink by -1.9 percent this year, a figure other sources say is wildly optimistic.

Then there is the coronavirus issue. Since the government ordered Asia’s strictest lockdown on March 14, the virus numbers have continued a steady march upwards, topping out on July 1 at 37,514 cases, 1,076 new overnight. So far 1,266 people have died. Health secretary Francisco Duque III has been under attack for weeks for the lack of coordination in fighting the virus. After he promised 30,000 coronavirus tests daily by the end of June, the total is far behind and he earlier acknowledged that there is no widespread testing. With only 6,500 tests per million people, the Philippines ranks 136th in the world, just behind Mongolia.   

Although Duque and other Department of Health officials face an investigation for suspicion of profiting on the purchase of 100,000 coronavirus test kits, Duterte has refused to fire him. He acknowledged in May that he is close to Duque’s brother, saying he knew the secretary wasn’t profiting on the kits and raising questions over cronyism, an issue he had campaigned against when he was elected in 2016. Accordingly in May, according to the polling organization Social Weather Stations, the score of optimists minus pessimists fell from plus 44 in December to a historic low of minus 16, driven down sharply by the handling of the virus.

Analysts charge that although Duterte came to office in a campaign against the erosion of faith and trust in government, four years later little has changed. He has depended on a militaristic approach to governing, implementing few policy changes beyond a murderous propensity to encourage the killing of mostly poor drug addicts, which in fact has had little effect on the problem. Human rights organizations believe that extrajudicial killings and killings by police have taken the lives of more than 20,000 people in a country where more than 1.8 million were estimated to be using illegal drugs in 2019, three years after the drug war began. 

The killings are thus like dipping in a river, as Vice President and political rival Leni Robredo found in January after Duterte dared her to join the drug campaign.

Duterte, embarrassed, fired Robredo abruptly after she compiled a report showing that while Drug Enforcement Group data show drug addicts consume 3,000 kilos of shabu – methamphetamine – every week, equal to 156,000 kilos a year, the enforcement agency seized only 1,344 kilos from January to October 2019 after recovering only 785 kilos in 2018. 

But worse, as a Carnegie Institution report indicated last year, inducing police to engage in de facto shoot-to-kill policies “is enormously corrosive of law enforcement, not to mention the rule of law. There is a high chance that the policy will more than ever institutionalize top-level corruption, as only powerful drug traffickers will be able to bribe their way into upper-levels of the Philippine law enforcement system.”

Indeed, last October the former head of the national police, General Oscar Albayalde, was forced to step down after a Senate inquiry found that Albayade had protected 13 police officers under his command who were involved in illegal drug trading themselves.

While the government has significantly increased spending on infrastructure, raised the salaries of government employees, expanded some social development programs and sought to revive the stalled peace process with Muslim insurgents, he has largely continued the economic policies put in place by the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III.

A Senate hearing late last year found that the administration’s ambitious “Build, Build, Build” (BBB) infrastructure program had got only nine of 75 flagship projects underway. Opposition Senator Franklin Drilon called the program a “dismal failure.”

In the meantime, the damage the president has done with a foreign policy of appeasement to China will take enormous time and commitment to undo, provided the president who follows him in 2022 wants to undo it. Most recently, in June a deeply concerned military convinced him not to end the Visiting Forces Agreement that governs the actions of US troops on Philippine soil, a decision announced on February 11 by Duterte in a fit of pique over the cancellation of a US visa to one of his close allies, the thuggish former national police chief Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, who initially headed his drug war.

With Beijing’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea and Hong Kong over recent weeks with the rest of the world preoccupied by the Covid-19 pandemic, many within his own administration were concerned that the Chinese were ignoring his offers of cooperation and continuing to take advantage of the Philippines, usurping more nearby islets and eyeing waters to the east on a resource-rich area known as Benham Rise after having also staked a claim under its so-called “nine-dash line,” largely with Duterte’s acquiescence.  

There are disturbing links to the administration with Chinese businessmen as well, as Asia Sentinel points out in an adjoining article on Wilfredo Keng, the controversial figure who has successfully sued the influential website Rappler for cyber libel and raised the possibility that publisher Maria Ressa will be jailed. Legal observers say the case was filed on dubious grounds engineered to cripple the publication.

Duterte has been out to hamstring both Rappler and the popular broadcast empire of ABS-CBN virtually since he has been elected, waging war against not only an independent press but most of the country’s democratic institutions. He forced changes to the Supreme Court that have made it an echo chamber for his policies.

Early on, he engineered the “preventive detention” of Leila de Lima, the justice secretary in the previous administration and former head of the Philippines Human Rights Commission on trumped-up charges, sought to have his most implacable legislative critic Antonio Trillanes IV jailed, attempted to force the sale of the Philippine Enquirer newspaper, which had been critical of his policies, and overrode all opposition to his drug war. He has sought to drive out Vice President Robredo and replace her with Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Human Rights Watch charged that “ Duterte has politically allied himself with the Marcos family, which has been trying to rehabilitate its long-tattered image of corruption and abuse.”

How long it will take to repair those problems is troubling. After the Marcos family wrecked the country’s democratic institutions and turned over the economy to cronies, it has taken decades to attempt to catch up to the rest of Asia, which has long since left the Philippines far behind. The damage Duterte is doing threatens to push the country even further back.

See related story: Chinese-Filipino Businessman’s Curious Mainland Links