Now what? President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is outraged. He wants an end to the U.S. military presence in his country. He wants to curb all cooperation with the U.S. armed forces. He hits hard, talks big. And his people seem to be behind him, no matter what – his popularity rating is high and rising, now around 87%, which is something unimaginable anywhere else in Southeast Asia, or in the world.
Under a colorful headline on February 7, 2020, ‘End that son of a b*tch’: Duterte confirms US-Philippines military collaboration agreement is toast’, RT reported:
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is “terminating” the Visiting Forces Agreement, which provides legal immunity to US military drills, in retaliation for the US canceling the visa of a political ally and fellow drug-warrior.
The president said he is terminating the VFA,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told ABS-CBN News on Friday. “I asked for clarification and he said he is not changing his decision.” The agreement provides legal immunity for US soldiers conducting military exercises in the Philippines.
Enraged by the US decision to cancel the visa of former police chief and Senator Roland dela Rosa last month, Duterte had given Washington a month to fix its ‘mistake,’ refusing to back down even as other members of his government urged him to reconsider.
I’m warning you… if you won’t do the correction on this, I will terminate the… Visiting Forces Agreement,” Duterte said last month, daring the US to call his bluff.
Then few days later, on February 13, 2020, a letter was sent to his country’s tormentor and former colonialist master: ‘The Philippines has notified the United States that a major security pact is over.’
Some say all this is nothing new. The United States, the European Union, and even the United Nations keep attacking President Duterte. He hits back, insults his counter-parts, regularly threatening to kick out the U.S. and its military forces. He personally insults the leaders of Western countries, international organizations and even the Catholic Church which, in the Philippines, used to be untouchable.
Making Western leaders desperate, he calls China “the kindest nation on earth”, and he admires Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. In Manila, the Russian leader is now a masculine idol.
President Duterte is a self-proclaimed socialist. Critics say that many of his economic policies are still capitalist, even if his social policies are left-wing. But he has done precisely what most of his fellow citizens wanted him to do: he introduced free medical care and free education all the way to university level; something unthinkable in most of the Southeast Asian countries.
“Not enough has been done to improve the state of the nation,” says the academia, as well as the NGOs. But the poor love him, and so does the middle class. For them, what he has done is enough; much more than enough. Nobody did more for them in the past. 87% is an unprecedented level of support! The majority of Filipinos do not just support him – they love him, unconditionally.
Western mainstream media trashes Duterte left and right. Pro-Western NGOs are calling him a mass murderer, because of the war on drugs, which allegedly has taken thousands of lives.
His supporters reply:
But before Duterte was sworn in, millions were rotting alive in desperate slums and enormous crime-infested cemeteries. Drug lords were murdering innocent people, and no Western NGOs were protesting.
I listen to both sides of the story. For three years, I have been all ears.
The criticism and attacks from the West, all this seems to matter nothing to Duterte – he is moving forward like a tank. And his long-suffering country is improving, year after year. It is moving up, even according to the Human Development Index (HDI, compiled by the UNDP).
I will kill you, you son of a bitch!
Western media loves such statements, blasting them all over, as if they were some sort of proof that the President of the Philippines is a mafia-style murderous maniac.
But I am told by many in his restive home base in the south; in Davao City:
No way; this is how we speak on Mindanao Island. President is Visaya – he says what comes to his mind. Tagalog people are polite, but their actions are often brutal. Talking dirty means nothing bad where Duterte comes from.
But for the Southeast Asian region, the most important topic is how President Duterte is handling foreign policy.
All over Asia Pacific, the United States, desperate to keep its global hegemony, is antagonizing Beijing on all fronts. It is pushing China from all directions. The South China Sea is constantly in the spotlight, through the international courts (often controlled by the Western countries and interests) as well as through the Western mass media. The dispute over the Spratly Islands has been poisoning the relationship between Beijing and Manila for decades.
However, after Duterte became president, things changed dramatically. The rhetoric significantly softened, and both China and the Philippines clearly stated that they are willing to talk, negotiate and compromise. To the great dismay of the West, any military conflict between two countries is now out of question.
This approach is having an enormous (although grossly under-reported) influence on the entire region’s policy towards China. The country that is watching particularly closely is China’s historic rival, and a fellow Communist state – Vietnam.
For quite some time, President Duterte expressed a desire to diversify his foreign policy, extending a hand towards both Moscow and Beijing.
In January 2020, in an exclusive interview for the RT, he stated, rebelliously:
I want to open new fronts with Russia and China as US lived off the fat of our land… America is not the Philippines and the Philippines is not America. It ain’t that way anymore, and I refuse to dovetail under American foreign policy…
But then again, his statements and actions do not seem to be adequate for everybody. Like in the West, many Marxist Filipino intellectuals are “purists”; they demand utopian Western-style Marxist, or even Anarcho-syndicalist methods of ‘governance’.
President Duterte is neither of the above. He is a spontaneous, emotional leader. He is pragmatic. He often acts on the spur of the moment; he makes good moves and he also makes blunders. Sometimes, after he makes mistakes, he corrects them; he steps back, and tries again.
He is not a simple man; he is tormented individual. Sexually molested by a priest when he was a child, he holds a grudge against Christianity. He grew up in a complex family. His mother and father came from different political spectrums: a socialist and an official, a civil servant.
To the horror of some, he has a soft spot for the former dictator Marcos. So were several members of his family.
The legendary left-wing academic, Roland Simbulan, a professor at the University of the Philippines (UP) and a good friend of mine, is even increasingly skeptical about the direction of the Duterte’s foreign policy. He wrote for this essay:
On several occasions, Pres. Duterte has threatened to terminate either the Mutual Defense Treaty (1951) or the Visiting Forces Agreement (1999) with the United States. It seems and this view is measured by his actions, that he is just after more U.S. military assistance to equip his repressive army and police forces to repress the Filipino people’s resistance. Duterte is trying to soften U.S. government criticism of his violations of fundamental human rights of Filipinos, which is now the subject of investigation by the International Criminal Court, and the United Nations Council on Human Rights. He is also courting Chinese and Russian military assistance to likewise get additional military assistance from them. His coterie of more than 65 pro-U.S. ex- generals and military and police officers whom he has appointed to key positions in the civil government do not indicate a shift in policy. If he were really serious about having a “balanced and independent foreign policy”, he should have abrogated the Mutual Defense Treaty, the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement the moment he became president in 2016, as he had promised during his presidential campaign. He is now on the 4th year of his 6-year term, and he has not touched these agreements. These agreements with the United States, have, in fact, been strengthened, despite all the rhetoric. Now we know better that the rhetoric is really to get more U.S. military assistance.
Not everyone agrees. A daughter of one of the leaders of the Communist Party (New People’s Army), Joan Andrea Toledo, an accomplished social media reporter, is a staunch supporter of the President. We covered the battle of Marawi together, and this time we met again in the Cubao neighborhood of Manila, to discuss the current political situation in the Philippines:
Duterte is surrounded by hawks, who want to have a conflict with China and the Communists. Whenever he wants to solve the conflict, the military makes a noise. Many in his government are from the previous administration. I was a member of the peace panel in Norway. The generals did not want peace with the Communists to succeed.
It is the same when it comes to China.
In the Philippines, antagonizing China is a tremendously lucrative business. As it is actually a great business all around Southeast Asia. People from all walks of life are paid royally for attacking Beijing, particularly from Western sources.
Luzviminda Ilagan, a former MP (now Under-Secretary for Policy and Plans Legislative Liaison Affairs Department of Social Welfare and Development), used to serve in Duterte’s administration in Davao City:
Two biggest enemies of Duterte are the members of the Democratic Party in the United States, as well as the Christian Democrats in Europe.
At home, many members of the elite, be they from the business sphere (oligarchs), from the military or academia, are now siding with the foreign critics of the President.
Prof Jay L. Batongbacal (Professor, Associate Dean for Research and Development Director, Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, UP College of Law), appears to be vehemently against China’s maritime claims regarding the disputed islands, as well as against President Duterte, and any compromise that could be reached by Manila and Beijing.
He rejects accusations that it is Washington that has been trying to dictate the foreign policy of the Philippines towards China. He spoke to me on his campus about the situation:
In the disputed area, the Philippines are interested in oil. The U.S. is not; at least not in this part of the world. For China, it is not about natural resources, it is about defense.
‘But what precisely is it for the United States’, he did not specify.
He added though, that the compromises with China made by this administration, are turning The Philippines into “collateral”.
Professor Amparo Pamela “Mimi” Fabe (Countering the Financing of Terrorism Specialist & Senior Economist) offered a diametrically different view about Duterte’s approach towards the United States. She does believe that the U.S. is meddling in the state affairs of her country:
The recent threat of President Duterte to terminate joint military exercises is a permanent move away from the West. It constitutes a move towards China and Russia. Hence, it is essential that China and Russia reciprocate this presidential move through stronger bilateral defense relations.
Then she threw her punch:
The academia is a noisy minority. They are like that because most of them received their PhD scholarships from the US and the UK. It is hard to reason with them because they already have closed minds.
President Duterte has an 87 percent public support rating so his stand on independent foreign policy is well appreciated by the majority.
When I speak to them, the Filipino people hardly see themselves as “collateral”. Lately, most of them are optimistic, happy that their lives are improving. They are endlessly grateful to their Presidente.
Recently, I have visited Manila on several occasions, but I also worked in the conflict-torn Marawi, in Davao City, Cagayan de Oro, Cebu, Zamboanga and many other corners of the country. Everywhere I went, Mr. Duterte was enjoying unprecedented popularity. And his controversial war on drugs is, even according to Reuters, generating the support of almost 8 out of 10 citizens.
Moving closer to China and Russia does not evoke much resistance inside the country, with the exception of various academics and US-backed and trained high-ranking military staff. Oligarchs and the elites are also generally loyal to the West.
In February 2020 I flew to Puerto Princesa, which is the nearest city to the disputed Spratly Islands. Puerto Princesa International Airport shares a runway with the air force base, but I detected no military aircraft during my visit. All was quiet. No tension whatsoever.
I spoke to several local citizens, and not one of them expressed any concern about the proximity of China, or about China’s foreign policy towards the Philippines.
Allison, a local student, explained:
China is a good country. We never have any real problems with it. I don’t know much about the Spratly issue, but here we don’t worry about it at all.
Norman, who works at the SM mall:
I have no issue with China. Russians do not come here, so I wouldn’t know. America has joint military exercises with us for a long time. There have been a lot of them here at Puerto Princesa, for some period of time.
No urgency, obviously. No chest-beating patriotism. Nothing that you would imagine, reading Western newspapers.
More than two years ago, while covering the Muslim extremist insurgency in the city of Marawi (Mindanao Island), I was arrested by the military and literally disappeared inside the barracks.
I was able to explain the situation, over the mobile phone, to my friends in Manila, who alerted the highest command there. Orders came from top generals: to release me immediately. But there was a mutiny. Local officers disobeyed, and I had to stay inside the compound until late-night hours. At some point, a jeep and an armored vehicle were dispatched in order to drive me more than 100 kilometers to my hotel in Cagayan de Oro.
Later on, it was explained to me what really happened: while the pro-Duterte generals were happy to have me on the ground in the war zone, several pro-U.S. commanders were trying to make sure that non-Western and especially Russian reporters were to be kept out of the place. For many reasons. One of them: Marawi was full of ‘Western allies’ – extremist groups from other Southeast Asian countries, and other jihadi cadres, including, some said to me there, Uyghurs.
The next day, the pro-Duterte men asked me to return, and personally drove me back to the front. I was one of the few foreigners allowed to the frontline.
A small incident? Perhaps. But it clearly illustrates how complex, how divided the situation is, even inside the armed forces.
And the division is not only in places like Marawi, Zamboanga, Sulu and the other restive areas of the South.
The most divisive issue is that of China, and whether Rodrigo Duterte, the most popular President in the history of the Philippines, will be able to, against all odds, fully change the foreign policy of his country.
He wants to. I am convinced that he does. I know enough people around him to make this statement.
But the inertia is tremendous. The forces that are trying to prevent him from going with China and Russia are powerful. These forces have been controlling this country for decades, even centuries.
But the President is not scared. Physically he is not well. Sometimes he is not even sure he can survive until the end of his term in power. He wants to change his country, while he is still alive.
He has already called Barrack Obama a son-of-a-bitch. He even described the Christian God as “stupid” and a “son of a bitch”. And now, the military pact with the United States…
The world is watching. Asia is watching. Secretly, people want him to succeed. Almost nobody from abroad dares to support him publicly. The Western Empire is brutal and vindictive. It kills. Duterte does not care. When he charges, he does it “in the name of his people”. He has 87% of the nation with over 100 million inhabitants covering his back. That’s a lot. And no matter what the foreign analysts say, that’s actually damn truly a lot!
• Photos by Andre Vltchek
• First published by 21 Century Wire