Rodrigo Duterte the candidate promised change across a wide spectrum of Philippine life and governance during the 2016 campaign for the presidency of the Republic.
He vowed an end to the drug problem and to crime within three to six months once he assumes the presidency. Together with the elimination of red tape in government services, he also promised an end to contractualization; the expansion of the conditional cash transfer program; free irrigation for farmers; the end of the nightmarish traffic congestion in Metro Manila; job generation; funding for micro, small, and medium enterprises; and the creation of a department of overseas Filipino workers.
While the realization of all these would undoubtedly make life a little better for Filipinos particularly the poor, the other changes he promised, if realized, would be even more significant. He also promised to resume peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) towards ending the 47-year guerilla war being waged by the New People’s Army (NPA), as well as to complete the Philippine government’s peace agreements with the various Muslim armed groups in Mindanao.
As a corollary to the final resolution of what Moro groups themselves refer to as “the Bangsamoro problem,” Duterte also vowed to pursue his advocacy of federalism through Constitutional amendments, under which the Bangsamoro would have the autonomy that they have been fighting for decades without the legal infirmities that have attended previous attempts to institutionalize Moro self-rule.
Duterte has since made good on both promises, at least initially.
He has engaged leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) in several dialogues, and brokered these two groups’ reconciliation to assure the inclusivity that was missing during the Aquino administration peace agreement with the MILF that excluded the MNLF. Transforming the country into a federal state will of course take time, but for good or for ill, although only two months in power, the Duterte administration has set the process in motion through congressional discussions on Constitutional amendments.
Of equal or even greater significance have been the Duterte initiatives on peace talks with the NDFP, the army of which has been fighting for decades for the creation of a national democratic state both through the armed struggle as well as agrarian revolution in the areas under its control. The Philippine military has down played both the strength and influence of the NDFP, but there is no denying that its forces have not been defeated through arms because of the support it enjoys in many communities nationwide.
Although the prospects for the talks momentarily dimmed in the wake of his July 25 declaration of a unilateral cease-fire, the peace talks between the Philippine government and the NDFP formally resumed in Oslo, Norway, last Aug. 22, with the release of NDFP consultants and the declaration by both the Philippine government and the NDFP of unilateral cease-fires.
The release of NDFP consultants, and the government insistence that the NPA first lay down its arms, were major issues of contention in the stalled talks between the NDFP and the Aquino administration. But in an unprecedented display of goodwill, the Duterte administration did not demand that the NPA lay disarm — an option that the latter has rejected on the reasonable enough argument that to do so would mean its surrender, and would therefore make peace talks totally pointless. Neither did the Duterte administration balk at the NDFP request for the release of its consultants; it was Duterte himself who declared during the campaign that he would release political prisoners.
The consequence is the revival of hopes that a peace agreement based on a common commitment to the necessary social, economic, and political reforms that would transform Philippine society for the better by democratizing political power, industrializing the country, implementing an authentic agrarian reform program and charting a foreign policy independent of imperial interests.
But if the Duterte administration’s initiatives on the peace front have been among the changes that he promised were coming, little has changed as a result of his administration’s focus on other concerns.
As everyone — including overseas human rights groups as well as the United Nations — knows by now, Duterte was far from being facetious when he vowed to eliminate the illegal drug trade by physically eliminating drug dealers, as he declared during the campaign, and has kept on declaring in no uncertain terms whenever the opportunity moves him.
The Philippine National Police has proudly declared that things have indeed changed in the illegal drug front through the death, arrest, and surrender of drug pushers and users. The numbers would be impressive — if the number of those killed and incarcerated were the sole indicators of social progress.
The reality is that the rising tide of deaths is not something any country should be proud of, no matter how loudly the police and other Duterte die-hards proclaim them. They’re the exact opposite: shameful indicators of the perilous state of democracy in this country.
The numbers in fact suggest that nothing much has changed in the areas of contempt for the law and human rights, as well as the abuse and misuse of power in the ranks of the police, among whom, if the testimonies of witnesses are to be believed, the drug trade is as deeply embedded as in the poorest communities.
If the rule of law, due process, and human rights are crucial to the making of a democratic society, so is the country’s standing in the community of nations. In this it seems that Duterte has not morphed from the tough talking mayor he once was to the proclaimed leader of a country that, among others, has to honor its international commitments.
At some point in the campaign, Duterte vowed to change once he was president. It was a promise his subalterns and cohorts dutifully echoed. The presumption was that he would be more circumspect in his statements, less likely to shoot from the hip and to curse in public, and to call people he doesn’t like names, among other un-presidential attributes.
Unfortunately, that’s another area in which the present President of the Republic has not made good on his promise. How else look, for example, at his recent tirade against the UN, his calling its special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings stupid, and his threatening to bolt that body to form an alternative bloc with China — which, like the Philippines, is itself among the original members of an organization whose many agencies’ activities are deeply embedded in such local concerns as labor, disaster mitigation, health, children’s rights, education and culture?
Apparently change has come — but only in some areas of life in the country of our illusions. The question now is whether changes in those areas that have remained basically the same, or have even changed for the worse, or will eventually come, and if so, when. The health of what passes for democracy in these parts, and the way the country is perceived by the rest of the world — the last can be crucial in the way other countries will deal with the Philippines — are, if only partly, at stake, and it won’t do to brush off criticism of both the conduct of the campaign against drugs and Mr. Duterte’s tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without thinking of the consequences as the ranting of a disaffected few.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
Published in Business World
Aug. 26, 2016