The just-released 2017 Global Peace Index (GPI) – an indicator which compares peace levels for 163 countries worldwide – ranks the Philippines 138th and the second least peaceful country in East Asia. Only totalitarian, nuke-craving North Korea rates lower according to the findings. Naturally, the government rejects the analysis and is questioning its independence. Presidential spokesman, Ernesto Abella, believes it could be politically influenced; that there might be, as he put it, “a political slant somewhere”.
No doubt there is as there is in most things nowadays. But, given what’s going on in the Philippines right now with President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of a “state of lawlessness” last September, and his proclamation of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao on 23 May – plus all the negative publicity against these measures – it’s easy to see how the Philippines ended up in that position on the index.
That aside, no one in their right mind would suggest for a moment that the Philippines doesn’t have serious peace issues and we don’t dismiss these findings out of hand as fluff or spin. In fact, they’re probably quite accurate. The GPI is produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a global think-tank based in Sydney, Australia. No doubt it has its fair share of progressive Liberals as such institutions do, but we can’t find anything to suggest that the findings are anything but consistent.
The data, collected by the Economist Intelligence Unit, come from a number of sources including the World Bank, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, various agencies of the United Nations and peace institutes. But, despite all that, the scale of insurrection and criminality in the Philippines at this time is indisputable anyway. And it shouldn’t be denied.
What’s important is to understand how to read this report in the context of the Philippines. And that means going beyond a headline that says the Philippines is rated 138 out of 163 countries worldwide and that in East Asia the only country that’s less peaceful is North Korea. That once-over-lightly critique of the report doesn’t even begin to tell the story. The numbers need to be broken down to show what they really represent. They require an autopsy.
The point is the Philippines has always had serious peace issues – that’s precisely why Duterte imposed those measures; why he’s taken on the drug gangs and the crime syndicates, the patchwork of Islamist terror groups in the troubled south and the ever-percolating threat from militant communism.
If Duterte ignored all these problems – as to varying degrees his predecessors did – the Philippines would still be at the bottom of the peace ladder in East Asia. And in fact it was; even before Duterte set his law-and-order campaigns in motion. In 2015, the last year of former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino term, the Philippines was ranked 141st out of 163 countries on the GPI – in other words three places lower than it is today. And like today, it was the second least peaceful country in East Asia after North Korea.
Similarly, in the 2014 Global Peace Index – four year’s into Aquino’s term – the Philippines was ranked 134th, just two places ahead of its present ranking, and was the third least peaceful place in East Asia, beating Myanmar and North Korea.
“Corruption, poverty and the patron-client [meaning political patronage] nature of relations in the Philippines means that problems exist across all levels of society – not just in areas under conflict – with high levels of violent crime and kidnapping”. That quote comes from the 2014 report accompanying that year’s GPI.
And yet, in 2014 and 2015 there was no War on Drugs going on; no comprehensive war against the likes of Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group; no war on crime; no on-again-off-again campaigns against the Marxist-Maoist New People’s Army (NPA).
Furthermore, even though the Islamist threat was mounting during those two years with a number of groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS); while the drug syndicates were spreading across the country setting up hundreds of illegal methamphetamine labs and boosting their sales forces; as criminality went virtually unchecked in the inner-city barangays; as the NPA boosted its recruitment programmes, the media – domestic and foreign – more or less pushed one story: the economy – the stella performances of the Philippine stock market, rising gross domestic product and the country’s new-found economic muscle.
But the fact is, under the surface there was something very rotten going on in Philippine society. And while the media ignored it and while the administration brushed as much of it as it could under the rug as it promoted the notion of the country as an emerging Asian Tiger, the people – the ordinary folk who live with crime and violence, insecurity and fear on a daily basis – were only too aware of the true state of the nation.
And that’s why in May 2016 they elected the one man whom they believed could finally restore peace – yes peace – to their country and their lives. Indeed, that was the platform he campaigned on; his credentials were the peace he’d brought to Davao City – once one of the most violent cities in the entire region – as its mayor. What he’s been doing for the past 12 months, then, is delivering on that promise.
So here’s the irony of the Philippines current position on the Global Peace Index. In the past it’s earned a low position there for the wrong reasons – nothing comprehensively was being done to bring peace to the country: to quell the lawlessness, the ubiquitous criminality, the deluge of illegal narcotics, the spread of jihadist ambitions and the reassertion of the New People’s Army. Today, it’s earned its place there – for all the right reasons: for taking on the crime bosses, the drug lords, the barbarians of terror and the militant cult of communism.
Certainly, Aquino fought hard to bring about a solution to the Muslim-separatist problems in Mindanao, but this was largely limited to negotiating with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which is anything but Islamist. In fact, earlier this month the MILF offered troop support to Duterte to help deal with the ISIS-linked takeover of Marawi City (photo) in Lanao del Sur province, Mindanao.
Aquino’s one major foray into dealing with extremist elements in the southern island was his half-baked attempt in January 2015 to capture or kill a high-value target, a Malaysian bomb maker, in Mamasapano, Maguindanao province which resulted in the death of 44 members of the police’s Special Action Force.
Similarly, his efforts to combat criminality were muted and largely confined to rooting out corruption within the public sector. He never attempted to confront this problem nationwide; within society itself. That, he more or less said, was a job for society itself.
Furthermore, this index needs to be looked at not in isolation, but in the context of the Philippines’ track record on it. Here then are the Philippines’ index rankings/number of countries surveyed for the past eight years, comprising the six-year term of Aquino (2010-2016) and Duterte’s term so far: 2010 – 130/149; 2011 – 136/153; 2012 – 133/158; 2013 – 129/162; 2014 – 134/162; 2015 – 141/162; 2016 – 139/163; 2017 – 138/163. That averages out at 135/159 which is wholly consistent with the 2017 result. What these figures also show is that with two exceptions – one up, one down – the Philippines has been treading water on this index for the past eight years.
But right now, it actually doesn’t matter where the Philippines comes on this list. In the normal “Very Low” company it’s traditionally grouped with, it could come after the likes of Mexico (142nd); Venezuela, (143rd), Colombia (146th) and the 80%-plus of Filipinos who support Duterte wouldn’t bat an eye lid. They would see it as a very small price to pay in the passage for peace.
The cold fact is that none of these problems is magically going to disappear – but if they’re not dealt with now they’re going to get insurmountably worse. The disease is already far progressed. The people know that; they also know that there’s no one else from the political sphere who’s ever going to attempt what Duterte has; that this is probably the last chance they have to grab peace from conflicts that have been brewing for years.
They also know that peace comes at a price as it has everywhere else on Earth; they also know, to put it crudely, you can’t make an omelette without breaking an egg.
The government, therefore, doesn’t need to refute the GPI findings – blaming the messenger is not the answer, common though that practice is right across Philippine politics. The government needs to explain the result in the context of the peace effort – not to the people, they already understand. It needs to explain them to members of Congress, the army of human-rights activists and the domestic media, all of whom have difficulty in seeing the obvious or in analysing virtually anything without referencing it to their Liberal political creed.
The Philippines is a violent place; it has been throughout much of its history – thanks in no small part to the invasion and occupation of the archipelago in turn by the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese. But what’s permitted that to perpetuate throughout so-called ‘peacetime’ has been the inability or unwillingness of successive governments to tackle the problems head on. Most of them fiddled while Rome burned. And that allowed the corrupt and the violent to prosper and for these problems to spiral out of control.
Now that finally a leader has emerged who’s prepared to take all that on should be applauded and supported. Partisan politics should be renounced in that effort – not exploited for political gain.
For if Duterte fails to keep ISIS from colonising Mindanao, it will spread to all parts of the territory and across Maritime Southeast Asia; if he fails to defeat the organised illegal-narcotics trade, there will be multiples of the 4 million drug addicts that currently exist in the country; if he fails to quash the criminal elements that feed on decent law-abiding citizens, then crime will become an acceptable way of life for the people; if he’s unable to put down the communist threat, the NPA’s “tax-gathering” from impoverished farmers, agricultural workers and villagers – and their clashes with government troops – will escalate.
That’s the potential future that lies in store for the Philippines. It’s time therefore to deal with the legacies of the past and accept the realities of the present. Ultimately, that’s the only way to get a better peace rating on the GPI and a country that’s not at the mercy of bombers, killers and drugs.