Government News Analysis

Duterte’s clear message

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatens Abu Sayyaf terrorists following kidnapping and beheading of two Vietnamese sailors
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatens Abu Sayyaf terrorists following kidnapping and beheading of two Vietnamese sailors

Two Vietnamese sailors whose headless bodies were recovered on Wednesday from the Abu Sayyaf terrorists’ stronghold of Basilan – an island in the Sulu Archipelago, some 50 miles south of the Zamboanga peninsular in western Mindanao – has angered Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, to such an extent that he’s threatened those behind the sailors abduction and killings that he will “eat them alive”.

Opponent of Duterte will likely seize on this statement and others – such as, “I will eat your liver if you want me to. Give me salt and vinegar and I will eat it in front of you” – as clear evidence that the president is a psychopath and unfit to be the country’s leader.

They’ll use his remarks to pour scorn on his presidency once again. We expect to see him compared to Hannibal Lecter, the cannibalistic serial killer from the movies Red Dragon and Silence of the Lambs. Lector was partial to human liver. His preference was to have it “with some fava beans and a nice Chianti”.

That, however, would be to miss the point entirely. So let’s try to explain why Duterte said what he said; why he would resort to such imagery – imagery which would doubtless upset fine diners tucking into their foie gras appetizers at upscale hotels in Makati and Bonifacio Global City in Manila.

Duterte has a long history of speaking extremely bluntly and directly to those who would do his people and his country harm.
First, the message wasn’t meant for them. It was directed exclusively at Abu Sayyaf – no one else. It’s their attention he was getting. His words, therefore, have no significance outside that small sphere and should only be interpreted in that context.

Vietnamese Prime Minister, Nguyen Xuan Phuc, referred to his nationals’ deaths as barbaric and inhumane murder and has demanded severe punishment for the terrorists. The Philippine president is ready to oblige. Abu Sayyaf is still holding a further 22 hostages, eight of whom are Vietnamese.

Duterte has a long history of speaking extremely bluntly and directly to those who would do his people and his country harm. At his final campaign rally in the run-up to the May 2016 election he said this: “Forget the laws on human rights. If I make it to the presidential palace, I will do just what I did as mayor [of Davao City]. You drug pushers, hold-up men and do-nothings, you better go out. Because I’d kill you. I’ll dump all of you into Manila Bay, and fatten all the fish there”.

He got roundly criticised for those remarks from right across the anti-Duterte universe; his words were, to their mind, “unpresidential”; unstatesman-like; lacking in sophistication; unbecoming of a national leader.

And that’s because they missed the point. He wasn’t speaking as the president of the drug lords and their gangs and the criminals; he was speaking as the man charged with ending their reigns of exploitation and thuggery. Furthermore he was addressing them; telling them that they’d pay in kind for their deeds. His remarks were meant for them alone.

These are elements of the Philippines’ dark criminal subculture which Duterte understands well. He battled them for more than two decades during his terms as mayor of Davao City. He knows as well as anyone how to talk to them. Certainly, he doesn’t need lessons from someone sitting over in Brussels who finds his language offensive or distasteful.

The point is, he may have been in front of the world’s cameras when he issued his ultimatum to the criminal gangs, but his only audience as far as he was concerned were the thugs, the thieves and the drug pushers. He wasn’t interested in reaching anyone else.

The electorate’s response, however, was unambiguous. At the polls they delivered Duterte a resounding victory – putting him 6,289,636 votes ahead of his nearest rival. His uncompromising straight-talking approach for eradicating illegal drugs and criminals from the lands of the Philippines was music to the people’s ears.

Duterte doesn’t need any pointers from members of the European Parliament, nor from the elites in the local political opposition, on how to converse with terrorists.

It had left them in no doubt about Duterte’s qualifications to lead the country and to confront the weeping sores of society that had been neglected and become more infected during the past two presidential terms. They’d had enough; they didn’t want to hear any more sweet talk.

Secondly, the content of the recent message. As previously, this took the form of a direct threat to those responsible for the latest atrocities – Abu Sayyaf’s kidnappers and killers. To make it effective, Duterte needed to get down to their level and speak in a language they understand. He’s not dealing with some minor corrupt officials in the Customs Bureau; he’s dealing with barbarians who have no conscience when it comes to the brutal killing of innocent sailors whose families have been unable to raise the ransom money to buy back their lives.

Again, Duterte doesn’t need any pointers from members of the European Parliament, nor from the elites in the local political opposition, on how to converse with terrorists. He’s lived in Mindanao since the age of five and has seen first hand the degradation that warring groups have caused to that region. He’s attended many funerals of those killed by Islamists; he understands the hopelessness of life there while these groups continue to prosper. He also knows the language they understand.

Telling them they’ll be arrested and brought to court to stand trial – and ‘the full force of the law will be brought to bear’ – would not just make Duterte look weak in their eyes; it would make him look ridiculous. Let’s face it, they’ve heard all that before anyway. Now they’re in no doubt about how far Duterte is prepared to go to make sure they pay the ultimate price for their crimes.

Duterte wanted acts of terrorism to be included in the Bill tabled before Congress that would reinstating the death penalty. That was removed, however, and is not among the provisions of the current bill which the House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved – 217 in favour; 54 against – in March.

Meanwhile, there’s been speculation that the president backtracked on an initiative to do a deal with the Maute Group – the terrorist clique which attacked the southern city of Marawi seven weeks ago and continues to occupy a small section of.

According to a Reuters report, a Muslim leader had been approached by a Duterte aide to open “back-channel talks” with the Maute leadership – brothers Abdullah and Omarkhayam Maute – shortly after their 23 May invasion of the city.

This may or may not be true. Certainly, it’s normal for governments to keep all options on the table when dealing with a sensitive situation such as this one – especially where hostages are concerned, as they are in Marawi. Oddly, though, Duterte’s top peace envoy, Jesus Dureza, was unaware of any attempt at dialogue with the Islamists. If there had been such an initiative he certainly would have been in the know.

And now it’s extremely unlikely that there’ll be any attempt  to bring the conflict in Marawi to a conclusion any other way than by killing or arresting every last terrorist involved.
But also, that battle escalated very quickly causing the evacuation of most of the 200,000 citizens from the city and an internal displacement population in the immediate region that’s now close to 300,000.

What also quickly came to light was civilian deaths; people executed for failing to recite verses from the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, for example. Members of his own law enforcement had been gunned down or beheaded as they manned checkpoints. Buildings across the city had been set on fire; atop other buildings the black flags of Islamic State were flying.

Whether there was ever any serious plan to broker some sort of secession of hostilities with the terrorists would seem dubious. But if there was, given all that was fast emerging from Marawi, it would be surprising if Duterte didn’t have a change of mind. It was hardly the right atmosphere for sitting round the table.

And now it’s extremely unlikely that there’ll be any attempt by the government or the army to bring the conflict in Marawi to a conclusion any other way than by killing or arresting every last terrorist involved. And Duterte can depend on the Filipino people to support that also.

In fact, they already have in one sense. They’ve overwhelmingly approved his declaration of martial law in Mindanao and given him a record-high satisfaction rating in the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey.

This was conducted on 23 to 26 June, a full month after the imposition of martial law; a full month after the start of the Battle of Marawi. What it says then, is that the people fully approve of the president’s handling of the insurgency. In the SWS survey that was reflected in the president’s overall 78% satisfaction rating. As Presidential Spokesman, Ernesto Abella, remarked, it shows “tacit public support for the president’s action following the rebellion in Marawi.”

Furthermore, this support isn’t coming from testosterone-pumped, angry young men as Duterte’s support base is regularly depicted by elements opposing the president. Significantly, the survey shows that he has a higher net-satisfaction rating among women – 69% – than men, 63%. So that explodes that myth.

The Court also ruled that Duterte’s executive powers allow him to take martial law nationwide if he sees fit.
The general mood seems to be that martial-law provisions need to remain in place in Mindanao until threats from ISIS-linked Islamist groups in that region have been quelled. And that’s likely what will now happen.

The 60-day martial law imposition is due to end on 22 July; that almost certainly will be extended. And thanks to a Supreme Court decision made on Tuesday, that decision rests solely with Duterte.

“The Constitution has provided sufficient safeguards against possible abuses of the Commander-in-Chief’s powers; further curtailment of presidential powers should not only be discouraged but also avoided,” the Court said in its 82-page ruling. “The President only needs to convince himself that there is probable cause or evidence showing that more likely than not a rebellion was committed or is being committed. To require him to satisfy a higher standard of proof would restrict the exercise of his emergency powers,” it said.

Naturally, that decision has angered the civil-rights lobby which had sought to have Duterte’s martial law plans nullified. The Court, however, has not only ruled against those objections, it’s also ruled that Duterte’s executive powers allow him to take martial law nationwide if he sees fit.

“The Constitution grants him the prerogative whether to put the entire Philippines or any part thereof under martial law. There is no constitutional edict that martial law should be confined only in the particular place where the armed public uprising actually transpired,” said the Supreme Court ruling.

All that will have come as welcome news for Duterte who knows that his emergency provisions are the best way he can protect Mindanao’s 20 million people from a terrorist violence that knows no limits. The jihadist insurgency taking place in the province of Lanao del Sur is the biggest test of his presidency and he will move Heaven and Earth to suppress it.

It’s unlikely the president will be dining on Abu Sayyaf liver seasoned with salt and vinegar, but you can guarantee he’ll be leaving no stone unturned in ending the Islamists’ reign of terror in the Philippines southern region.

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