Government News Analysis

Potential-protest puzzle

US President Donald Trump to visit the Philippines for ASEAN and East Asia Summits, protest rallies predicted

On 20 January, a couple of hundred rabid Leftists gathered outside the US Embassy in Manila to protest the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, Donald J. Trump (photo). The American flag was burned; photographs of Trump were symbolically dumped in a garbage bin. We expect some of that at the end of this week when the US president visits the Philippines (starting Sunday) on the final leg of his 13-day tour of Asia.

After all, the Philippine Liberal-Left, it seems, have a sworn duty to oppose anything and anyone whose views coincide with those of their own president, Rodrigo Duterte.

And Trump has certainly shown support for Duterte – not just for his crackdown on illegal drugs which has kept the Liberals in a state of apoplexy for more than a year, but for respecting the Philippine president’s desire to pursue an independent foreign policy and reaffirm his country’s sovereignty – outside the pocket of America. Both these men are driven by national pride; they both put their countries first and respect that in each other.

But Trump will cause some confusion within the anti-Duterte ranks. For one thing, while the local Roman Catholic Church – shepherded by its effective government, the powerful Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philppines (CBCP) – is among the most vehement critics of Duterte’s War on Drugs, universally the Church regards Trump as something of a Godsend.

Unlike the increasingly disgraced Hilary Clinton, his Democratic Party opponent in the US presidential election, Trump’s a staunch defender of the right to life. By contrast, he wants to curtail abortions in the US; Clinton – and her freedom-of-choice constituency – apparently, can’t have enough of them. While the Democrats promote the need for abortion-on-demand, Trump – on his first day in the Oval Office – signed a ban on the federal funding of international organisations that perform and circulate information on abortions.

That said, the CBCP are likely to be somewhere in the crowd – Trump may be a true ally as far as their anti-abortion principles are concerned, but in other areas he’s far from that. For example, his support of Duterte over his War on Drugs, where the US president has praised the Philippine leader for doing “an unbelievable job”.

The drugs war, it needs to be understood, is extremely important to the CBCP. The bishops have seized it as a means to reinvent themselves as an authoritative political opposition – one that can once more fully involve itself in matters of state. The bishops’ authority and political clout has been dwindling. They’ve lost the trust of whole swathes of the population and are desperate to regain it.

The drugs war with its attendant ‘unexplained deaths’ which they attribute to extrajudicial killings (EJKs) perpetrated by Duterte’s police, they believe provides an opening for them to regain the people’s support. They hanker for the ‘good old days’ when the CBCP could lend its muscle to denounce and replace a president – as it did in the case of former leaders Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada.

Trump’s visit – whether by coincidence or not – comes just a week after CBCP president, Archbishop Socrates Villegas, proclaimed his month-long “Lord Heal Our Land” initiative which comes on the heels of his 23 September to 1 November “season of mourning and prayers for the victims of the spreading culture of killings”. Both are efforts to stir Filipino public opinion and oppose Duterte’s rule.

The priesthood, then, is unlikely to miss-out on an opportunity to openly portray Duterte to the world as a ‘mass killer’ and denounce Trump as some sort of ‘collaborator’ in the alleged EJKs of drug addicts by Philippine lawmen on Philippine streets. And certainly not while their obliging friends in the international media are in town.

So the Church is left to tread a thin line in its anti-Trump protests; but confusion doesn’t stop there. Part of that 20 January political carnival and placard-waving jamboree outside the US embassy in Manila was to protest the presence of troops on Philippine soil. This, of course, had nothing to do with Trump – or Duterte for that matter. It was the result of two treaties – the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

The VFA – “the most significant defense agreement that we have concluded with the Philippines in decades”, according to the US National Security Council’s director for Asian affairs, Evan Medeiros, at the time – was implemented back in 1999.

The EDCA – by which US forces were welcomed back to the Philippines and given 10-year rotational lodgings on five bases – was ratified by the two governments in 2014. In other words, this was an agreement drawn up by the Liberal Party administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino and his US counterpart, Left-bent former US president and ideological soul-mate, Barack Obama.

Their political love-fest embroiled the Philippines in one of the most worthless yet costly episodes of misguided foreign policy ever – the attempted humiliation of China over a cluster of rocky outcrops, known as the Scarborough Shoal, in the South China Sea. Historically, both Manila and Beijing have claimed them as their sovereign territory.

Obama thought he could somehow emasculate China in the region by supporting – in fact encouraging – Aquino to pursue the Philippine claim to that collection of atolls, cays and islets by initiating proceedings against the Mainland at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Netherlands; which it did in January 2013.

But Obama had another agenda – and one, at the time, which most likely completely eluded Aquino. Following his abysmal foreign-policy failures in the Middle East, Obama wanted to “pivot to East Asia” where his main plan was to build his flagship trade-policy offering, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a trade-bloc colossus that would claw together some 40% of the world’s economic output.

To establish that, however, required the presence of a certain amount of US military might in the region. And so, when China refused to acknowledge the arbitration court and continued its occupation of Scarborough Shoal, Obama gently turned the screw on an unwitting Aquino by offering to put US forces at his disposal to implement the inevitable ruling by the court that the shoal belonged to the Philippines.

Aquino fell for it hook, line and sinker and 15 months later – after eight months of negotiations – the EDCA was signed in Manila on the eve of Obama’s arrival in the Philippine capital as part of his lacklustre four-nation tour of East Asia.

Hard to see, given that history, how Trump and Duterte can be legitimately targeted for the US troop presence in the Philippines. Furthermore, Trump ditched the TPP plan on his first day in office by signing an executive order removing the US from any further participation in it.

As far as the EDCA is concerned, for the time being that stands – ultimately it’s up to Duterte if he wants to keep it. However, starting during the dying months of the Obama administration, Duterte has made it increasingly clear that there’ll be no US troop involvement in Philippine conflicts and that he reserves the right to review the EDCA as and when he sees fit.

Certainly, though, as far as Philippine-US relations are concerned, these are as strong as ever under Duterte and Trump – and we believe we’ll witness plenty of evidence of that later this week. As president-elect, Trump criticised Obama for the breakdown in relations between the two countries and has made strong efforts to repair them.

The Manila protest 10 months ago was orchestrated largely by the Left Wing socialist-feminist Gabriela Women’s Party, a regular critic of Duterte. This group’s secretary-general, Ms Joms Salvador, labeled Trump a “sexual predator” and a “known racist, sexist, xenophobic man”.

She further claimed that Filipino workers in the US were being threatened by a rise of racism. According to Salvador at the time: “Some Filipinos there are getting paranoid about their personal safety and their job security”. She was alluding to Trump’s pronouncements that he wanted to tighten immigration controls to the US to stem the flow of possible terrorists.

As it turns out there was nothing to support Gabriela’s blatant fear-mongering, but we don’t think that will prevent them from turning out again to show their disdain for the American president during his visit. They’re very much a part of the Left coalition that despises Trump.

So who else will be out waving anti-Trump, anti-US signs during the US president’s three-day stopover in the Philippines? The New People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines might well be represented – it rarely misses an opportunity to boast its Maoist-Marist-Leninist credentials in public and promote its desires for a proletarian revolution against global US imperialism and against Philippine democracy.

But again, they have a credibility problem here. No one is more opposed to US imperial designs on the Philippines than Rodrigo Duterte – anyone who doesn’t concede that must have been living under a rock somewhere. Furthermore, no US president has shown less interest in promoting it than Donald Trump.

Like Duterte, he’s a nationalist. Also, unlike his predecessors – particularly his immediate one – he’s wholly opposed to getting involved in the internal affairs of other countries. Moreover, he’s supportive of Duterte’s efforts to pursue independence for his nation.

You’d think that would please Bayan – an alliance of the Philippine hard Left comprising Left-wing nationalists, anti-imperialists, Marxist-Leninist-Maoist, Left-wing populists, 21st-century socialists, anti-capitalists, indigenists and anti-Americanists. But, of course, it won’t.

For them Trump is symbolic of everything they abhor and at the drop of a hat they’ll want to have a presence at any America-baiting street orgy where they can display their banners and bore everyone within earshot of their unswerving commitment to the plight of the ordinary Filipino.

But in the crowd, in some form or other, will also be members or representatives of the country’s Liberal elite and their political affiliates – the likes of heavy Duterte critic, socialist Senator Risa Hontiveros of the Akbayan Citizen’s Party, for example. Hontiveros – a product of the exclusive girls-only St Scholastica’s College – projects herself as a ‘woman of the people’ and continually denounces Duterte’s campaign to rid the country of illegal drugs. She won’t need to be asked twice to undermine any support of Trump for Duterte.

As will her senatorial collaborator and chief Duterte critic, Antonio Trillanes IV, recently returned from the US where he met with a number of Trump’s political opponents. Though he denied he was there to try and prevent Trump from visiting the Philippines, he said this: “I pushed for the interests of our country. But let me emphasize that the interests of our country are not necessarily the same as the interests of Mr. Duterte”.

In other words, Trillanes’s interests aren’t necessarily the same as Mr Duterte’s – so nor will Trump’s where they’re in agreement with those of the Philippine president.

However, the irascible Trillanes’s anti-Duterte tag-team partner in the Senate – Liberal Party senator and former justice secretary under Aquino, Leila De Lima – won’t be there. It’s likely, however, she’ll transmit her protest from the Custodial Center in the Philippine National Police Headquarters at Camp Crame in Quezon City, where she’s being held on serious drugs-profiteering charges.

For De Lima, the loudest and most voluable of all the Philippine president’s detractors, Trump must look like a Western version of Duterte. She’ll doubtless feel frustrated that she can’t put in a personal appearance at any anti Trump/Duterte hate fest where she’d be in her element.

The fact is though, Trump’s trip to this part of the world is an historic one. First of all, it’s the longest by any US president in quarter of a century – in fact since 1992, when President George H.W. Bush had to extend his stay after falling ill in Tokyo during a state dinner. More importantly, it comes at a time when the region is facing the emergence of a nuclear-armed North Korea – the topic that will dominate discussions the US president holds with Duterte along with the leaders of China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

And, of course, demonstrations and protests aside, what we can also expect from this trip – and not least on the Philippine leg of it – is some very biased reporting by the anti-Trump, anti-Duterte mass media. They’ve already sharpened their pencils – and probably already written their critiques.

For them, this isn’t the chance to report news or convey to the public what’s actually happening in East Asia, vis-à-vis Washington’s role and purpose. Don’t expect any serious analysis. This is a golden opportunity for them to continue their attempted destruction of both men in the name of the Liberal cause.

They’ll want to strike a blow for their idols Obama and Aquino who misguidedly fractured relations between Manila and Washington as they attempted to further cement US imperialist domination of the archipelago.

They’ll want to show Trump and Duterte as the plunderers of human rights for sharing similar view over how to tackle a drugs epidemic that’s sweeping both their countries – epidemics, incidentally, wholly ignored by Obama and Aquino; epidemics, in fact, which prospered under their tenures.

Mainstream media questioning of them is likely to dwell far more on that issue than on the threat from North Korea. For them, the real and present danger of Pyongyang targetting Seoul or Tokyo or somewhere else with nuclear warheads, pales by the side of Duterte’s domestic drugs war and Trump’s apparent approval of it.

What’s more significant for them is that Trump and Duterte are a far greater threat to the international Liberal-Left cause than North Korea’s crazy leader, Kim Jong-un, and his bizarrely dynastic communist Workers’ Party of Korea is to world peace. In fact, if you really boil it down to the bare bones of ideology, they have more in common with Kim than they do with the leaders of the two free-world democracies. Certainly, the media shows greater contempt for them than they do for Kim.

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