Duterte beats war drums as economic cracks widen

Philippine govt rolls out conspiracy theories instead of policies to address the people's concerns
Duterte beats war drums as economic cracks widen

Activists hold a protest outside the Philippine military headquarters in Manila to denounce what they described as "red tagging" of activists and church groups as rebels by the government. (Photo by Jire Carreon) 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's administration has spent the past month banging war drums to discredit a growing coalition of opposition groups.

The president, his spokesman, and several military generals have trotted out conspiracy theories that range from the barely believable to the laugh-out-loud ludicrous.

In the days leading to Sept. 21 protests commemorating the declaration of martial law by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Catholic schools herded students to safety as police swarmed onto campuses to check out bomb threats.

Duterte claimed communist rebels planned to create chaos as a cover for his assassination. 

He said a grand conspiracy to oust him would start with the anti-dictatorship protest endorsed by church groups and the Catholic Educational Association of the Philippines.

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The government then announced the revocation of a seven-year old amnesty for Antonio Trillanes, a right-wing rebel soldier turned senator, who tried to bring down the government of then president Gloria Arroyo, now Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Allies of the president accused Trillanes of conspiring with rebels in Asia's longest-running communist insurgency to oust Duterte.

The threats and the stormy weather this time of year failed to dampen the anti-dictatorship protests when Catholics and Protestants and about 5,000 Catholic school students went out to march.

The protest prompted the military to modify its theories and threats. The September ouster plot became "Red October" — or November or December, or the months of 2019.

For proof, armed forces chief of staff Gen. Carlito Galvez cited protests over the high price of rice and a new coalition of labor groups pressing for an end to labor contractual schemes.

The military later announced the supposed discovery of guns during a raid on a farm in the eastern suburbs of Manila as proof of a planned armed uprising — only to be rebuffed by the National Bureau of Investigation, which said the raid was all about a business rivalry and had nothing to do with the communist insurgency.

Even more embarrassing, the investigation bureau said it had seized a notebook full of names of police officers and politicians on the take, ostensibly to turn a blind eye to the stockpile of arms.

As the tall tales unraveled and the Philippines' raucous social media platforms erupted in mockery, international agencies, polling firms, and state bodies trotted out the truths that prompted government diversionary tactics.

More than half of Filipinos disapprove of the government's handling of inflation, survey firm Pulse Asia said. 

A Sept. 1 to 7 nationwide survey about urgent national concerns showed 63 percent of respondents thought inflation was the most urgent issue.

About 50 percent sought better pay for workers; 32 percent wanted a reduction in poverty, and 30 percent wanted the creation of more jobs.

Duterte's pet programs — fighting crime and increasing law and order — lagged behind as priorities, in the low 20s.

The Philippine central bank raised the key interest rate for the second time in as many months, the fourth since May 2018. 

Economists compared the government's scramble to tighten monetary policy to that imposed during the last months of ousted leader Joseph Estrada's term at the turn of the millennium.

The Asian Development Bank, meanwhile, cut Philippine growth forecasts and raised inflation projections for the next two years.

The bad news rolled out as the government released a photograph of most of its economic managers attending the launch of a Filipino fast-food chain in London, sparking attacks over state priorities.

Labor groups rejected minuscule wage increases approved by the Labor Department, citing a new World Bank report that said the real wage rate in the country had remained static from 2000 to 2016.

Workers also jeered at Duterte's order for Congress to prioritize a draft law against labor "contractualization," noting that it increased penalties but retained current contracting schemes.

Small businesses, including mom and pop eateries, complained that rising costs of basic commodities have slashed daily earnings by as much as 30 percent and the think tank, Ibon Foundation, said higher interest rates would curb growth and increase debt burdens of consumers.

"The Duterte regime should stop this crazy hunt for Red October and focus on the basic needs of citizens," said congressman Carlos Zarate of the militant Nation First party.

Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo called the government's destabilization claim "an old tune strongmen use when they find themselves in hot water."

The prelate, who oversees the National Council of the Laity, said Duterte's focus on the persecution of opposition groups instead of "addressing the issues that the people are bringing out, like the high inflation, the high price of rice and no jobs," betrays the bankruptcy of his campaign pledges.

"Duterte wooed the poor and frustrated Filipinos, promising them social and economic justice," said Bishop Pabillo.

The outspoken prelate said the president is "haunted by ghosts of his own making" and has become "so insecure and inward-looking, and concerned solely with his position and his plan to return the Marcos family to power."

Inday Espina-Varona is editor and opinion writer for various publications in Manila.

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