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Duterte 'the destroyer' invents a new class of cronies

Philippine president is cozying up to major international players who care little about abuses of human rights

Duterte 'the destroyer' invents a new class of cronies

Marawi City, in ruins after five months of government aerial bombardment, will be rehabilitated with full discretionary powers on the part of Duterte's martial law administration. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

Inday Espina-Varona, Manila
Philippines

December 5, 2017

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President Rodrigo Duterte swore to craft an independent foreign policy after decades of governance heavily influenced by the United States.

He started off his presidency ranting at former U.S. president, Barack Obama, citing historical injustices as a major root of the country's many woes, and warning of the end to the presence of US military forces in the troubled southern island of Mindanao.

A year later, American troops were involved in a bloody war in Marawi City, now in ruins from five months of fighting between government forces and IS-inspired militants.

Duterte at first denied knowing about the presence of U.S. troops. Later, he defended American assistance as necessary to defeat a militant force with global linkages.

The U.S. Special Operations in the Pacific army unit said 50 to 100 of its troops were assisting operations in Marawi and they could stay until the completion of a US$3-billion rehabilitation program and beyond.

Gone is the fiery nationalist rhetoric. Duterte now boasts of his friendship with current U.S. President Donald Trump, proud of the latter's support for his bloody crackdown on suspected drug addicts and dealers.

Both acted like chums during Trump's November visit to Manila, which was marked by bloody clashes between police and protesters. The U.S. president was silent on the issue of human rights and talks focused on terrorism, illegal drugs and trade.

American aid for government civil projects may be more difficult to access. In December 2016, the Millennium Challenge Corp., a U.S. government aid body, announced deferment of poverty reduction aid due to mounting concerns about human rights violations.

Duterte shrugged off the threat. In November, he ordered his cabinet to reject aid from the European Union, following criticism of his rights record.

Any loss in Western aid and investment, for Duterte, will be more than offset by assistance and business deals with China, which is known to ignore touchy issues like rights and civil liberties.

The Philippine government in October said it was finalizing various agreements, worth US$2.8 billion with China. Duterte has offered the Asian giant several big-ticket infrastructure projects, including irrigation systems, dams and railways.

The Philippine strongman also invited China to help boost competition in a telecommunications sector saddled by one of the region's slowest data services. This would allow Beijing to recover from the scuttling of its national broadband deal after a corruption scandal involving aides of former president Gloria Arroyo.

Other possible deals involve long-term lease or purchase — if Duterte manages to do away with constitutional limits on land ownership — of vast tracks of agricultural estates. China is also a leading player in mining, especially in Duterte's home island of Mindanao, and stands to benefit from the proposed reversal of a government ban on open-pit mining.

In return for China filling the aid and investment vacuum, Duterte ignores the country's international arbitration victory on the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The macho leader reins in his bluster, despite reports of persistent Chinese efforts to raise new land in contested waters. 

But Duterte has also offered Facebook a cushy deal to partner with government in "ultra high-speed" broadband infrastructure. This would make the state the third major telecommunications player, but it also raises questions on already dodgy Facebook practices that favor Duterte's troll army.

Duterte's wooing of the superpowers has made for some black comedy. He told Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua that troops used one of the 100 donated Chinese rifles to kill Islamic militant Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi.

The Scout Ranger soldiers that wrested Marawi from IS-linked rebels could barely keep a straight face. A social media page linked to the unit said Hapilon was killed when a heavy weapon mounted on an armored vehicle pulverized his concrete shelter.

Duterte would later regale Russian President Vladimir Putin about the role his 20 trucks and 5,000 Kalashnikov rifles played in the victory over militants, although these arrived in the country a week after the Marawi crisis ended.

Analyst Richard Javad Heydarian sees Duterte as a pragmatic leader despite the theatrical displays of temper. The Philippine leader appreciates the security risks faced by the country and knows the U.S. still remains the best ally in the fight against terrorists, he points out. 

That probably explains Duterte's sudden turnaround on peace talks; the self-proclaimed socialist now threatens to declare the communist movement as a "terrorist" organization, following U.S. policy.

Mindanao, the country’s lush but troubled island of promise, is now being offered up to the major powers, with Duterte impatiently pushing for the lifting of limits on foreign involvement in trade, agriculture and exploitation of natural resources. 

There will be no bidding on rehabilitation projects while martial law continues. Duterte has also dismissed rules on the cheapest bids bagging contracts. It is not clear what parameters he will use in choosing aid donors and contracting firms. 

That thrust is certain to fuel unrest in the country's south, already the strongest bastion of both leftists and Islamic rebel movements. 

But with three major allies who spend little time thinking of rights, the former mayor called the "Destroyer" thinks he can bludgeon his way to a paradise of warlord fiefdoms dominated by a new class of cronies.

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

 

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