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Duterte Is Getting More Desperate

More fumbles from the new Philippines president, who now picks on a distinguished woman senator to distract from himself.

March 4, 2017

More fumbles from the new Philippines president, who now picks on a distinguished woman senator to distract from himself.

Donald Trump may see something of himself in the Phillipines’ President Duterte, the populist who loves to shock. Trump has praised Duterte’s murderous drug war and Duterte sees a kindred spirit in Trump.

Two shock troopers

But even in the days of the Trump administration, it is hard to imagine how Washington can be seen to be pally with a leader who almost daily trashes American ideas of the rule of law and human rights.

Plus, a man who takes lightly the Chinese occupation of Scarborough shoal, a mere 120 miles from the great Subic Bay naval facility.

It is not as though would-be dictator Duterte is giving the United States anything in return. Wearing his very personal anti-Americanism on his sleeve, he has been cosying up to China despite its aggressive actions well within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone, and doing an arms deal with Russia.

The military vs. the president?

Not that this should prove a long-term problem for the United States. Whatever Duterte may say, the Philippines military is not going to reverse its longstanding close relations with the U.S. Nor will Japan, Vietnam etc. take their cue from this man.

But Duterte’s behavior on his home front should be an embarrassment even to Trump. Duterte-backed extra-judicial killings of alleged drug vendors and users go on — even in the face of evidence of high-level police involvement in them and in related extortion rackets.

Duterte ups the ante

The international criticism — by worthies ranging from President Obama to Ban Kee Moon and Pope Francis — set off a torrent of abusive words from Duterte.

The criticism keeps on irritating Duterte. To cover his tracks, he has now moved to the point of having a critical senator, Leila de Lima, arrested and jailed on a preposterous charge of protecting drug dealers when she was Justice Secretary under the Aquino administration.

Picking on a woman

This charge is so blatantly political that foreign countries cannot ignore it. De Lima was chair of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights before becoming Justice Secretary and then being elected a Senator in 2016.

Her opposition to extra-judicial killing carried in the city of Davao when Duterte was mayor dates to her time as her country’s Human Rights Commissioner. That was long before Duterte sudden emergence little more than a year ago as a leading candidate for the presidency.

In the Senate, de Lima continued her attacks on the killings at a time when most elected officials stayed ignobly silent. Lawyers, Duterte included, are everywhere in Philippine politics, but respect for due process is not.

The evidence against de Lima so far comes only from convicted drug dealers who, it has been widely reported, have been offered benefits in return, by Justice Secretary Vitaliano N. Aguirre II, who helpfully is a former classmate of Duterte’s from the San Beda College of Law.

Extrajudicial killings

Meanwhile a former henchman of Duterte in Davao, the third-largest city in the country with a population of 1.6 million, has alleged that Duterte directly supervised extrajudicial killings which he carried out.

It is not as though the de Lima case and thousands of extra judicial killings are the only
question marks over the commitment of the Duterte regime to law and clean government.

Duterte’s classmates and de Lima also feature in the Solicitor General’s effective cancellation of a conviction of the key figure, Janet Lim Napoles, in the 2013 so-called Pork Barrel Scandal.

Napoles was prosecuted by de Lima following an exposé in a national newspaper detailing huge sums of public money siphoned off by politicians, including three senators. The reporter was named Asian Journalist of the Year in 2015 by the Society of Publishers in Asia.

No time for acquiescence

The United States and other western countries cannot turn a blind eye to the sleaze in Manila. And, even more accommodating, fellow members of the Association of South East Asia Nations (ASEAN) – a usually rather complacent bunch — will find it hard to ignore events, given that the Philippines is chairman of ASEAN this year.

What that will mean for the key South China Sea issue is unclear. The Philippines’ own policy on China has been in turmoil thanks to Duterte’s personal grudges against America, and his search for Chinese money to build out his country’s infrastructure.

His Foreign Secretary is inexperienced and the foreign ministry unhappy with Duterte’s policy. This applies all the more so as his policy change came just after the Philippines had won a hard-fought case against China at the Court of Arbitration in The Hague.

How the Philippines defeats itself

The Philippines’ ability to use the ASEAN chairmanship this year to promote the sea issue is likely to be lost. More likely, its focus will now be on control of piracy and smuggling – though most of that emanates from the Philippines, and particularly Mindanao and Sulu, Duterte’s home base.

That somewhat ironic turn of events aside, whether the Philippines can get through its year as chairman without a Duterte outburst against one of its neighbors is also an issue.

It is a time for cool heads, but not for silence in the face of atrocities.


The Philippines’ policy on China has been in turmoil thanks to Duterte’s personal grudges against America.

Whatever Duterte may say, the Philippines military isn't going to reverse its longstanding close relations with the US.

To cover his tracks, Duterte has gotten Leila de Lima, a critical senator, jailed on charges of protecting drug dealers.