Amazing that Duterte has lasted this long

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MAURO GIA SAMONTE

Rodrigo Roa Duterte, former mayor of Davao City, took his oath of office as President of the Republic of the Philippines in the Rizal Ceremonial Hall of Malacañang Palace at noon of June 30, 2016. Nineteen days after the event, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, incarcerated at the Veterans Memorial Hospital for plunder charges at the Sandiganbayan for alleged misuse of Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office funds, was acquitted of those charges by the Supreme Court, voting 11-4. The SC ruling thus cleared the way for the former president’s ultimate release from the hospital, where she had been detained since 2012.

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GMA’s release took place in relative quiet thereby failing to stir public attention to the fact that two other prominent government officials had also been in detention, and in actual police jail in Camp Crame, for similar plunder charges lodged against them at the Sandiganbayan by the former Aquino administration. These are Senators Bong Revilla, Jr. and Jinggoy Estrada who together with former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, were ordered detained by the anti-graft court for, as Rappler puts it, “allegedly pocketing kickbacks through an elaborate scheme to divert public funds to fake government projects.” While Enrile was eventually released from detention on humanitarian grounds due to his age, Revilla and Estrada have remained in incarceration since 2014. Without touching on the merits of their cases (Jinggoy’s petition for bail had been denied by the Sandiganbayan during the 2016 yuletide season), one nonetheless entertains the question: Why was GMA exonerated and the two senators not?

The question unavoidably touches on Duterte.

It will be recalled that during the 2016 presidential election, Jinggoy’s father, former president and now Manila Mayor Joseph Ejercito Estrada, went all out for Grace Poe (and so must have Bong Revilla’s clan as well, sharing as they did Grace’s showbiz world). On the other hand, little known is the fact that Duterte finally got out of his flip-flop attitude toward his candidacy for the presidency the minute he got assurance of support from GMA. With Duterte eventually winning as President, could GMA’s freedom be far behind? So by our own contrived syllogism, Jinggoy and Bong remain in prison because Grace Poe lost.

But GMA supporting Duterte’s presidential campaign is, in a manner of saying, just the tip of the iceberg for purposes of this current discussion. The more fundamental question is, who maneuvered the whole affair?

It is little known as well that it took several trips to Davao City for former president Fidel Ramos to finally convince Duterte to make good his go for the presidency. In the first trips, it is said that Ramos got negative answers from the Davao City mayor, but during the penultimate trip, Ramos reportedly got Duterte’s word that he would run if he got assurance of funding. It was after this particular visit that Ramos proceeded to see GMA, and during his final visit to Davao City he already was carrying the assurance Duterte needed.

Thereafter, the rest was history. Duterte filed his substitution candidacy for the withdrawn PDP- Laban candidate Martin Diño, who was declared by the Comelec as a candidate for mayor of Pasay City.

Meantime, the South China Sea crisis had been simmering to a critical degree, highlighted by the Scarborough Shoal standoff between battleships of the Philippine and Chinese navies in 2012. Upon prompting by the United States, then President Benigno Aquino 3rd backed off from the standoff and brought the issue to the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague, Netherlands in 2013. By the time Duterte was elected President in 2016, the PCA had ruled in favor of the Philippines in the arbitration case. And the popular expectation was that President Duterte would pursue the PCA ruling—meaning insist on its implementation.

The big surprise came when almost as soon as Duterte assumed the presidency, he announced a pivot in foreign policy—from a heavy leaning on the United States to an alliance with socialist superpowers China and Russia, both evidently US ideological enemies. During his October 2016 visit to China, Duterte shocked both Southeast Asian allies and the western world with the announcement that the Philippines (or as far as he was equating himself to the nation as a whole) was separating from the United States and declaring himself in a trio with China and Russia with the phrase: “The three of us against the world.”

Upon his return from the visit, Duterte appeared in hot pursuit of his declarations in China, ordering US troops engaged in the Balikatan exercises in Mindanao to leave the country, at the same time continuing his invectives against President Barack Obama, the United States and the European Union.

Duterte’s policy statements after his China visit would cost the Philippines the US Millennium Challenge Fund that had regularly accrued to the country, running to millions of dollars, a damage to be aggravated later by the European Union’s withdrawal of its own similar regular financial assistance to the Philippines amounting to millions of dollars more.

For every western fund debited to the Philippines, Duterte had a ready Chinese counterpart to brag about.

But this, for the economic character of the damage the Duterte shift in foreign policy has wrought upon the nation. For the political impact of that pivot, the consequences had not been very apparent. Rather, of such consequences, there were merely indications, like a not-so-covert grooming of Vice President Leni Robredo for a takeover of the top post.

There, too, was this international scoop The Manila Times Chairman Emeritus, Dr. Dante A. Ang, made of a blueprint for a Duterte ouster recommended to the US State Department by former US Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg. Dr. Ang’s expose created quite a stir, eliciting strong reaction from no less than the Chinese government, speaking through its Foreign Ministry spokesman, condemning such a move against Duterte.

So would the US, indeed, move to oust President Duterte?

(To be continued)

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