Duterte’s first 50: Getting peace right and wrong

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Ricardo Saludo

Ricardo Saludo

Second of Three Parts

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After law and order, peace and harmony.

The first part last Thursday assessed the anti-drug and anti-crime campaign in President Rodrigo Duterte’s first 50 days. If the Philippine National Police crime data is correct, extreme measures employed by the PNP have slashed crime 30 percent to 50 percent, depending on offense.

That means 3,000 fewer murders over one year, at least 4,000 fewer rapes, 20,000 fewer robberies, and some 90,000 fewer physical injury offenses. Those criticizing Duterte should offer their own plans for quickly achieving the same results. Anything less effective means hundreds or thousands more of those crimes committed every day.

But nothing’s perfect. Duterte needs to institute safeguards against abuse, including corrupt enforcers killing drug users they supply and pushers they protect. Station chiefs, for instance, should vet who will be arrested, and deploy enough police to dissuade both resistance and rubouts. They should also be held accountable for unwarranted deaths.

Plus: The anti-narcotics campaign should address the biggest source of syndicate drugs, guns and money — smuggling, which more than tripled in the Aquino era to more than $25 billion a year. Otherwise, narcotics and blood will only keep flowing. Thankfully, Duterte’s crackdown is reportedly moving into Phase 2 against jueteng and contraband.

Now, we look at peace and harmony efforts: rebuilding soured relations and preventing flare-ups with China, and forging lasting peace with communist and Muslim rebels.

Back on the table
On both China and rebel conflicts, President Duterte is spot-on in the first step toward peace: getting back to the negotiating table.

With China, he has rightly reversed his pro-American predecessor’s confrontational stance of quarreling with Beijing, then letting Washington escalate forces in the country, with access to Philippine military bases.

It was a brilliant stroke to designate former President Fidel Ramos to lay the groundwork for talks. Having seen the Chinese grab Mischief Reef in 1995, the West Point-trained former armed forces chief knows well the security stakes, while having the presidential and diplomatic knowledge to navigate the complexities of bilateral give-and-take.

In his first move, Ramos wisely held informal discussions in Hong Kong, with the promising result that actual talks would take two tracks: one focusing on less contentious issues of access for fishermen, environmental preservation and assistance to distressed vessels.

To be tackled separately and over the longer term are contentious issues of territorial claims and economic rights under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It is this second track that could cover President Duterte’s assertion that the basis of talks is the July ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that Bejing’s “nine-dash line” claim over nearly all the South China Sea violates the UNCLOS.

For sure, territorial issues will take long to resolve, probably longer than Duterte’s rule. But it’s already a big step to forge confidence- and cooperation-building accords, most especially maritime protocols to prevent more encroachments like those in Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal.

So where is Duterte going wrong on China? Just one thing, which he and Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. should and could address: loose lips.

Both should be a bit more circumspect in public pronouncements. These precipitate remarks can create unintended and potentially disruptive misunderstanding and discord abroad, which would be hard to correct, especially after going viral online.

Or worse: careless statements by duly constituted authorities unwittingly commit the Philippines under international law to disadvantageous positions. Loose lips sink ships — including the Ship of State.

Talking peace but ready for war
Also showing strong initial gains is Duterte’s peace process with communist and Muslim insurgents. He has brought the Moro National Liberation Front and its splinter group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, together in the peace process, correcting the Aquino administration’s blunder of sidelining the MNLF, which accepted autonomy, and favoring the separatist MILF.

That lessens the chance of peace with Muslim rebels leading to breakaway later. It also avoids alienating one major Muslim faction. The same goes for Duterte’s effort to bring Lumads and other indigenous Mindanaoans into the peace effort. And the biggest coup of all is to put the MILF pact under his federalism push, which would give the rest of the nation the same autonomy and increased resources promised to the Muslims. Who’s going to oppose that?

Well, there will always be party-poopers in any peace initiative, especially rebel extremists unwilling to accept anything but complete victory or total annihilation. Already, the Maute radicals swearing allegiance to the brutal “Islamic State” terrorist force in Syria and Iraq, have mounted attacks amid the government-MILF ceasefire, including the freeing of 23 fighters from a Marawi jail.

Then there is the bandit Abu Sayaff, which looks set to continue its beheadings and kidnappings-for-ransom until it is utterly decimated.

And don’t forget communist factions unwilling to abide by the joint ceasefire agreed by National Democratic Front leaders with government peace negotiators in Oslo last week. Indeed, both leftist and Muslim extremists can mount attacks and commit atrocities just to provoke a military response and reignite wider hostilities.

Add to that Asian hostilities. As the US Army-sponsored report “War with China” recently warned, “If an incident occurred or a crisis overheated, both [America and China] have an incentive to strike enemy forces before being struck by them.” That includes US forces rotating in the Philippines, plus the Mactan, Cagayan de Oro, Puerto Princesa, Pampanga and Nueva Ecija bases they can use.

So President Duterte is wise in warning Filipinos to prepare for conflict, whether from Asian tensions, rebel violence, and terrorism. And far from a joke, that frank but astute statement rightly delivers the message that even as he seeks to avoid hostilities and make peace, Duterte will not flinch at war.

And that is the best way to make the other side get serious on the negotiating table.

(The first part on the anti-drugs campaign was published last Thursday. The last part on the economy will run this coming Thursday.)

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