I HAVE been getting a lot of mixed mail for saying in my last column that after a year of President Rodrigo Duterte, the nation is gravely ill. Many are genuinely thankful, but a couple of coarse characters have tried to bully me with a vulgar word that has no place in the conversation of adults. I have not heard from the President himself, but in his last speech before the said column he fantasized about my testes, in a far more vulgar way than Donald Trump recently tweeted about TV co-host Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC’s show “Morning Joe”, supposedly “bleeding from a face-lift” on New Year’s Eve. I am old enough to take all this.
Some of my friends are genuinely worried though. There is no need to be. At 77, I have lived twice longer than our Lord, but I think I know the President enough. He does a lot of political posturing, using his foul language for maximum effect, but at bottom he knows what a journalist’s job is. He also knows my personal and official record, which is an open book. I had been a public servant with an unblemished record, but right now I am a presidential watcher whose job it is to watch the President. I try to find out where he is, and how he is, even when, or especially when, he chooses to drop out of public sight.
I take pride in being good at what I do. This can be tough on the President, and he is not supposed to like it. But he knows I have no ulterior motives. He is no longer a private person, and even his smallest toothache is no longer a private matter between himself and his dentist. Right now, he’s got more than a toothache. His prolonged absences have triggered a lot of speculations about this. And some of my columns have made me part of this narrative.
DU30 and his critics
I have been suggesting that the best way to assure the public that he is in top shape is for a competent and officially recognized medical authority to issue a medical bulletin everytime he takes an extended “rest.” The Protestant pastor cum presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella who has been caught more than once telling half-truths about the President is simply not good enough.
Take it from someone who handled the job for 10 long years during one of the most difficult periods in the nation’s history.
Everyone wants to see the President in good health, including his worst political adversaries. I put this question to Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th in my interview with him on GNN Cable TV yesterday, and this was his clear message. But DU30 himself must put the issue beyond suspicion, speculation, or debate. The public must be spared the task of having to choose between what I write and what Abella says.
DU30 needs to recover from his first missteps. He needs to perform better than he has these last 12 months by recognizing that this is a constitutional government and that he must take a little more seriously his constitutional and legal duties as President. His propagandists and trolls should help by reminding him that talking dirty is not always cute, and that he cannot make grandiose promises at the drop of a hat, and just forget all those promises afterward.
As a candidate he promised, among others things, to fix the MRT and the horrendous Manila traffic; end the infamous contractualization of workers which has allowed the big malls and other employers to lay off workers after every five months and deny them all legal benefits due to permanent employees; end the illegal traffic of drugs, government corruption and red tape, etc.—all within months, if not days.
Most striking of all, he promised to fight for Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity by sailing by his lonesome, if necessary, to the nearest disputed island on the West Philippine Sea and planting the Philippine flag there, should the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague rule in favor of the Philippines in its arbitration case against China in the disputed territory.
On July 12, 2016, the court ruled in favor of the Philippines. This was welcomed by Philippine allies, but China refused to recognize either the process or the ruling. Not only did DU30 fail to fulfill this promise by refusing to invoke the ruling; he also declared his intention to “separate economically and militarily” from the United States and to align himself with China and Russia “against the world,” while visiting Beijing in October, 2016.
The latest news report—citing satellite images coming out of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) in Washington, D.C.—says China has built missile shelters and radar and communications facilities on Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the disputed Spratly Islands. This alleged militarization of the Spratlys is clearly contrary to our interests, but it has been received with total equanimity by the DU30 government.
The only campaign promise DU30 has fulfilled was his promise “to kill criminals”, by killing drug suspects, now numbering over 8,000, without due process or documentation. Despite the killings, the illegal drug traffic continues, its supply line, stretching from China and Latin America to the Philippines, is undisturbed, and no big-time financier, manufacturer, producer or distributor identified, arrested or killed.
Meanwhile, Bureau of Customs sources are buzzing with unconfirmed reports that an alleged P5 billion drug shipment from China recently went through the “green lane” (“no questions asked”) and reportedly ended in Mindanao. This, if true, could help explain why DU30 now says the illegal drug traffic has become the principal funder of the Mautes, whom the military has not been able to eject completely from Marawi City after 40 days.
The drug killings have provoked an international storm on human rights, which includes an aborted impeachment complaint against the President at the House of Representatives, and a “communication” on “crimes against humanity” against the former mayor of Davao City (since 1988) by Mindanao lawyer Jude Sabio before the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
The host of the BBC talk show HARDtalk has publicly pooh-poohed the ICC complaint as something that’s going nowhere, but sources close to Sabio and the Magdalo party list, which supports the “communication,” are confident the ICC process could start moving by September. ICC Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda from Africa seems to inspire confidence in the process, but this remains to be seen.
The tide turns against IS
DU30 biggest challenge now is his fight against the Mautes, who claim to be influenced by the Islamic State. The Maute assault on Marawi appears to be on its last legs, but the more significant development is coming from Iraq and Syria, the home ground of IS, from which foreign jihadists are being exported to its “Eastern Province” in southern Philippines. Last Thursday, the Iraqi army finally regained full control of the landmark al-Nouri Mosque, with its 12th century al-Hadba minaret, west of the Tigris River, in Mosul, in northern Iraq.
This was a big blow to the IS, a turning point in the war against the militants, which the Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been leading since October 2016.
It was in this mosque on July 4, 2014, where the IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the establishment of a self-styled Islamic Caliphate, extending its dominion to all parts of the world. Al-Baghdadi was earlier reported to have been killed in a Russian air strike in Raqqa, the city on the northeast bank of the Euphrates River, 160 kilometers east of Aleppo, the capital city of the Aleppo governorate, the most populous of all Syrian governorates. Al-Baghdadi’s “death” was first reported by Russia, then by Iran, but remains unconfirmed by IS. No new IS leader has been named in his place.
With the capture of the mosque, the Iraqi prime minister announced the end of the Caliphate. “We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state,” he said. After the fall of IS-controlled territory in Iraq, IS control of Syrian territory now hangs by a thread, according to London-based analytical reports. As the Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad advanced, IS fighters have withdrawn from the last territory they controlled. It is not clear where they have reestablished their main headquarters, if they have.
Effects on the Philippines
What does this mean for our Muslim communities in the Philippines? Will it mean more IS-trained jihadists coming to southern Philippines rather than to Syria or Iraq? This is where the battle for Marawi, now on its 40th day, could prove not only critical but decisive. The defeat of the Mautes, which is not only necessary but clearly achievable, according to an article in The Manila Times last week by former Marawi city mayor Omar Solitario Ali, should be the major first step in unifying the various Moro tribal communities into one strong Islamic community that rejects extremism and the Caliphate. Filipino Muslims should be able to project Islam, once again, as a religion of peace.
This would require a comprehensive forward-looking policy and program that would allow the various ethnic and cultural groups in Mindanao to work closely together in peace in rebuilding their faith community, while the physical rebuilding of what now lies in ruins continues. There are powerful tools available for this, which DU30 can easily harness, if he wants to lead in this great enterprise. Not the least of these are the various faith communities, within the country and abroad, which are but waiting to be tapped. He could begin by talking to the Bishops-Ulama Conference, made up of Catholic and Protestant bishops and the ulama, the highly respected Islamic religious leaders.
All DU30 has to do is ask. Given his anti-religious rhetoric and the way he has publicly positioned himself against the Church and religion these last 12 months, this would require a change of heart and character, or in his style of leadership at the very least. But this is precisely what he needs at this time, and this is what the nation has been waiting for since 38 percent of the voters chose to bring him from Davao to Malacañang on his promise of change.