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Illiberal democracy needs a strong and experienced leader, Part 4

“Reforms which have a palliative character are not only ineffectual but even prejudicial, when the government is confronted with evils that must be cured radically.” - Jose Rizal, The Philippines a Century Hence

President Benigno Aquino III’s biggest claim to fame was his confrontational foreign policy against China concerning the overlapping claims in the South China Sea. He scored an arbitral award from a UN body that invalidated China’s 9-dash line territorial claim after the Philippines lost control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Despite the ruling, China continued its military buildup and harassment of Filipino fishers.

The hollow victory allowed the United States military to enjoy informal basing agreements in the country through the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) that Aquino championed at the behest of the Americans. Despite an existing Mutual Defense Treaty, Freedom of Navigation sorties by American warships and U.S. troop deployment in the country, China was undeterred with its military expansion in the South China Sea as it continued fortifying the islands.

But it was this troop deployment particularly in Mindanao and the American campaign against Islamic terrorists that got Aquino in a bigger mess.  Aquino personally oversaw the troop deployment along with a suspended PNP chief with the help of U.S. intelligence that resulted in the Mamasapano massacre of 44 Filipino Special Forces of the police. He was criminally charged for his inability to prevent this massacre.  The Special Forces operation was to capture Marwan, a Malaysian terrorist in the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Lack of coordination with the MILF resulted in the massacre.

Which brings to the ascendancy of Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency. Duterte’s election highlighted the Filipinos’ dissatisfaction with the government and their desire to have an authoritarian leader. His presidency was further affirmed with the complete annihilation of Otso Diretso, Team Leni Robredo’s senatorial candidates affiliated with Aquino’s Yellows. Today, Duterte still enjoys a high popularity rating that bodes well for his anointed candidates.

Duterte beat LP candidate Sen. Manual Roxas, a well-educated and experienced politician but tied with the elites (Yellows). Duterte’s main theme was abolishing the Philippine Congress and replacing it with a Parliament. His nationalistic message that the elite (Yellows) was part of the problem struck a raw nerve because despite of Cory Aquino’s promises of a better life ahead (through the Constitution) and espoused by his son President Benigno Aquino III, the gap between the poor and the rich widened.

Duterte’s authoritarian streak is no secret as he himself tends to remind the country. His biggest fault, according to his vice president, was his brutal albeit violent crackdown on illegal drugs. “Operation Tokhang” (OT) killed thousands during Duterte’s drug war. Vice President Leni Robredo elevated Duterte’s crackdown on narcopolitics to Western Democracy audiences including the United Nations.

Rappler’s investigative reporter and part owner, Ressa Robles wrote a detailed report about the operation but has used a much higher, albeit exaggerated death toll. Her reporting was picked up by Western media to highlight Duterte’s strongman tactics in the Philippines. Between her reporting and Robredo’s international sorties decrying the state of human rights in the Philippines gave life to Duterte’s present predicament of being investigated by an agency of the United Nations International Criminal Court (ICC).

How did Duterte get into this mess? Well, when he became president he jolted the country to images of drug addicts surrendering to authorities or being “Tokhanged” – a euphemism for ending up dead for drug-related activities. Jail cells were full and overflowing as Tokhang progressed. Duterte stated that over 6 million Filipinos were hooked on illegal drugs and that monies from the illicit drug trade has found its way into corrupting the country’s democratic and political institutions. Perhaps the highest profiled opposition figure netted by OT was Sen. and former justice secretary Leila de Lima, a constant Duterte critic.

Another area that Duterte is being taken to task is his chumminess with China who has loaned him money to finance his ambitious “Build, build, build” infrastructure nationwide project. Primarily, Duterte’s decision not to “enforce” the UNCLOS ruling was getting people like retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio to constantly criticize the administration.

It should be noted that the Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) was lost to the Chinese in 2012 during the Aquino administration and before Duterte even became president.  It was this incident that prompted Aquino to seek the help of the United States. But the U.S. is not a claimant and could not intervene. Instead, the American presence in the country was beefed up to reassure Aquino but still, China’s militarization of the islands continued until this day.

Note also, that during the Ramos administration that the Chinese began occupying some of these islands (i.e., Mischief Reef or Panganiban Reef) in response to the Ramos administration secretly granting local permit to Alcorn Petroleum and the US company Vaalco Energy to explore oil in the Reed Bank (Recto Bank in Philippine maps) which China claims is part of its sovereign territory. Ramos earlier had talks with the Chinese to jointly develop Reed Bank but did not pan out.

Duterte’s point is that the Philippines is not in a position to impose its will on China militarily and decided instead to work with the Chinese as part of his foreign policy. His pursuit of an independent foreign policy rattled many in Washington especially when Duterte started flirting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s president Xi Jinping. Duterte’s attempt to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) got the Americans to seriously engage Duterte especially during the pandemic.

The South China Sea imbroglio is about oil at the bottom of the ocean and are willing to risk confrontation because of it. It was actually former president Ferdinand Marcos who had a great sense of this fact. In 1968, Marcos began occupying some of the islands and renaming them with Filipino names. The Philippines would end up occupying a total of eight islands and two reefs. Through a presidential proclamation, Marcos redrawn the Philippine Archipelago by annexing the Kalayaan group of islands.

When Cory Aquino became president, she did not pursue the claims of Marcos but other presidents did. Fidel Ramos did it and so did Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Arroyo even entered into agreements with China along with Vietnam to jointly mine for oil in areas west of Palawan and considered part of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Her signed agreements allowed Chinese money to fund her infrastructure projects through loans. These loans, however, caused corruption to bubble up and forced Arroyo to terminate the agreement after three years. The Chinese were not happy with Arroyo’s unilateral decision.

To add salt to injury, Arroyo allowed issuing permits to American oil companies towards the end of her term. Aquino III picked up where she left off by pursuing the unilateral decision to mine Recto Bank for oil using British/American oil consortiums. This was when China sent military components to Scarborough Shoal, an island within the EEZ in retaliation to Aquino’s move. The rest is history. (To be continued..)


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