After a year in the presidency, Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte has been embroiled in countless of wars against everybody he didn’t like or those who disagreed with his policies or those who were fighting his government on the ground, above the ground and below the ground. In essence, Digong is fighting anybody just for the sake of fighting, which makes one wonder: Is he suffering from a severe case of Napoleonic complex, itching for a fight, day after day, or a modern-day Don Quixote fighting imaginary windmills that are giving him vertigo? Is he afflicted with a messianic desire to save his beleaguered Filipinas from the evils of illegal drugs and corruption? Yes, he seems to see himself as the savior of the common tao. Is he, really?
What comes to mind was his recent State of the Nation Address (SONA) where he attacked his critics in a manner that was bereft of decency and beneath the dignity of his office. He resorted to his signature kanto-boy language laced with profanity for the whole world to hear, reiterating his war on drugs that has so far claimed the lives of more than 8,000 drug users and pushers. According to his estimates last year, there were more than three million drug users and pushers in the country. To eliminate the drug menace, he needs a huge army to accomplish this, if it can be accomplished at all.
But the war on drugs is not the only campaign he was pursuing. He’s also waging war against the Muslim militants, communist rebels, illegal miners, and anybody who, for any reason, piqued him annoyingly, including the Americans for seizing the three church bells of Balangiga in 1901 as war trophies during the Philippine-American War. He said that he wouldn’t accept President Trump’s invitation to visit the U.S. unless the bells are returned to the Philippines.
And then there was the Bud Dajo Massacre. Referring to the killing of 600 Moros by American soldiers during the “Moro Rebellion” of 1906, Duterte brought it up during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in September 2016. He said that it was an example of American atrocities when the Philippines was still a U.S. colony. He said that America has yet to apologize for the massacre.
Not content in his criticisms of the U.S. — the Philippines’ only treaty ally — Duterte turned his guns on Jose Ma. “Joma” Sison, the self-exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). In the latest episode of their love-hate relationship, Duterte said that given the chance, he’d kill Sison for the death of government troops in the hands of the New People’s Army (NPA), the CPP’s military arm. And what seems to be the cause of Duterte’s latest barrage against Sison? Well, Joma called Digong a “bully” because of his iron-fisted policies. For that, Duterte vowed never to talk peace with the communist rebels again. Calling the CPP-NPA enemies of the state, Duterte said: “No more talk, let’s fight.”
Instead, he wanted to focus his attention to seeking peace with the Muslim rebels. In response, Joma advised Duterte to look after his mental health and consult a psychiatrist. “I pity him and I am tempted just to let him go because what he says against me is patently baseless and comes obviously from a sick mind,” Sison said in a Facebook post.
Peace in Mindanao
But Duterte’s quest for peace with the Muslim rebels, particularly the Maute militants, has been elusive. A protracted battle between government forces and the Maute group in Marawi City is now on its ninth week and no end is in sight yet. Although government troops have entered and surrounded the city, there is a pocket of resistance from the dwindling number of Maute militants, who have dug tunnels and bunkers to make their last stand.
While the Maute rebellion is expected to be quelled sooner or later, peace in Mindanao is far from realization. There are so many variables and unknowns – not to mention their only known demand, independence — to come up with an “equitable” and lasting solution to the “Moro problem.”
What we’re seeing here instead is a perpetuation of the conflict that began as a localized rebellion in Marawi City into a larger armed confrontation between Philippine government troops and what is now known as the Islamic State of Lanao (ISL), which is composed of the original Maute group and former Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rebels including some foreign fighters believed to have sprung from ISIS in Syria. With the town of Butig in Lanao del Sur as the ISL’s main base, the Philippine Army characterized it as a “terrorist” organization.
It did not then come as a surprise when the Philippine Congress overwhelmingly voted for the extension of martial law and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus in Mindanao until December 31.
But while martial law could mitigate the threat posed by the Muslim militants, it doesn’t prevent the conflict from spreading beyond Lanao del Sur. Many experts believe that a Mindanao-based Islamic State Caliphate is in the offing. And this is the challenge Duterte is faced with. We all know that the “Moro problem” cannot be solved militarily.
With Duterte waging wars in so many fronts and with a Philippine military that is under-armed and spread out too thinly, it begs the question: Can he win? I doubt it.
What Duterte is doing is a juggling act. He’s juggling three “balls” all at once: (1) War on drugs, (2) War against Muslim terrorists, and (3) War against the NPA. But nobody wins in juggling. It’s a game that is just for show. The moment you stop juggling, all three balls would fall. The juggler has to constantly keep all three balls in motion… in the air. And by the way, juggling is only done in a circus to amuse spectators.
For spectators, Duterte has an international audience. They are Donald Trump, Xi Jinping, and Vladimir Putin, presidents of the U.S., China, and Russia, respectively.
But “juggling” is not Duterte’s only preoccupation. He is also a grandstander. When Duterte visited China in October 2016, he announced his “separation” from the U.S. and declared he had realigned with China. Then he told his Beijing audience: “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world — China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
Yep, “It’s the only way,” seems to be Duterte’s solution to every problem. It is not surprising then that he sees the “only way” to win the war on drugs is to kill the drug pushers and users. It’s as simple as that.
It’s the same with the “Moro Problem. Martial law is the “only way” to defeat the Muslim rebels. It’s as simple as that.
It’s the same with Joma Sison and the NPA. Warfare is the “only way” to solve the communist insurgency. It’s as simple as that.
No, Mr. President, they’re not simple as that. They’re complicated and require a solution that addresses, first and foremost, social justice or the lack thereof. Do you remember how the late President Ramon “The Guy” Magsaysay ended the communist Huk insurgency in less than two years? The Huks’ slogan then was: “Land for the landless.” What the Guy did was adopt the Huks’ slogan as his own. For each Huk who surrendered his weapon, he gave him and his family a carabao, a plow, and a homestead in Mindanao to start a new life. Families of former Huks are still in Mindanao today, living peacefully with their Muslim neighbors. Many have settled in Marawi City.
I hope, Mr. President that you’d learn from the lessons of history.