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Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Highs and Lows of the Duterte Administration

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Six years after a monumental election that elevated the populist Rodrigo Roa Duterte to the presidency, he will step down, handing the Philippines immensely different from the one he inherited in 2016. The crass and foul-mouthed president, whose support has been well above majority levels since the beginning, has endeared the Filipinos, cruising his candidates to victory in the 2019 midterms and influencing the electorate, albeit indirect, to vote for her daughter, Sara Duterte-Carpio, for the vice-presidency.

Thanks to a well-oiled social media machinery, he has successfully deflected any criticism against him, no matter how serious, avoiding the headwinds that imperiled his predecessor’s picks.

As this pivotal chapter in the country’s history comes to a close, let’s take a look back at the highs and lows that defined the Duterte administration, from the bloody drug war that divided the nation’s perception of him to the coronavirus pandemic that gravely tested his leadership style:

President Rodrigo Duterte showing the drug list to the media. Photo from Presidential Communications Operations Office website.

The War on Drugs

No other issue would President Duterte be more remembered than his war on illicit drugs, marked by extrajudicial killings and human rights violations that could throw his retirement into uncertainty.

Believing that he could manage the country handily like Davao City, he promised on Feb. 20, 2016, that he would get rid of corruption, drugs and criminality within “three to six months,” adding he would give the reins of government to then-vice-presidential candidate Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. should he fail.

“They say my timeline is ambitious, you know if I am already president, in the third month I am sitting there as president and I fail because nobody believes me, I really cannot do it even if you give me 10 years of rule,” he said at the time.

That timeline didn’t actualize.

Still, the government moved quickly to eradicate the drug menace, with then-police chief Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa leading the drug war operations. But only the small fishes were caught and eventually killed. Signages of “Pusher ako, wag tularan” were found in lifeless bodies scattered on the streets. “They are slaughtering us like animals,” a bystander told The New York Times in 2016 as killings of poor people mounted.

The Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) reported this month that throughout the Duterte presidency, the drug war death count stood at 6,241. But the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group claimed 7,009 drug-related deaths occurred during the same period. And some rights groups claim that the toll could be as high as 27,000.

Eventually, the president admitted that he was wrong in having a self-imposed deadline: “Maybe it was campaign time. Payabangan na naman ng kampanya. Pagdating ko sa Maynila, dala ko ‘yung chief of police ko, si Bato (Dela Rosa). Nung binuksan ko na ‘yung records, six generals of the Philippine National Police were playing with drugs. Sabi ko, ‘Paano tayo mabubuhay nito?’”

The drug war could jeopardize Duterte’s retirement plans because of an ongoing investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged crimes against humanity. However, the probe was temporarily halted in November 2021 because of the Justice Department’s review of 52 drug war cases.

Malacañang has long insisted that the ICC has no jurisdiction to prosecute Duterte because the Philippines withdrew its membership in 2018 and the country’s judicial system is working.

“The ICC is the court of last resort utilized when a State Party is unwilling to investigate and prosecute those who violate laws,” Martin Andanar, acting presidential spokesperson, said.

Meanwhile, a forensic pathologist, Raquel Fortun, is trying to unearth the actual toll of the drug war by examining cadavers at her makeshift office at the University of the Philippines. She discovered that medical authorities stated in at least seven victims that their cause of death was natural, even though it was a homicide.

For the president, there are no regrets in launching a drug war that he said was a necessity to put an end to a “sinister and virulent activity.”

“I would say and I would insist, during the tail end of my administration, that I did the right thing. I won’t back down. No apologies. For me, I did the right thing,” he said on May 12.

Members of the government cabinet inspecting weapons retrieved by security forces from ASG-Maute militants. Photo Release – 18 June 2017 #16 Presidential Communications Operations Office

Marawi Siege

Isnilon Hapilon, one of the world’s wanted terrorists, along with the Islamic State-related Maute Group, founded by brothers Abdullah and Omar, pummeled Marawi City in May 2017 with sophisticated weapons that put a test early on the Duterte presidency.

He cut short his trip to Russia when the rampage began on May 23, 2017, immediately declaring Martial Law in the entire Mindanao. “Lahat ng gagawin na dapat gawin sa martial law, we will implement. Control of movement, searches and arrest of detained people for suspension of writ of habeas corpus,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told at the time.

With the support of the notorious Abu Sayyaf, the terrorists held civilians hostage and seized control of establishments and institutions. Soldiers, including those from other countries, were locked in a five-month battle where falling bombs, billowing smoke and endless gunfights became familiar scenes.

Residents were displaced elsewhere to avoid the conflict because their houses were already peppered by bullets.

“It’s urban warfare, face-to-face combat. They are still holding out. The fighting is house to house, building by building,” Lt. Col. Christopher Tampus, an infantry battalion commander, told The New York Times.

Others, meanwhile, were trapped in the besieged city out of fear that the terrorists might kill them. They said their lives became miserable during the months-long ordeal. “We were not able to sleep because of the airstrikes and gunfire. For 38 days, we drank rainwater. I tried to escape, but bombs were falling near our building. When we did finally leave, we saw dead bodies decaying in the street. When we arrived at the bridge, we were rescued by the military [and] were turned over to the police,” a married couple told Amnesty International.

On Oct. 17, 2017, Duterte announced the liberation of Marawi City. “I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation of Marawi,” he said with his arms raised.

Over a thousand lost their lives in the battle, a hundred of which were from the military. About 360,000 people were left homeless.

Martial Law dragged on from an initial 60 days to 953 days, ending on Jan. 1, 2020.

Rehabilitation has also dragged on for years. The chairman of the Moro Consensus Group, Drieza Lininding, told Al Jazeera in 2019 that the president has failed in fulfilling his promises.

“For us, the president is a failure in many aspects of the Marawi rehabilitation. If you count one by one the promises that he had made in 2017, many of them remain unfulfilled. We have not lost hope. But we were anticipating that they would put on a show when they made their promise,” he said.

Just this April, the president signed a law providing compensation to the victims of the Marawi siege, forming a board to assess those who would seek claims. Eligible claimants include families of deceased victims and business owners whose properties were destroyed.

In 2021, four years after the siege, Duterte said in a speech that the government remains committed to rebuilding the crumbled city and bringing it back to its former glory.

“Let me take this opportunity to reassure the people of Marawi that the government is doing its best to expedite the completion of rehabilitation projects at the soonest possible time. We, in government, are strongly committed to bring back the city’s glory,” he said.

NLEX-SLEX Connector Road. Photo from Build Build Build website.

Build, Build, Build

The Build, Build, Build program would usher in the “Golden Age of Infrastructure,” the Duterte administration touted.

At the United Nations General Assembly in 2018, an undersecretary from the National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) highlighted the program as a bedrock strategy for development and growth.

“With rapid urbanization, an expanding population, unique archipelagic landscape, and the need to enhance resiliency to address various risks and vulnerability, the country requires sectorally and spatially-distributed infrastructure investments that can support higher growth and improve the quality of life among its people,” Dr. Rosemarie G. Edillon, Neda undersecretary for policy and planning, said.

The government’s target was to spend seven percent of the total gross domestic product (GDP) on infrastructure. In 2017, there were 75 promised projects. After multiple revisions, the list evolved to 119, including ongoing projects that the Duterte administration inherited from its predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. That’s why some accused the Duterte regime of credit grabbing, particularly that of Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) Secretary Mark Villar.

Projects inserted in the Build, Build, Build list midway through the Duterte presidency include the Skyway Stage 3, LRT-2 East Extension Project, NLEX-Slex Connector Project and the C5 South Link Expressway, among others.

While costlier projects such as the Mindanao Railway – Mindanaoans’ dream for the past eight decades – Cebu-Bohol Link Bridge, Mindoro-Batangas Super Bridge and the Gregorio del Pilar Impounding Project, among others, were shelved.

“Usually human nature, we tend to, in general, tend to be ambitious at the start, then a long list of undertakings need to be carried out,” then-Neda Secretary Ernesto Pernia told Rappler.

Still, the government declares the Build, Build, Build as a success, even if only 12 projects were completed, as per DPWH, and spending peaked at 5.9% of the GDP, over a percentage short of its goal.

Economist JC Punongbayan told Rappler that constant revisions to Build, Build, Build’s list of projects would be more challenging to hold officials accountable: “If the targets keep changing, then it would be difficult to assess their success. Similar to economic goalposts, targets for Build, Build, Build were constantly revised so they could achieve them.”

Duterte hopes that the incoming Marcos Jr. administration will continue his signature program for the benefit of the masses.

“I now call on my fellow workers in government – especially those who will take on the reins of power and those who will remain once I step ahead of office – to continue to dream and pursue big-ticket projects that will sustain our ongoing economic recovery and realize goals and aspirations of our people,” he said.

“Let us then look to the future with courage, optimism, and confidence as we move towards a more progressive and robust Philippines,” he added.

Fishing Banca Gem-Ver’s stern after Reed Bank incident. Philippine Coast Guard – Maritime Industry Authority – JOINT PCG-MARINA MARINE SAFETY INVESTIGATION ON THE INCIDENT INVOLVING “FBCA GEM-VER”

China and The West Philippine Sea

“Ngayon, pag ayaw nila, then I will ask the Navy to bring me to the nearest boundary dyan sa Spratlys, sa Scarborough. Bababa ako, sasakay ako ng jet ski, dala-dala ko yung flag ng Pilipino, at pupunta ako dun sa airport nila, tapos itanim ko. Then I would say this is ours and do what you want with me. Bahala na kayo. I would stake that claim and if they want to–matagal ko nang ambisyon yan na maging hero din ako. Pag pinatay nila ako dun, bahala na kayong umiyak dito sa Pilipinas.”

This was Duterte’s defiant message at the final presidential debate in 2016 after being asked by a fisherman about his plans if China ignored the country’s territorial rights over the West Philippine Sea and surrounding islands.

Six years later, the nation saw the president cozying up with Chinese President Xi Jinping, contending that war was the only resort to reclaim complete control of the islands. Duterte downplayed the historic arbitral ruling in 2016 that favored the Philippines as a mere “piece of paper.” He then said that his famous “jet ski” promise was a stupid joke, noting that he “never mentioned about China and the Philippines in my campaign because that was a very serious matter.”

In a contentious moment when a Chinese vessel rammed, sank and abandoned a fishing boat, Gem-Ver, carrying 22 Filipino fishermen, Duterte, at first, echoed China’s foreign ministry, dismissing it as an ordinary “maritime incident.” Eventually, three years after their ordeal, the government announced a settlement: a PhP6-million compensation for the fishermen and the owners.

Duterte’s apparent subservience to China has been evident throughout his presidency, even when, at times, he publicly underscored the arbitral ruling. He was prioritizing his warm relations with China above all else. “He thought that by being nice to China he would get loans, he would get investments – and he did get pledges, but that is all he got. How much has been realized? What have we gotten?” Jose Cuisia, former ambassador of the Philippines to the United States, told Rappler.

In a December 2021 address, the president defended the Philippines and China’s friendship but said that the West Philippine Sea is a “different issue.”

“For whatever really is said about the relations of Philippines and China, I would maintain we are good friends. And they were the first ones to give us vaccines,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino. “The issue over the West Philippine Sea is a different issue. And our friendship with them is a different issue.”

Chinese loans swarmed the country, used to spend on infrastructure and, eventually, the Covid-19 response. Critics feared that China was setting up debt traps, but the president of a Chinese bank said that the country shouldn’t worry for as long as the money would be utilized effectively.

Duterte’s successor, Marcos Jr., has been adopting his strategy, avoiding a confrontational approach with a superpower so that conflicts won’t erupt. Still, warm relations don’t necessarily translate to lesser incursions as Chinese ships continue to invade the country’s exclusive economic zones and toss out fishermen who were just there to earn a livelihood.

Philippines’ balancing act may soon have a domino effect on other areas, including its relations with the U.S. “For now, Manila is hedging well. But its balancing act may soon become untenable as Beijing seeks to assert its regional ambitions and Washington pushes back,” the think tank International Crisis Group said in its December 2021 report.

President Rodrigo Roa Duterte holds a meeting with members of the Inter-Agency Task Force on the Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID) at the Malago Clubhouse in Malacañang on May 19, 2020. KARL NORMAN ALONZO/PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO

Covid-19 Pandemic

As the country was still reeling from the Taal Volcano eruption in January 2020, a worldwide menace was beginning to creep in border after border after border, catching governments, including Duterte’s, flatfooted.

The coronavirus pandemic, first called 2019-nCoV, emerged at a wet market in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. Since then, the world has grappled with a disease that would redefine humanity’s way of life.

Duterte, at first, was not keen on banning Chinese travelers from entering the country. “Mahirap’ yang ano, sabihin mong you suspend everything because they are not also suspending theirs and they continue to respect the freedom flights that we enjoy,” he told reporters on Jan. 29, 2020.

But as cases gradually ballooned, the president realized he needed to close the borders. Nonetheless, it was too late.

On Mar. 16, 2020, Luzon began its stringent lockdown – what would eventually be the longest in the world. He responded to the pandemic with a militaristic approach, appointing military men to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF-EID). And critics noticed that Duterte used the lockdown to strengthen his grip further. “There is a clear effort from some quarters in the government to shrink the democratic space and free discussion that is essential to a democracy,” the lawyer Chel Diokno told Time Magazine.

More than 50 million people were forced to stay home as the cases kept mounting. Ayuda or social amelioration was distributed to poor residents, albeit messy. Each family was entitled to PhP16,000 for two months, depending on its size. Local government units didn’t have a clear standard of who should be a beneficiary.

The first legal inoculation in the country began in March 2021. Vaccines in that year’s first half were just trickling because of enormous demand from wealthier countries.

Duterte threatened local government units slowly inoculating its citizens of sanctions: “We saw fault lines in the overall picture of our vaccination program. I am not contented.”

And he threatened Filipinos who were hesitant of getting a jab that they would be vaccinated while they’re sleeping: “Iyan ang problema, ‘yung ayaw magpabakuna. Kaya hanapin ninyo ‘yan sa barangay niyo, akyatin natin pag tulog, at turukin natin ang natutulog para makumpleto ang istorya. Kung ayaw ‘di akyatin sa bahay. Tusukin natin sa gabi. Ako ang mag-ano. I will lead the journey.”

In July 2021, Bloomberg rated the Philippines 52nd in its Covid-19 response out of 53 countries, prompting Health Secretary Francisco Duque III to describe its methodology as “skewed.”

“It is very unfair and it is only showing that those countries that have already been vaccinated and reached a population protection of more than 50 percent, [they’re saying], ‘We’re okay now. You can come. Ayos na kami dito. Our doors are open. Balik na kayo,’” he told ABS-CBN News at the time.

Philippines’ ranking would not improve until this year when it rose in Nikkei Asia’s ranking. Duque said that it could be attributed to strict compliance with minimum health standards and an aggressive vaccine rollout. “[T]his is a marathon. ‘Yung mga iba kala sprint, eh. Pabilisan, you know, ganon. But we steadily orchestrated the national government’s pandemic response in cooperation with the local government units and also [the] private sector,” he said.

But public anger over Duque ensued when the Senate hearings investigating the government’s dealings with Pharmally Pharmaceuticals kicked off. Duterte was not out of the picture.

In its report released in February, the Senate Blue Ribbon Committee found that Duterte “was aware of, allowed, and condoned” the government’s shady dealings with the little-known company owned by his friend, Michael Yang. By continuously spatting publicly with its chairman, Sen. Richard Gordon, and preventing his cabinet from appearing in hearings, the president attempted to “render inutile the Senate’s role in investigating corruption” and “diminish the Senate and COA, institutions that safeguard our democracy and integrity.”

Duque, meanwhile, procured overpriced items, such as face masks and face shields, that were tantamount to misuse of Covid-19 funds.

Despite the controversies, Pulse Asia reported in September 2021 that the public’s approval of the government’s Covid-19 response stood at 59 percent. Three months earlier, that peaked at 65 percent. Only 17 percent expressed disapproval.

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