Pomme Duterte.

The Philippines were plagued by problems under Spanish rule; those problems didn’t go away under American rule; and they continued to plague the archipelago after independence.  Most eye-catching for Americans was a Muslim insurgency in the southern islands: the Moro Rebellion.  (Purportedly, this led to the adoption of the Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol.)  Since 9/11, American Special Forces have been supporting operations against Islamists (Abu Sayaf) in the southern islands of the archipelago.

A second problem, much ignored by Americans, is that the Philippines are ruled by a corrupt oligarchy.[1] In the 1980s and 1990s, after the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War in Asia, those leaders (and perhaps ordinary Filipinos as well) decided that they would prefer that the American military left its naval and air bases in the Philippines.  By 1992 this hope came true.

A third problem, more recent in appearance, is drugs and drug-dealers.  Methamphetamines, usually associated with rural America, appeared as a major problem for the Philippines.  Poor neighborhoods in Filipino cities showed all sorts of “disfunction.”  Moreover, evidence appeared that the Mexican Sinaloa drug cartel had invaded the Philippines.

Americans often talk about a “war on drugs,” without reaching the logical conclusion that a “war” is a war.[2]  Not so with Rodrigo Duterte (1945- ).  Duterte first came to public notice as the mayor of Davao, a city on the southern island of Mindanao.  He ran the city for better than 20 years.  Here, too, drugs and drug-dealers were a grave problem.  Filipino drug dealers, like those elsewhere, have flipped-off the law.  “Fine,” said Duterte.  During his tenure as mayor, “death squads” massacred drug dealers in Davao.  Curiously, the local police failed to solve most of the homicides.  All the same, the crime rate plummeted, what with there being fewer and fewer criminals still up and walking around.

Then Duterte and three other candidates then ran for president against Manuel Roxas, the pet candidate of oligarch Benigno Aquino.  In a five-way race, Dutere pulled 40 percent of the vote; Roxas pulled 23 percent of the vote, and the three other candidates pulled 37 percent of the vote between them.  Duterte became president.  Also, according to the displaced ruling elites in the Philippines, Duterte has shown “tyrannical” qualities by firing several thousand government employees.  He has replaced their clients with his own followers.

What happened in Davao is now happening elsewhere in the Philippines. Since Duterte’s election, 1,900 drug-dealers or “suspected” drug-dealers have been killed.  Some were killed by the police, some by vigilantes.  Half a million drug-users have surrendered to the police.  The massacres of meth dealers and users have been hard to swallow for humanitarians abroad.

Moreover, Duterte is anti-American at a moment when the United States is trying to shore up its position against a self-confident China.  The United States had hoped to patch up relations with the Philippines to help contain China and the Philippines had hoped to patch up relations with the United States to help contain China.  The United States has a defense agreement with the Philippines that is clearly directed against China.  As in the Middle East, the “client states” have their own agendas.  Hence, Duterte’s anti-Americanism has been even harder for American diplomats to swallow.  Duterte has brushed aside all American criticism by pointing out some of the many flaws in America society.  He has pursued contact with China.  Now the security relationship is endangered.   You can smell the coup coming.

[1] “The Philippines’ populist strongman,” The Week, 16 September 2016, p. 11.

[2] But see: Tom Clancy, Clear and Present Danger (1989 ).

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