I have a piece up exclusively at Asia Times, Duterte’s Beef with America. Go read it!
It unpacks the story of Duterte’s coolness to the United States dating back to the Michael Meiring incident in 2002. Duterte’s spokesman recently cited the Meiring case in explaining his attitude toward the U.S., leading to a New York Times ‘splainer that I characterize as a feeble effort to handwave aside a pretty major problem. Read my piece and you’ll see why.
In my Asia Times piece I go with the more conservative and better-documented allegations, which are pretty damning. Basically, Meiring looks like a CIA op tasked with a bombing campaign in Davao City to advance US objectives and just one piece of ongoing US interference in Mindanao that sticks in Duterte’s craw.
That’s pretty bad, but it’s only a small fraction of the eyepopping rumors that circulate about Meiring. I’ll address those in a separate post.
Here I’ll stick with Duterte.
Duterte reminds us that efforts to rebalance the US-Philippine relationship on the basis of a maritime threat from the PRC confronted by the US Navy is a relatively recent development. For the last few decades the primary Philippine interface with the US military has been in the matter of internal security, and the US track record has been less than stellar.
The U.S. security strategy may have built advantageous relationships with key elements in the Philippine officer corp, but has also reaped a harvest of coffins together with the usual superpower bombast. For detail, see my piece Mamsapano: the Philippines’ Benghazi.
In Duterte’s back yard of Mindanao, the US military, via a JSOC command, was engaged for the last decade or so with the notorious Abu Sayyaf militant group we now hear so much about.
Abu Sayyaf was actually a collection of the usual suspects i.e. Muslims who fought the Soviets under the U.S. aegis in Afghanistan and returned home to do mischief. Apparently Abu Sayyaf was enabled by high-level protectors in the Philippine military, who saw them as a potentially useful asset against the Moro independence movement on Mindanao and providing useful pretexts for the extension of central government control over the island via martial law.
I haven’t seen anybody else write about it, but it looks to me like Abu Sayyaf lost its covert government sponsorship in 2003, when the main Moro insurrectionary outfit, the MILF, wrote a letter to George W. Bush that opened a negotiated track. I suspect this initiative was midwived by Muammar Gaddafi, who was a big supporter of the MILF; in 2003 Gaddafi had started his rapprochement discussions with the U.S. and I think the Moro got the message to make nice with the States.
Abu Sayyaf has degenerated into a kidnap/ransom enterprise whose main utility appears to be to provide a pretext for the US to do security operations on Mindanao while elements in the military apparently still provide it with protection. Duterte let it be known his first act as president will be to declare war on Abu Sayyaf in its final stronghold, and corrupt Philippine officers who didn’t resign before he took office would find themselves on the front lines: “And if you are taken hostage there, say your ‘Our Fathers’ because I will never, never pay anything to retrieve you.”
For the reasons described above and in my Asia Times article, Duterte is not an enthusiast for U.S. military operations inside the Philippines.
Duterte opposed the Balikatan exercises, at least as far as Mindanao is concerned, objected to the use of an airport in Davao City as a U.S. drone base, and he’s unlikely to be an enthusiastic helpmate for the pivot. Duterte wants to have bilateral exchanges with the PRC on the issue of Scarborough Shoal and undersea resource development. In the last days of the election campaign, an attempt, inaccurate I think, was made to spin his unwillingness to meet with U.S. representatives as a sign he was in thrall to PRC gold but when you read my piece I think you’ll understand what underlies Duterte’s attitudes.
All is not lost for the United States, given the strong U.S. relationship with the Philippine military—backed up by Philip Goldberg, U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines, ex Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research and one of those imperial bladerunners who finds their way in and out of hotspots around the world– and the fact that Duterte’s opponents are entrenched in various civil institutions in Manila.
Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, the legal maestro of the Philippines’ UNCLOS arbitration case, declared at a recent forum that a favorable Hague ruling will leave only 1551 square kilometers of the “South China Sea” in dispute i.e. victory is within reach & it would be foolish/criminal to fritter away Philippines’ rock-solid claims in order to make nice with the PRC.
Carpio made this case at a forum “held in Camp Aguinaldo and was attended by military personnel, representatives from embassies and the Department of Foreign Affairs.” Presumably, everybody in the civil & military establishment is expected to sing from the same hymnal on the importance of sticking with the arbitration route.
Just in case Duterte tries to duke it out with the uniforms in the Department of National Defense and the suits at the Department of Foreign Affairs, he can also worry about the Senate. I’m guessing opposition in the Senate will insist that any deal Duterte works out with the PRC must involve an explicit PRC acknowledgment of Philippine sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal and acceptance of the Philippines EEZ.
And beyond that, there’s also Carpio’s shop, the Supreme Court. Carpio stated last year that impeachment is the proper remedy for any president that violates Philippine sovereignty by dealing improperly with the PRC on EEZ matters, for instance by offering a deal on delineation of the EEZ that accepts anything less than 200 nm for the Philippines.
And in any case, if the arbitration case goes the Philippines’ way, I don’t see any difficulty for the Department of National Defense to start EEZ-assertion patrols with fishing fleets without too much deference to any objections from Duterte, messing it up with PRC vessels, and eventually invoking the aid of the US. This is something I think the US Navy lusts for and a new Hillary Clinton administration may not be unwilling to provide; consider the FONOPs farce simply a way of keeping the SCS pot boiling until the arbitration ruling comes down, Obama’s on the golf course, and Clinton is president.
Bottom line: the US will not surrender its strategic opportunities in the Philippines and South China Sea dispute lightly, and I expect its allies in the Philippine establishment to do their best to deter and obstruct Duterte as needed from taking Philippine PRC policy down an undesirable path toward appeasement.
Duterte’s election, in other words, gives the PRC another potential lever to work in the dispute, but not a decisive one, especially if the China hawks have anything to do with it. Which they will. In my opinion.
So Duterte might decide to let the SCS process grind on and expend his political capital on domestic issues like corruption, public order, and the challenge to national unity posed by his home island of Mindanao.
Duterte’s an interesting cat. Nicknamed The Punisher, he’s a horndog, bully, a bruiser, and an enthusiastic vigilante. The US media seems to have pigeonholed him as “The Philippines’ Donald Trump with Death Squads,” an indication of instinctive unease with a populist political force that doesn’t declare allegiance to the modern liberal playbook—and who condoned death squads in his city.
He’s also a lawyer, albeit one who shot a fellow student and was therefore not allowed to march at his graduation.
Duterte won the election despite the open opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He alleges he was abused by a Jesuit priest at school and has a combative relationship with the Catholic Church. His local political base is on Mindanao, which is 20% Muslim.
A 2015 news article/puff piece provides a useful perspective on Dutarte beyond the usual “murderous buffoon” framing:
As the leader of a city which had its painful share of violence and terrorism believed perpetrated by Islamic extremists where 45 people were killed in three bombing incidents in 1993 and 2003, Davao City Mayor Rody Duterte still remains hopeful that a negotiated settlement would end the conflict in the Southern Philippines which has dragged on for generations.
“If there is anybody who wishes that this bloody problem would end soon, it is I because I am both Moro and Christian,” Duterte said.
“I feel the fear of the Christians and share the dreams of the Moro people who feel that they have been dispossessed of their land and identity,” the City Mayor said.
Duterte admits publicly for the first time that his maternal grandmother had a Moro lineage.
“There is a part of me which is Moro,” he said.
Duterte’s ties with the Muslims of the South were made even stronger because his eldest son, Paolo who is now Vice Mayor of the City, embraced Islam when he married a Muslim Tausug girl.
“I have grandchildren who are either Muslim or Christian. Would I want to see a situation in the future where even my own grandchildren would be dragged into this conflict?,” he asked.
Following the bombings, the national government approved the city’s recommendation to organize Task Force Davao, a military composite group which established check points all over the city to control the entry of bombs and guns.
When Duterte ordered that the City will no longer allow the entry of powerful firearms usually brought in by bodyguards of politicians mostly Muslims from the Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces, everybody followed.
“This city is open to everybody regardless of tribe or religion for as long as you abide by the law,” Duterte once declared when the issue of the presence in the city of members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was raised.
MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari has a wife who lives in Davao City.
Top ranking officials of the MILF are also believed to have homes in Davao City where their children live while studying in colleges and universities in the city.
Davao has thus become a model “peace city” today where members of warring groups – the Moro rebels, the New People’s Army (NPA), policemen and soldiers – live and abide by the strict rules of the city under the leadership of Rody Duterte.
It was also chosen as one of the Safest Cities in the World to Live In.
Muslim businessmen, mostly Maranaos, swear that they are never harassed in Davao City while selling their wares, unlike elsewhere in the country where they are the favorite prey of corrupt policemen who mulct them of their little earnings.
But Duterte’s dream of peace transcends the boundaries of his city.
“For as long as the misunderstanding between government and the Moro groups continue, we will always be unstable,” he said.
Duterte is aware that the problem is not simple.
He says the Moro people are largely misunderstood because they embrace a religion which is not known to many Filipinos in other parts of the country.
Feeling that they do not belong to the mainly Christian Filipino society and that they were never given much importance by the Central Government in its national policy formulation and decision making, the Muslims of the South have always struggled for independence and self determination.
“The danger here is that unless these legitimate issues are addressed, there is the grim scenario of the younger Moros gravitating towards radical Islamic organizations,” Duterte said.
“I will be the last person who will agree to the dismemberment of this nation,” he once declared.
Duterte maintains that while he understands the resentment of the Bangsamoro to being called Filipinos based on the belief that it is a Spanish imposed name, he believes that Christians and Muslims in this country belong to one race.
“We can call ourselves by any other name but the fact that we are brothers will always remain,” he said.
He said that while the Philippine peace negotiators have the noble intention of forging peace with the MILF in the Southern Philippines, they failed to consider some cultural realities involving the Moro tribes of the South.
“The Moros of the islands are distinct culturally from the Maguindanaos, Maranaos and Iranuns of mainland Mindanao. Offering a generic solution to their peculiar problems and concerns may not work at all,” Duterte explained.
The Tausugs will never be comfortable being under the leadership of the Maguindanaos or Maranaos, a situation which is also true inversely, Duterte explained adding that this could be the reason behind the failure of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which was first headed by Misuari.
Duterte also said that while he hopes that the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) will pass Congress, his lawyer’s instincts tell him that the measure will be questioned before the Supreme Court because of some Constitutional infirmities.
It will be difficult to reconcile a parliamentary autonomous government with a Presidential central government, he said.
Duterte, a San Beda law graduate, said there must be a back up plan should the BBL fail to pass the Constitutionality test.
“We cannot afford to fail here,” adding that Federalism and a two Federal States set up for the South could prove to be the best solutions.
A Federal Parliamentary form of government in the Philippines would not only serve the interests of the neglected regions of the country but also accommodate the desires of the Bangsamoro of the South.
A Federal State for the Maguindanaos, Maranaos, Iranuns and other Moro tribes of the main island and another Federal State for the Tausugs, Sama, Yakan and other island tribes could address the cultural issues.
Duterte said that what happened in the past could not be undone but that there is a need for national reconciliation.
“All that we could do to our Muslim brothers and sisters now is to give them what is due them which includes respecting their unique identity and respecting their claim to what is rightfully theirs,’ he said.
I would not take that “Safest City in the World” designation to the bank, by the way.
Concerning the Muslim disdain for the term “Filipino”, I have to say I did find it odd that an Asian nation decided to keep King Philip II of Spain as its namesake, but I guess naming America after some Italian sailor is just as weird.
Interestingly, “Moro” is a modern manufactured ethnicity, as Duterte illustrated when describing contradictions between the various “Moro” constituencies: when the Spanish set up their colony in the Philippines, they gave the name Moor to their opponents who resisted conversion to Catholicism, not because they were dusky but because they were Muslim, like the North African Arabs the Spanish armies had just defeated on the Iberian peninsula.
Spanish subjugation of the Philippines involved forced conversion to Catholicism in a chain of Muslim sultanates that once ran all the way up from the Straits of Malacca to modern Manila.
Mindanao proved less tractable. Much less tractable. I think the struggle to reduce Mindanao, first by the Spanish, then by the Americans, and now by the central government in Manila must rate as the lengthiest insurrection in world history, spanning 400 years. Resistance often included a significant Chinese component. I highly recommend the encyclopedic Wikipedia entry on the Spanish-Moro conflict to interested readers.
In an interesting sideline, when the US was grabbing the Philippines from the Spanish, they got the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul to instruct the Sultan of Sulu to stand down in 1898.
In any case, if truth be told, Mindanao looks more like Malaysia than the Philippines, especially the Malaysian province of Sabah across the strait. “Bangsamoro”, the term used by Muslim autonomy/independence advocates, means “Moro people”. “Bangsa” is a Malay term.
In fact, there’s always a “Malaysia annex Mindanao” “Philippines annex Sabah” “Independence for Mindanao/Sabah” buzz going on.
Mindanao also has a long history with the United States; the Duterte/Meiring fracas is just one of the more recent chapters.
It can be said that the US emerged as an empire with the annexation of the Philippines; and, of course, the Philippines was seen as America’s gateway to China.
But the territorial element is equally significant.
It can also be said the US built its modern military toolkit by porting best practices of the genocide against Native Americans in the US homeland to the brutal counterinsurgency against the Moro on Mindanao after the Spanish-American War.
Mindanao, by the way, is the place where Jack Pershing served. Donald Trump has erroneously tagged Pershing with the brainwave of putting pig’s blood on bullets to freak out the Moro. Actually, it was a junior officer who suggested the idea, which Pershing rejected. What an officer (not Pershing) did try was burying a dead assailant in a pig’s carcass, which didn’t have the desired demoralizing effect. See Robert Fulton’s Moroland 1899-1906: America’s First Attempt to Transform an Islamic Society pp. 176-77 for the story.
One innovation of the Philippine War that did stick was waterboarding. Here’s the cover of Life Magazine in 1902 with the picture.
Judging by the caption, this was a punishment for stone-throwing.
Despite the Navy’s obsession with the South China Sea and US power projection, territorial, colonial, and imperial issues have always been a big, if unwelcome, part of the U.S. equation for the Philippines.
Duterte’s election is a reminder of that.