Bayonets scarier than the virus
In the end, President Duterte’s gloating demolished all the pretensions of his people that the House of Representatives’ assassination of ABS-CBN was somehow an act independent of his will and desires. He took credit for it in a statement that rocketed around the internet. Speaking to the military and officials in Jolo, the President crowed, “Without declaring martial law, I dismantled the oligarchy that controlled the economy of the Filipino people.”What’s interesting is why he felt he had to justify himself to the military. To my mind, the rest of his remarks betray his real concern: animosity between the military and police. People are missing out on the full implications of his having to go and make these remarks where and when he did.
Try this exercise. You can easily go online and read his remarks as tweeted, but do it in reverse, since he indulges in stream-of-consciousness talking anyway. You will see that his main problem is this: He only has two years left. The clock runs out then, and resets for everyone who’s done his bidding, everyone who’s gained at the expense of others. Since 1986, only one president has succeeded in getting a handpicked successor elected, so odds are against even this incumbent doing it. If he fails, then the cops and officials who engaged in and supported liquidations can face charges, victims of political persecution can be released or actually find justice, the government protection for favored businessmen won’t necessarily remain, etc., etc.
Just when the last two years are counting down, aside from the economy being in its worst state since World War II, you have a problem in the military being furious at the police for the killing of an ex-soldier with PTSD and the liquidation of military intelligence agents; you have ambushes by the NPA when the President released the NPA leadership and made their above-ground allies part of his government; then you had to have the military walk back the attempted dismantling of the whole alliance architecture of the country, including reinstating the VFA and resuming the upgrading of the armed forces. Now add to all that tensions in Mindanao where the military has long wanted a peace agreement to last, and you understand why the President braved the “veerus” to talk to the military. One observer, Robby Villabona, put it best: “When he wakes up early for something you know what bothers him.”
As it is, the military brass have seen the limits of their own abilities, even as the President has tried to entice them to be implicated fully in his plans. Like many weak leaders, he seems to believe military men are magical beings who can do what civilians can’t: organize things. So he stuffed his government full of them, especially to compensate for initially putting much of the government’s resources in the hands of his communist allies. To a certain extent, it worked: Drilled to obey, they became functioning subordinates in contrast to many of his civilian appointments. Which only goes to underscore a very curious development, which was the reluctance of the armed forces to take on even more power for itself (again, this is a reminder that the civilians were all for martial law, but it was the specific, public, moves of the armed forces that prevented a nationwide proclamation of martial law and, it may turn out with more investigation, a more ceremonial and not practical implementation of it in Mindanao). So the President was being spiteful when he said he didn’t need martial law to take down the Lopezes—these are the instances when he can be tone-deaf.
So, what we saw was: The President is uneasy, the military is sore, the civilian political class knows who holds the public purse, so they are going to be loyal to him until the campaign starts. But for all the President’s bluster, local barons can make mischief (see below). And the President still lacks a viable successor to anoint, while knowing anointing is of limited value. Still, when he appears, the soldiers stand and salute, and perhaps that is all the optics needed for now.
Postscript: When I initially shared these thoughts on Facebook, the irrepressible Joel Rocamora weighed in with his take on the local dynamics of it all. “I have a different take on this,” he wrote. “[I]n Jolo… at [the] Army camp. Gov Sakur Tan was present, but curiously not on stage with other ‘bigatin’ but surrounded by soldiers in the floor. In his speech, Duts spoke as if he was talking directly to Sakur at various points. Curious! [Could there be a connection with] rumors about Sakur’s role in the killing of 4 soldiers? [His] bit [about the] oligarchy [should be linked to his] promise [about the] barter trade. [It’s as if he was warning Tan], I can bring down the oligarchy, [what about you]… But if you behave we restore barter…”