It was a very strange week! Was it a full moon… or was it sign of the times? Indeed, a nation’s leader going ballistic is not the usual norm even with the likes of… well, I don’t want to distract you from the issues so let’s move on.
The recent brouhaha on the eve of President Rodrigo Duterte’s departure for his first foreign foray to the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos has left many people wondering what was going on in Duterte’s mind? Frankly, a national leader uttering the curse “putang ina” – “son of a whore” – to the Pope, the United Nations Secretary General or to the President of the United States, is demeaning the position he holds. And worst, it gives a bad image to the people he leads. And yet, 91% of the Filipino people incredibly hold him in high esteem! As George Takei loves to say, “Oh my!”
It all began when Obama, before embarking on his last foreign trip, said that he’d talk to Duterte in Laos about human rights violations. Well, “human rights” is something that apparently hit a raw nerve in “Digong” – Duterte’s street moniker – who is reputed to condone killings of illegal drug pushers and users because he said they’re not “human beings.” Which reminds me of what Digong had told a crowd of cheering admirers, saying he doesn’t mind being likened to the late Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, whom human rights activists blamed for the deaths of up to 500,000 people in the 1970s.
Digong and Amin
And the similarity between Digong and Amin reminds me of the movie, “The Last King of Scotland,” where Amin’s mercurial temperament and extreme mood change often makes one wonder if Amin had multiple personalities? Indeed, Duterte once told a group of reporters, “Ako, palabas-masok ako sa bipolar. One moment seryoso ako, one moment tatapunan ko kayo ng biro.” (I am bipolar. I am serious one moment, and the next moment I will joke with you.)
If true – meaning that he’s not joking about suffering from bipolar disorder – then we could be in for a roller coaster ride for the six years of his presidency. Indeed, his underlings – cabinet secretaries and department heads – would be scratching their heads (confused) and wiping their sweating armpits (nervous) every time Digong would give conflicting orders. While they are expected to be compliant and subservient, they would follow Digong’s orders, as they understood them, which could lead to bureaucratic chaos. The end result would be a dysfunctional government. But running a government gone berserk is one thing; running amuck around international summitries and gatherings is unspeakably horrible, to say the least.
Digong and Obama
It did not then come as a surprise when Digong bad-mouthed Obama, the leader of the world’s most powerful country, before he left for Vientiane to attend the ASEAN meeting. When a reporter asked him how he would explain his administration’s recent extrajudicial killings to Obama, he said that Obama must respect him and not just throw questions at him. He then blurted, “Putang ina, I will swear at you in that forum!” And when Obama heard about this, all he said was “He’s a colorful guy” and cancelled the meeting. Yep, what Duterte did was like a doberman biting the toe nails of an elephant; it didn’t hurt the elephant.
But Digong – a fearless street fighter – has the temerity to admit in front of television in Indonesia that he killed a prisoner who raped an Australian missionary when he was mayor of Davao City. Instantly, the limelight was on him. But is that how a national leader should project himself on the international stage?
While it might have awed some of the leaders attending the summit and treated him like a celebrity, Digong’s explosive speech on television had left little doubt that he’s someone to be shunned and treated as an international pariah.
But what Digong did in Vientiane was just an appetizer for the media whose voracious appetite for sensational and controversial scandals has no end. And no sooner had Digong landed in Manila than he dropped a bombshell on the U.S. Special Forces fighting the terrorists in Mindanao, saying they “have to go.” His reason for their eviction was to keep them from being killed by the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group. The next day — like a one-two-three punch — he announced that joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea would end. He also announced that the Philippines would buy arms from China and Russia, saying that deals are already “in the pipeline.” He then disclosed that China had offered to provide him with a personal plane to use. His own “Air Force One”?
The following day, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin welcomed Digong’s “independent foreign policy” and remarked that relations between the two countries “are at a new turning point.” Not so fast, pal, because the following day, Digong declined the offer saying that the plane might have more problems than him taking commercial flights. And jokingly – or seriously? – he said the plane might explode!
That, in a nutshell, was Digong’s maiden “independent foreign policy.” Evidently, he didn’t consult with his Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. and National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to make sure that the independent foreign policy he was pursuing would not put the country in harm’s way. But while there is nothing wrong with taking an independent course in foreign affairs, history tells us “Never burn your bridges” because you’d never know when you would need it to go back.
A few days later, Yasay flew to Washington DC to meet with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to clarify that Duterte’s message to the U.S. Special Forces was not an indication of policy shift. He told Kerry, “We cannot forever be the little brown brothers of America.” Huh? It’s amazing that some Filipinos are still using that archaic line.
It must have been excruciatingly painful for Yasay trying to convince Kerry that what looked like a triangle was actually a square. But he didn’t realize that Kerry preferred a circle. As someone once said, “Foreign policy is not what it seems.” Indeed, what you asked for may not be what you’d get… if you’d get anything at all.
Meanwhile, a few days later, Lorenzana told the House of Representatives’ Appropriation Committee that American troops would remain in Mindanao despite the president’s statement that he wanted them out of Mindanao. “We still need them there because they have the surveillance capability that our Armed Forces don’t have,” said Lorenzana, a retired major general. He also told the House committee that the danger of Abu Sayyaf killing or kidnapping the American troops is remotely possible.
Brink of insignificance
While one might presume that the Department of National Defense is in good hands and standing on solid ground, the Department of Foreign Affairs is on shaky ground led by a person whose foreign affairs experience could be categorized as apprentice. And worst, we have President Duterte who has oversized cojones play-acting as Superman, Batman, Iron Man, and Spiderman all rolled into one.
This is not meant to disparage Duterte and Yasay. But the two personify the Republic of the Philippines in the international stage where world leaders see in them the strengths and weaknesses of the country they represent. All it takes is one major foreign policy fiasco to drive the country to the brink of insignificance.
Today, four decades after Idi Amin fled Uganda into exile, many people still vividly see the image of the brutal dictator lording over his ravaged country, which begs the question: Is the Philippines heading the way of Uganda?