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What to Make of Duterte's Philippines

September 7, 2016

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte with a chart illustrating the drug trade network, July 2016. CREDIT: King Rodriguez/Wikimedia

DEVIN STEWART: I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and I'm sitting here with John Gershman. He's a clinical professor of public service at NYU's Wagner School, and he's also co-founder of the New York Southeast Asia Network.

John, great to have you here. Just tell us a little bit about that network, real briefly.

JOHN GERSHMAN: The network was founded by a couple of us at NYU and a couple of colleagues at Columbia and Seton Hall in an effort to create both an online and an in-person community of scholars and people with an interest in contemporary Southeast Asian affairs and U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.

DEVIN STEWART: John, you're mostly focused on the Philippines.

JOHN GERSHMAN: That's correct.

DEVIN STEWART: A lot to talk about today on the Philippines, particularly Rodrigo Duterte. He has been called "colorful." I think The New Yorker, citing you earlier in that article, referred to him as "a liberal's nightmare."

What is the non-Filipino person to make of the Philippines' President Duterte, who it seems has insulted Obama, the U.S. ambassador, and the pope? Very colorful, as we said. Just tell us what to make of this guy.

JOHN GERSHMAN: I fear, unfortunately, that what people are going to focus on is the insults. I mean he used a phrase that's a very common exclamation. It's putangina, which literally means "your mother's a whore." But it's often used not really as a direct insult, but just as kind of an exclamation—you know, you're sitting around talking and you just kind of make the reference. So I think it's honestly that he wasn't really intending to directly insult anyone. But it's just this is his kind of very colorful and very popular way, particularly among men in the Philippines, to sit around the bar and talk. I think that was more of a reflection of that than a directed insult.

I fear that so much of the attention to "he insulted the president," or whatever, distracts people from both positive and negative things that I think he is actually doing in the Philippines, which is much more significant than his language.

DEVIN STEWART: Why do you suppose he's so popular in the Philippines? I think he's considered probably one of the most, if not the most, popular politician in the Philippines right now.

JOHN GERSHMAN: His public approval ratings are very high. Previously, he served as mayor for about 20 years in the city of Davao. He was a very popular mayor at that point.

I think it's important to remember that, even though his public opinion polling is relatively high, he was still only elected by 39 percent of the people who voted in the election. So it's not like he had an overwhelming mandate to rule, but that he is a popular figure and fits, I think, very much in line with kind of the tough guy speaking—"I'm the new sheriff in town; I'm not going to take any crap." And there was a previous president, Joseph Estrada, who had made his career as a movie actor playing kind of similar tough-guy roles. So I think he fits in a particular mold in popular culture.

I think the other reason why he's popular—and this is one of the areas that doesn't get as much attention—besides his endorsement of wholesale human rights violations, is that he has in economic terms kind of a progressive past. He was someone who came of age in college during the 1960s, was influenced by the left. He has always had kind of warm relations with the armed left, the political left, and he has always said that he disagrees with their methods but he agrees with their general sentiments around inequality and social justice. While mayor, and at least initially as president, he has appointed some high-profile people into his cabinet who have a long tradition of working on anti-poverty issues.

So he's popular, I think, among the middle class because he's going to bring law and order. He is perceived as someone who is not deeply enmeshed in the political elite of Manila and part of the traditions of planned politics. And a wing of the poor, those who are not victims of execution and arrest and so forth in the war on drugs, see him as someone who is at least open to addressing real concerns around poverty and inequality.

DEVIN STEWART: So what does that mean in practical terms? He clearly is concerned about poverty and inequality. What do you think he'll do about that?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I would say there are two areas that we've seen so far that are some indication.

One is that he has reopened talks with the Communist Party and the New People's Army. If there was going to be some level of progress on issues, a settlement of what at this point is Asia's longest civil war, armed conflict, it would be some settlements on issues relating to land reform and other kinds of traditional concerns of the Communist Party.

Also, there was kind of a stalled peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that he has said that he wants to bring back on the table. Completing that agreement, which would grant some autonomy to Muslim-majority areas in Mindanao, would lay the political foundations for more sustained investment and, hopefully, more economic growth in parts of the Philippines that have amongst the worst indicators on well-being, like health and education and so forth.

Then, secondly would be his appointments into the cabinet as kind of a signal. He appointed at least three people who have, as I said, a tradition on the left of being very active—the secretary of social work, for example; the secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform—and at the moment started, coming out of the gate, with convening some broad government and civil society meetings around human development agendas and goals.

Now of course, he hasn't drafted a budget yet, and so the proof of all of this will actually be in the pudding of is he actually able to reorient budgetary priorities and policies in ways that actually address very real concerns around inequality and poverty. And so, at this point it has been largely symbolic and rhetorical. It will be a while before we can see whether that's going to actually translate into action.

DEVIN STEWART: Now, sometimes people believe that a lack of central government experience can actually be a benefit because you're not tied to certain groups, you don't owe anyone anything. Sometimes this has been an argument on behalf of Donald Trump and other people.

Are there signs that we should look at to get a sense of how competent his team will be?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I think there's going to be a question of—so he's going to have to make some deals. If he's going to want to have legislation passed through the Congress, he's going to have to make some deals, because his party did not win a majority, and so there are going to have to be some alliances made. So I think the question there will be, is he able to craft deals that allow him to advance his agenda, or are things going to be just left at a stalemate? It's a little too early to tell.

If you look at, again, some of the people he appointed into the cabinet and elsewhere, it's a mix of outsiders and some people who have some experience in national government. So I think again on that side it's still a little early to tell. We can step back after his first 100 days and see kind of where things are.

I think he was very attentive to—and you can see this as, I think, a savvy political move—he made 14 visits to military barracks and military bases in his first couple of months. He was not known as someone who had a particularly strong set of ties to the military, as opposed to the police, before coming into office. And so the fact that he recognizes that the Philippine military is a de facto player in Philippine politics and that there are some issues that the military is very concerned about—such as the South China Sea; dealing with Abu Sayyaf, which is the armed Islamist group that is not interested in a political settlement in negotiations; and that one of the other things he did was also a very popular step, re-launched a more robust series of attacks against Abu Sayyaf in the Southern Philippines, a major concern of the military—

DEVIN STEWART: That was a result of the bombing in Davao?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Arguably, the relationship is the other way, that the offensive against Abu Sayyaf began before the bombing, and it's widely believed that the bombing was a response to that military offensive, and the fact that they specifically targeted Davao and so forth when Duterte was there.

The unfortunate truth is we're likely to see similar kinds of actions like that. Abu Sayyaf doesn't really have the capacity to fight head-to-head on the battlefield. It does have the capacity to engage in these kinds of much smaller-scale "soft target attacks." Until there's a largely but not exclusively armed resolution to that conflict, we're probably going to see some similar kinds of bombings like that.

DEVIN STEWART: Do they want autonomy over that entire southern island, or what is their political objective?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Abu Sayyaf has never actually really issued anything that you would consider a political vision, a claim. Implicitly yes, there seems to be some kind of desire for autonomy in the island of Basilan and in the Sulu Archipelago, but Abu Sayyaf has basically never issued anything you would consider a kind of explicit political declaration.

At this point, most people who were the founders of Abu Sayyaf are largely dead, and these guys are basically an armed gang that uses Islam as a justification for actions. But they don't really have anything we would consider a robust political program. They're very good at kidnapping people and collecting ransoms and engaging in other kinds of fund-raising activities, but they, unlike the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, do not have anything approaching a substantive political vision.

DEVIN STEWART: The other big news item that is getting a lot of attention in the United States and probably elsewhere in the West is the anti-drug campaign. I think there have been more than 1,000 extrajudicial killings. It seems pretty serious. It seems to be slightly outside of regular law enforcement approaches.

What is one to make of this? Is it in the bounds of law and order that is in harmony with democracy, or is this sort of moving away from democracy, something more authoritarian?

JOHN GERSHMAN: I think the first thing to say about this is you can't say that Duterte didn't adhere to one of his campaign promises. He campaigned on this issue. He said he was going to do it. He had done something similar when he was mayor of Davao. He is keeping his promise. For some people in the Philippines that might be perceived as a refreshing change of pace, that you have people who actually keep their promises.

But I think this is related to a broader phenomenon that we have seen elsewhere in Southeast Asia, this kind of authoritarian populism that has some popular support, that has a constituency of the middle class. We often think the middle class is the class behind democracy. But, as we know in other places, the middle class is ultimately a class that likes order, and if you can get order through democracy, great; but if order is going to come through some other ways, then they seem to be willing to support groups that are most capable at demonstrating their ability to impose order. I think that's part of what we're seeing here.

Tom Pepinsky at Cornell has written about this a little bit in terms of this type of law-and-order politics as basically a response to weak states that aren't, in general, capable of providing basic law and order through the existing legal system. So it becomes this kind of irony of one way of imposing order is—in Duterte's case and in most other cases, it's not fair to say it's entirely outside of the legal system, because clearly the police are involved in some of this. But it's really thinking about the use of law as an instrument of imposing order, as opposed to creating what we might think of as a rule of law as this impartial set of rules and institutions and, critically, that respect basic civil rights.

Here there's a willingness to run roughshod over any number of people's civil rights, who in this particular case, by all accounts, seem to be poor, in exchange for building some kind of sense of order, particularly in urban areas where you have a clustering of the Philippine middle class.

DEVIN STEWART: The main civil right that you're talking about is what, due process?

JOHN GERSHMAN: It would be due process and not be a victim of extrajudicial execution. So if you are going to be accused of a crime, then you should follow due process and not have—and in this particular case, I think the numbers are over 2,000 now, most of which are extrajudicial executions, and some are killings that have been by the police in official police actions.

DEVIN STEWART: I've read that there are just point-blank killings.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Yes.

DEVIN STEWART: Can you get a sense of how this goes down on the street? Does a police officer just walk up to you and shoot you? What does this look like?

JOHN GERSHMAN: There are killings by police officers in the course of ostensible raids. So there is some kind of intelligence, there's a raid, and people get killed, and often maybe they get killed before they are given the chance to be arrested.

Then we have the extrajudicial side. We don't really have good data on that. Our hypothesis, probably based on previous experience with extrajudicial executions like these, is that there's probably a wing of the police department that's involved. We should recognize that some of the victims have also been police officers who have been accused of being drug dealers or drug pushers. So it's probably a mistake to think of the police itself as this unified force. So part of this is a power struggle within the police.

And then there seems to be basically—and, again, it's a little unclear how formalized—there's probably some level of popular vigilante justice, communities upset about the impact of drug dealing and so forth and that just kind of take the law into their own hands.

And then there seems to be—there was recently an article which interviewed a woman who was part of an assassination squad, where basically—

DEVIN STEWART: She's a citizen?

JOHN GERSHMAN: She's a citizen. She has been recruited. In this particular case, her contractor who hires her likes to use women because there's less suspicion of them; she can get closer to their targets. Basically, she is also very poor and this is her living, that she carries out contract hits. So you have a wing of the underground.

DEVIN STEWART: Where are the contractors getting their contracts from? Is it the government?

JOHN GERSHMAN: In this particular story, she did not know what the origin was. She was just contacted by someone. So again, it would seem like there's some kind of relationship between the forces of law and order, ostensibly. If you think about it, it's a classic way, more efficient and more deniability, if you contract this out to other people.

So we probably are seeing a range of things. Without good data, it's hard to know how much of this is just kind of the populace has heard Duterte's rhetoric and decided to take the law into their own hands, how much are kind of—

DEVIN STEWART: These vigilantes are essentially getting away with it with impunity?

JOHN GERSHMAN: By all accounts. I am not aware of anyone who has been arrested and accused of engaging in that kind of offense. There have been a couple of police. So there were a couple of instances where it seemed like the police were overstepping their bounds and someone who was innocent got killed. There were statements, anyway, that they were going to be arrested and interrogated.

DEVIN STEWART: There was a young boy who was shot.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Right, a young boy who was killed.

So again, one of the routine problems in this, and part of the support for Duterte in this operation, is that an accurate and widespread perception is the Philippine legal system drags on forever and the Philippine legal system is a mixture of being corrupt and inefficient. So the Philippine legal system is not an arena where people find justice, particularly people who are not in the elite.

So this seems to be a way—it's a shortcut to justice in some way, shape, or form. And it's because of the weaknesses of the legal system that people are able to say, "Well, I feel like somebody is doing something about this."

DEVIN STEWART: So this is yet another example of the middle class sort of taking things into their own hands when they see institutions as corrupt—

JOHN GERSHMAN: Right.

DEVIN STEWART: —which is in every country we've looked at around the world.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Right.

DEVIN STEWART: But putting your political science hat back on for a second, when you tell citizens that they can basically get away with mob justice and mob rule, that is one path toward anarchy, isn't it? Aren't people a little worried that with the lawlessness that Duterte is describing as a warning he could actually be also fostering it and it could get out of control?

JOHN GERSHMAN: So I think that would always be a risk. I think, again, if we take Davao as kind of cautionary tale as to what might happen at the national level—

DEVIN STEWART: In what sense, the bombing?

JOHN GERSHMAN: No. Sorry. When Duterte engaged in a similar kind of support of a war on drugs that was a mixture of assassinating people and extrajudicial popular violence.

DEVIN STEWART: As mayor?

JOHN GERSHMAN: As mayor.

And, of course, supporting that on a national scale is something very different than managing it at a local scale. It's not clear in the short term that we've seen kind of a spiraling out of control. But that's something that would always potentially be there, particularly if people start to use the cover of these kinds of deaths to say, "Okay, I'm going to settle scores against So-and-So and this is my opportunity. The death will just get chalked up to another one of these things." That is clearly, clearly a risk.

In addition to the fact that—and part of this is the killings, and of course those are important because of the loss of life and so forth. But the scale of this—you've had 10,000 people turn themselves in to the prisons.

DEVIN STEWART: So what's going to happen to those people? Do they get a fair trial? Do they get due process?

JOHN GERSHMAN: The Philippine criminal justice system is already not known for its rapid dispensation of justice. So it becomes a very unclear thing.

DEVIN STEWART: Are the jails themselves transparent, or are they darker or blacker?

JOHN GERSHMAN: The jails are, first of all, not particularly nice places. They're just not good places to be. And there's no kind of systemic oversight of jails, prisons.

DEVIN STEWART: What type of stuff happens in the jails there?

JOHN GERSHMAN: A while ago, the Philippine Center for Investigative Justice had done some investigation into prisons. It has been a while since anyone has done something like that.

So there's a number of things that happen. One is that prisoners who have access to external resources—perhaps they're still involved in criminal junkets—you have this kind of inequality within the prison. Often, prisoners are responsible for providing their own food and things like that.

There are, of course, assaults and rapes and other kinds of a general lack of control of prisons and jails that's a fundamental problem. Human rights groups have long argued that the prison system is a space that's in dire need of an overhaul, both in terms of more resources, upgrading of the treatment of prisoners, external monitors, and so forth. One of the things is we don't have external monitors who are going in to evaluate what are the conditions of these jails and prisons, which now may be very overcrowded, which is the other traditional thing about Philippine jails and prisons, that they're not really built for the capacity of people that they hold. I think that's going to be a huge issue.

The other danger that was illustrated when Duterte issued his list of 115 officials, police officials and political officials, who ostensibly had ties to the drug trade, was: Is this going to become the the opportunity for the settling of political scores by others more broadly? We know that Philippine politics has a "guns, goons, and gold" kind of tradition associated with it, where political conflict also includes having armed combat between kind of proxies of leading political parties. That had declined as of late, more or less, but here's again a potential window of opportunity for people who would like to bring back the good old days where electoral politics and armed combat went a little bit more hand in hand and were ways for political clans in particular areas to enforce their control.

DEVIN STEWART: Wow.

Another divisive topic is the increase of typhoons in conjunction with climate change in the Philippines. The Philippines has become one of the hotspots in the world for countries trying to grapple with the hardships of climate change. What do you see going forward for how communities are going to deal with this, and how will it manifest in Filipino politics?

JOHN GERSHMAN: On the Global Climate Risk Index, the Philippines is country number 4 at the global climate risk level after Haiti, Myanmar, and Honduras. In 2013 there was Typhoon Haiyan, and already it has had significant flooding this year—these risks are only going to increase.

There was a particularly troubling storm recently, I guess a year ago, in Mindanao. Mindanao is the part of the Philippines that historically never received large-scale typhoons and that was able to, therefore, have certain types of plantation agriculture and grow crops, pineapples and other kinds of things, because they were out of the typhoon belt.

So if climate change is leading not just to the intensification of the regular typhoon season but is also going to start expanding the band of land in the Philippines that now may be subject to typhoons, it's going to pose a whole set of new challenges. People have been building in areas that are going to be susceptible to flooding that weren't necessarily previously. Agricultural livelihoods may no longer be tenable. Political figures may not be used to dealing with those types of disasters in those regions. So that's going to pose a set of challenges.

It has been the case that in recent years the Philippine government has developed what people who benchmark these issues would say are some of the best legislation and policy frameworks around disaster response and recovery—on paper. The challenge, as in all things, is the actual implementation of those.

I would say, especially since the Mount Pinatubo eruption in the 1990s, there has been developed a very robust and sophisticated both public sector and NGO community that works on disaster recovery and response.

One of the big issues, however, is ensuring that adequate resources are actually provided and that local officials who become the key people, particularly in an archipelago where lines of communication and transportation if disrupted may not easily be repaired—they are going to be effectively in the front lines. That seems to be one of the core challenges.

We have great policy frameworks for disaster preparedness and so forth, but actually making sure those are implemented, that the local staff have the resources and capacity to be able to do it, that's going to be a big challenge. We have yet to see where the Duterte administration is going to come out on that particular front.

DEVIN STEWART: A final question, John, in this fascinating conversation—thank you so much—is on the Philippines in the world.

I think a lot of Southeast Asian countries try to balance between the China camp and the American camp and see if they can get as much as possible from both sides. How do you see the Philippines' approach with the United States, with China, and also with ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) in the world?

JOHN GERSHMAN: To take the last one first, I think it's totally unclear to me how Duterte thinks about ASEAN. Again, he was effectively a provincial political leader;  he was the first president who had not held national office or national position before being elected president. He has, one might say, not demonstrated his expertise in exercising diplomatic skills internationally as of yet.

DEVIN STEWART: Apparently, he rolled his shirtsleeves up at the ASEAN meeting. Was that actually a big deal?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Is it a big deal? I think it's seen as a sign of something that you're not supposed to do. I think his response to that would be, "Let's not talk about stupid symbolic stuff," even though that's an important part of ASEAN, like the rituals.

One of the other rituals is that the junior executive is the one who speaks at the end; there should be a lot of deference to seniority and experience and so forth. I think it will be interesting to see if he decides: "That's part of the kind of aristocratic nature of diplomacy that we can dispense with; let's have some open talk."

Also, Southeast Asia and ASEAN as a whole is known for relatively few outbursts, overt criticism of others, and so forth. It will be very interesting if he has a face of trying to maintain that. Where he's clearly not doing that domestically, is he going to do that internationally? I think it's unclear.

DEVIN STEWART: Do you think Duterte will change ASEAN or ASEAN will change Duterte? It's hard to say.

JOHN GERSHMAN: He's only going to be a one-term president. ASEAN has been around a lot longer. I think it will be a lot harder for him to change ASEAN culture in that way.

If he does in fact become kind of the bull in the china shop, I think people will just say, "He's going to be around for a little bit but the rest of us are going to be around for longer. We'll just let him kind of do his thing and then move on."

I do feel the general sense among ASEAN elites more broadly is that the ASEAN way—with the one partial exception perhaps around the South China Sea—the ASEAN way has enabled these very disparate type of political regimes to come together and discuss, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of momentum for a change in that kind of less overtly critical, "open to all" kind of framework that ASEAN has tried to build.

DEVIN STEWART: Amity and cooperation, right?

JOHN GERSHMAN: Yes.

I think on the other question of navigating a new direction with respect to the South China Sea—I mean Duterte is a nationalist. He grew up with, I think, given the U.S. historical record in the Philippines, an entirely appropriate skepticism towards the United States as a whole.

I think he is trying—this is the challenge for any smaller country confronted with two large powers on the wide, is how do you navigate between them, and can you find ways to play the two of them off against each other while maintaining some autonomy for yourself?

Logistically, the Philippines is challenged because it doesn't have a robust navy; it can't go head-to-head with China in the South China Sea. And it also has treaties with the U.S. military. So I don't see U.S. military cooperation going away any time soon. It's perhaps notable that Duterte dissed the ambassador, but as far as I know, he hasn't dissed any member of the U.S. military. So we'll see where that plays out.

I think he would like to craft a space for the Philippines where it is both seen as and in fact is charting its own course. While for external observers that may be seen as kind of aligning with China, I think he is trying to figure out what is a trajectory for the Philippines that doesn't force itself to basically subordinate itself to a U.S.-led kind of military and diplomatic alliance against China, because China is going to be fundamentally important for the Philippines economically and so forth.

Trying to figure out how to navigate that I think is the challenge. I think there will be some interesting conversations at the ASEAN meeting over how one might do that, as opposed to deciding, "No, the only path is to bandwagon with one or the other and basically give China what it wants or align with the United States and run risks associated with that." So I do think we are going to see some effort to craft a kind of independent pathway.

DEVIN STEWART: Great comments today, John. Thank you so much for your insights on the Philippines.

JOHN GERSHMAN: Thank you for having me, Devin.

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