When you yearn for a Caesar, you more often than not get it. Such now is the price being paid by the people of the Philippines, who swept to power a man who’s harsh authoritarianism was clear as day. As the southern island of Mindanao slips into chaos, Rodrigo Duterte’s not-so-subtle desire for absolute power has become all too obvious.
“Anyone now holding a gun, confronting government with violence, my orders are spare no one, let us solve the problems of Mindanao once and for all,” said Duterte, who is from the island, after cutting short a visit to Russia and returning to Manila.
“If I think you should die, you will die. If you fight us, you will die. If there’s an open defiance, you will die, and if it means many people dying, so be it. That’s how it is.”
Let that sink in for a moment.
Rodrigo Duterte, the man who infamously once bragged of throwing a prisoner from a helicopter while mayor of Davos, has declared martial law across his country’s biggest island, Mindanao, after al-Qaeda and Islamic State-linked militants took control of the city of Marawi. The militants are reportedly using hostages, including priests, as human shields as they prepare for a government counterattack that is sure to be brutal.
It’s a disaster for almost everyone – the Americans who spent years trying to hold off a rebellion like this, for the people of Mindanao and Marawi and for the wider citizenry of the Philippines. But not for Rodrigo Duterte, whose bloody hands hope to be clad in iron.
The Philippines as a geopolitical entity
For nearly four hundred years, the Philippines was a Spanish colony, but Spanish control and influence was limited to Manila and a few other big towns. Regional spices were highly prized, but Spaniards didn’t flock to the country as they did the New World to remake the country’s ethnic groups. Instead, the archipelago’s position on the trade routes between Japan, China, India, and, more distantly, Europe, brought cultures and ideas from around the world, leaving behind a hodgepodge of diversity that’s tough to bring under a central ruler.
The island and tropical nature of the country reinforce the divisions, isolating groups from one another by tree and sea. This actually should lend to a broken up country of many island-sized states. That is, in point of fact, exactly what the archipelago looked like prior to Spanish colonization. When technology between the islands was roughly equal, it created a geopolitical stalemate that made it hard to bring all under the rule of one.
When the Spanish arrived, they upset the military balance between the varying proto-states, sultanates, and tribes of the islands. Even with that military advantage, it took Spain over a century to fully colonize what we’d today consider the Philippines.
To hold all the islands of the Philippines, a central government needs access to outside military gear and organization; otherwise, the country’s lack of a native defense industry, combined with its geography, makes it susceptible to splinter movements.
Since independence in 1946, that aid has come from the United States. First, this came as part of the context of the Cold War, where an armed Philippines was part of the Pacific alliance system to contain Chinese and Soviet Communism. After the Cold War, supplies continued as part of the War on Terror.
Where the wild things are
Mindanao has long been the epicenter of Filipino secessionism. Islamized centuries ago, it was also isolated from the Spanish colonial government in Manila and was one of the last regions to be brought under the Spanish Crown’s control. The Spanish attempted to Christianize the island through colonization and conversion. This didn’t work so well; Islam has ideological answers to Christianity (specifically, that it’s Christianity but new and improved), and so conversion was slow and colonization expensive. Today, 20% of the island remains Muslim.
My in-laws near the city of Surigao on Mindanao are Catholics, but find themselves surrounded by Muslim villages. Their village is only accessible by sea for a reason.
Attempts by governments in Manila – Spanish, American, and independent – to remake Mindanao into a more pliable region have provoked a backlash from the island’s Muslim minority. From the 1960s onwards, secessionists have hoped to break Mindanao away from Manila’s country to establish an Islamic state.
From the 1960s until the 1990s, this was a local affair. But with the coming of the Sunni supremacist movement headed by al-Qaeda, the Philippines’ Muslim separatists increasingly aligned themselves with the hopes of restoring the global Sunni caliphate. After 9/11, the United States sent forces to help combat al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Abu Sayaf.
This suited Manila just fine at the time. Gaining access to American equipment and troops helped it put down what it saw as just a local rebellion. The Americans saw Abu Sayaf as a thorn in their Pacific alliance, but not a mortal threat. Counterinsurgency hinged on management rather than eradication.
When Abu Sayaf decided to switch sides from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State in Raqqa in 2014, it turned few heads. By then, they were seen as little more than pirates, kidnapping and robbing for financial rather than spiritual gain.
Then, on Tuesday, they took over an entire city.
Duterte: Power hungry and stupid
Let’s qualify stupid first. From his one year rule, it’s clear Duterte knows what he’s doing. He is a president of a single-term executive: he doesn’t need approval ratings, because he can’t run for president twice (something a reader pointed out to me). Overcoming that single-term limit requires something extraordinary.
Duterte needn’t look too far into the past to find precedent; in fact, he just needs to look back to his younger years and remember how Ferdinand Marcos managed to hold power for decades. Marcos was the legal president from 1965 to 1986; during his long rule, he declared martial law and ruled as a dictator from 1972 to 1981, changing the constitution to suit himself.
If we look at Duterte as a would-be Marcos repeat, he makes a lot more sense. His murderous war on drugs wasn’t an overreaction to a health crisis; it was an attempt to create social chaos and foment an emergency. Suddenly, booting U.S. counterinsurgency troops from the country last September also makes sense: by doing so, he almost guaranteed a revolt like the one he is now putting down. So if the war on drugs wasn’t enough, he could then cite a Muslim rebellion as a casus belli for martial law.
Trying to align with China and Russia also suddenly becomes reasonable. In the Cold War, the U.S. was happy to support any dictator who showed enough anti-Communist grit; today, America’s relationships with its dictators are more complicated. Many American thinkers still believe that Sunni supremacism can be most effectively be eradicated with democracy and better human rights records. Thus a new Filipino dictatorship doesn’t cleanly align with America’s anti-Sunni supremacist strategy.
So Duterte has turned to the two great powers who don’t care about democracy or human rights. Securing arms from China and/or Russia frees him of American haranguing and influence. If he can fully replace American aid with Beijing’s or Moscow’s, he’d be completely free to remake the Philippines as he likes.
Yet there’s a reason all this is stupid: it’s breathtakingly short-sighted.
Stoking chaos to feed an ego
Duterte is gambling that he can manipulate the chaos he is very intentionally producing. He figures that China and Russia are desperate to put a chink in America’s alliances, and that the Philippines will be a prize too tempting to pass up. He presumes he can turn the heat down on his drug war whenever he likes, and that his armed forces are up to the task of suppressing the Islamic State rebellion he’s now provoked.
There are critical flaws to all these gambits. First and foremost, Duterte doesn’t have as free a hand as he might like in dealing with Russia and China. His armed forces are still dependent on U.S. military equipment; switching to Russian or Chinese kit will take years. His generals are U.S.-trained and have strong contacts in Washington; they see China as a threat, not an ally, especially in the matter of the South China Seas. Duterte could try to purge them and replace them with loyalists, but that’s risky; generals on the chopping block suddenly get coups in mind, and an anti-Duterte coup might just get that hallowed American seal of approval.
As Filipino arms analyst Miguel Miranda wrote to me in an e-mail, “Duterte’s personal project to build a Russo-Sino-Filipino alliance is really stupid. Coming from Duterte, who’s a certified gun nut with a hard on for the military/police, it’s odd he’s so insistent on arms from China and Russia when the AFP [Armed Forces Philippines] aren’t interested.”
His drug war, moreover, is producing social rifts that will almost certainly have unintended consequences. The more victims there are, the more his approval rating will be hammered. He’s got breathing room here: in April, 8 of 10 people approved of him. Yet his attacks are making enemies in the all-powerful Catholic Church, and Pope Francis is not a fan of him. When Duterte crossed Francis, he was forced to issue an apology. Even Marcos dared not alienate the Church. This Catholic pillar of Filipino geopolitics is a major threat to the Duterte dictatorship plot.
Finally, Duterte seems to think his army is prepared to put down the Islamic State without outside help. He may be right this time; IS is just getting its footing there. Yet the takeover of Marawi began when Filipino security services botched a raid: IS then went on a rampage and took over the whole city. While it seems far-fetched, it’s not impossible to imagine IS enjoying something of a Mosul-style blitz throughout Mindanao because Duterte has mismanaged the armed forces. This would be especially true if he decided to purge the armed forces top officers.
But what’s most stupid of all is that the Philippines gains almost nothing from any of this. The United States is no longer the colonial or even Cold War overlord it once was; it does not force Manila to blockade China, or to trade preferentially with American companies. While Manila could rightly be angry about the collapse of the Transpacific Trade Partnership, that treaty is still being carried on by many of its vital participants, and a new U.S. president may still well join it.
The war on drugs is a massive misuse of police power; it will suppress drug use only so long as its ultraviolence is maintained. That underlying causes of drug addiction – mental health, poverty, drug cartels and trade routes – will not be addressed.
Most of all, pushing out America and bringing in China and/or Russia only benefits Duterte himself. The military has to retrain with new gear; Filipino citizens have to endure rocky relations that might affect consular support for the millions of them who live and work in the United States. And a Muslim rebellion only stands to help, not harm, the Islamic State, creating the anarchy it thrives in.
It’s one thing to play great powers off one another; it’s another to ditch one entirely for personal power. The track record of such ploys isn’t great.
Duterte hopes to repeat history, but he is no Ferdinand Marcos. Playing the same song twice is not going to work for him.