(Good) Change is (not) Coming

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Presidential candidate Rodrigo Duterte wooed the voters in the 2016 election with the interesting but vague promise “Change is coming.” One year after the start of his six-year term, it is clear that change has come but it has not been change of the good kind.

The worst of the bad changes that Rodrigo Duterte has wrought during the past year has, of course, been the orchestrated degradation of the national environment for human rights. The principal objects of this devilish governmental effort has been people of interest to Mr. Duterte’s war against illegal drugs. Close to one million Filipinos have been gunned down or arrested or taken in as surrenders without benefit of serving of warrant of arrest, preliminary investigation, access to counsel and other procedures required by the term ‘human rights.’ Mr. Duterte’s declaration “No policemen will go to jail if he does his duty”-–’does his duty’ being translated as killing a suspected drug pusher or killer even in imaginary self-defense—was a virtual carte blanche for policemen to kill suspects wantonly and with impunity. The concept of innocence unless proven guilty was replaced by the concept of regularity in the performance of official duty.

That is change, but not change of the good kind.

Another bad change wrought by Mr. Duterte was in the field of Philippine diplomacy and external relations. In this sphere his footprints were large and grotesque. At best, the change in the conduct of the nation’s diplomacy indicated unfamiliarity and ineptness; at worst, it bordered on a conscious desire to do harm to the nation’s interest.

With regard to his so-called foreign policy pivot—toward ‘independence’ from the US, the European Union (EU) and the United Nations and dependence on China and Russia—Mr. Duterte changed the rule book on how a country should conduct itself in the geopolitical arena. Under the new Duterte rules, a country plays a strong hand of cards as though it were a weak hand. The ruling of the UN-affiliated Permanent Court of Arbitration gave the Philippines a strong legal hand in dealing with China on the West Philippine Sea issue, but Mr. Duterte has chosen to behave vis-à-vis the Chinese as though the ruling was of little value and totally unenforceable. The men in Beijing have taken full measure of Mr. Duterte; they now know the stuff he is made of.

With regard to his behavior toward the US, the EU and the UN, President Duterte has thrown out of the window the geopolitical rule that says that a country is safer when it is allied with familiar and tried-and-true countries and less safe when it engages in dalliances with countries that do not share the Philippines’ core values and, worse, have a record of questionable conduct on the world stage. Recent polls have shown that the Filipino people overwhelmingly trust the Philippines’ traditional allies and strongly distrust Mr. Duterte’s new friends. He clearly has forgotten the rule that government acts at its peril when it conducts diplomacy that does not enjoy the trust and support of the citizenry.

A further—and certainly not unimportant—change that Rodrigo Duterte wrought during his first year in office has been in the manner and tone with which the President of the Republic conducts himself. Like Donald Trump in the US, Mr. Duterte has his political base—the 38 percent of Filipinos who voted for him—and he believes that a good strategy for maintaining its support is to show that he is one of them. And so he cusses, badmouths people in public, wears barongs and neckties wrongly and generally behaves and talks like an upper-middle-class kanto boy. In conducting himself the way that he has, Mr. Duterte clearly has forgotten that the majority of Filipinos are not kanto boys and that millions of Filipinos who listen to his rantings are people of impressionable age.

When Rodrigo Duterte declared “Change is coming” in the campaign hustings, at least 38 percent of the Filipino people believed him and cast their ballots for him. He did not disappoint them. He did deliver change.

Unfortunately the change has been of the bad kind.

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