Duterte’s speech in Jolo

Last July 13, two weeks after the fatal shooting of four intelligence officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines by members of the Philippine National Police in Jolo, President Duterte flew to the Sulu capital to address the aggrieved soldiers. He said he had three things to say. But the text of the prepared speech covered only one — the assurance of a fair investigation of the incident and the promise of justice for the slain soldiers.

The President spent much of his off-script remarks offering a glimpse of what preoccupies him at this point in his presidency. With only two years left in his term, it is obvious that he seeks to reshape the narrative of his presidency, and to control political outcomes in the run-up to 2022.

The occasion at the AFP headquarters in Jolo was clearly planned to assuage the anger of the soldiers, boost their morale, and dissuade them from retaliating against the local police. The prepared speech encapsulated these objectives. But, Mr. Duterte knew it was not enough.

As far as he was concerned, this was not just about a brewing conflict between the military and the police. This was still about the longstanding animosity between national government forces and the Moro community. This would explain the presence of Sulu Vice Gov. Sakur Tan in the audience. I suspect that Mr. Duterte himself asked Tan to come, so he could acknowledge his leadership of the Tausug community. Tan had been governor of Sulu and congressman for many years.

Mr. Duterte was there as commander in chief of the armed forces. Four of his soldiers had just been murdered, and he had come to mourn their tragic death. But, he was also there, he said, as someone with Moro blood, who understood the sentiments of the Moro people. His only plea, he said, was for each side to respect the other as warriors.

He addressed Sakur as though, at that moment, he stood for the whole Moro community. He greeted him “happy birthday” and asked him to join him on the return flight to Manila. The President spoke of reviving the barter trade, this time with coal as the main commodity. This practice has long been the national government’s way of co-opting Moro politicians. It was surprising to hear Mr. Duterte talk about it openly. “If you could get rich from this, I’d be happy,” he told Sakur. “Because you’re my friend.”

Then, without missing a beat, he turned to “his” soldiers, who must have been wondering why they were being made to hear this conversation. He felt compelled to assure them that what they were dying for, fighting terrorists in places like Mindanao, was still some higher purpose.

Interestingly enough, he thought he also had to explain to the soldiers why, in the middle of more pressing problems like the COVID-19 pandemic, he seemed more intent to deploy the powers of government to destroy business groups that have created much value and generated employment for so many people.

The real enemies of the people, he declares, are the old rich families who leverage their wealth during elections to buy political influence. These are the “oligarchs” who monopolize government concessions and franchises, don’t pay taxes, use government resources, and squeeze the people dry. He names them, demonizes them with cuss words, and holds them up as figures of hate. “Without having to declare martial law,” he gloats, “I have dismantled the oligarchy in this country.”

He does not mention the political dynasties that control Congress that crafts the laws that govern the conduct of business in the country. He makes no reference to the business conglomerates and provincial oligarchs that made his election to the presidency in 2016 possible. He remembers only the names of those who, in his view, had been dismissive of his candidacy and generously funded his rivals.

“Binaboy nila ako (They mocked me),” he said, referring to the ABS-CBN radio-television network, whose broadcast franchise renewal his loyal enablers in Congress junked just two days before. He couldn’t hide his satisfaction over this turn of events. He had repeatedly vowed to put them out of business, and now it is done.

But, having vented his personal resentment against ABS-CBN, he takes a step back. He realizes he could be accused of using the power and influence of his office to settle a personal grudge, or, worse, to benefit another set of friendly business operators. There can be no high purpose in either.

And so he weaves a narrative of his presidency as having committed itself from day one to destroying the bedrock of “real” corruption in Philippine society — the control of wealth and political power by the “oligarchy.” The term has a specific resonance in our society. Mr. Duterte appears to use it as a code word for the blending of old money, political influence, and elite respectability. This is textbook populist rhetoric.

All this is disingenuous. This anti-oligarchy theme was never explicitly mentioned during the campaign. His first battle cry was federalism, but it failed to gain popular support. Then, it was the war on drugs. The sheer amount of violence it commanded made it an emblem of a willful presidency, though it did not end the drug menace.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a terrifying problem which will likely outlast the Duterte presidency. He sees no quick way out of this crisis. And so, he distracts the public by spinning tales of large-scale thievery by an insatiable oligarchy that must be terminated. He knows he has only two years left to complete this task. In the meantime, he admits, he has been talking to his daughter Sara to see if she has enough patriotism in her to continue his legacy.