Ren de los Santos, Resident Fellow for Global Politics of the Stratbase ADR Institute
Songs of praises were sung on the streets and inside households. Cries of infatuation for the enigmatic and charismatic leader from the south resonated all over. The dawn of a new political era for many, a clear break from tradition, a tradition of imperial Manila, career politicians and old guards of oligarchy.
The man became the harbinger of hope for those in the fringes and the rallying point of many who have lost confidence in our politics. Rodrigo Duterte exuded the aura that caught the fickle imagination of the Filipino public with his ostentatious proclamations and brazen claims to solve problems within impossible timeframes.
One such claim was to ride a jet ski to the West Philippine Sea, flag in hand and ready to die as a hero if necessary. The public’s collective perception of the new commander-in-chief became that of a superhero: infallible yet human, a stark contrast to the run-of-the-mill politician who was inaccessible and high-brow, like a traditional villain or, for many, a “dilawan.”
It was this core narrative that carried his name into the nation’s consciousness and won him the highest seat of power in 2016. Each vote cast was an affront to the status quo and a silent rebellion of the majority against an existing exclusionary and monopolistic hold on political power by the elite.
Three years since, Filipinos are in the cusp of Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address, an opportune time to look back and analyze where we were, where we are, and where are we headed as we enter the final years of his presidency. As with presidents before him, the SONA is a constitutional obligation and primary platform where the chief executive can directly address his constituents and Congress regarding developments and incoming agenda for the year.
Harking back to his campaigns and past editions of the SONA, his words were always stern and understandable to the common man. He’d throw jokes, followed by apologies, with his audience seemingly ready and willing to take in anything and everything. His magic remains to this day if we are to base it from the latest surveys released by Pulse Asia, which revealed an impressive 85% satisfaction rating.
However, over the last three years, there is one topic that he constantly evaded during the SONA: the West Philippine Sea issue. There were no jokes around the topic, no apologies, and the narrative he’d paint was lost in legal jargon, completely alien to the common man’s understanding.
Another survey done by the Social Weather Station revealed that while his approval rating is still relatively positive, his numbers are dwindling, especially as regards how the West Philippine Sea issue is being addressed and handled.
Since 2016, there had been various reports of Chinese Coast Guard harassing Filipino fisherfolk in the waters that the Constitution declares as part of our sovereign territory. Notorious incidents involve Filipinos being driven away from prime fishing spots, the confiscation of their catch and fishing gear, as well as illegal activities by Chinese clam farmers that cause irreversible harm to our environment. Not only are the actions of the Chinese unscrupulous, they should be considered an outright violation of and threat to our territorial integrity.
The 1987 Constitution highlights that the state shall protect the nation’s marine wealth and its use and enjoyment is exclusive to Filipino citizens by guarding it against foreign intrusions and pursuing an independent foreign policy. With the recent Reed Bank incident, the government, rather than deal with the issue head-on with a coherent, definitive and unifying stance, instead gave ambiguous statements and confusing accounts.
Malacañang seems to forestall serious discussions and resort to avoidance while slowly disparaging the urgency of the issue whenever it can by setting a purposely narrow set of options for foreign policy initiatives.
This limitation had already been debunked by former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who had identified other possible options, from joint patrol operations with the US to multilateral talks with other claimants in the region. Threats of war or appeasement only further the administration’s defeatist stance on this matter of national security.
The impression of the administration is unwilling to stand its ground by leveraging on past victories such as that of the 2016 South China Sea arbitral award is dumbfounding and unsettling. This indecision begs us to connect the dots and assume that it is part of its appeasement strategy with China at the expense of other compromises.
It is apparent that the public imagination of the heroic Philippine president gloriously charging down the open waters of the West Philippine Sea may have fizzled out, the mystery of the missing jet ski solved. The jet ski may not have been missing after all but was bartered.
This article was originally published in philstar.com. Image Source: AFP/Ted Aljibe.