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The battle for Digong’s ear

When Pres. Rodrigo Duterte threatened to expel European ambassadors for supposedly plotting to have the Philippines expelled from the United Nations, it revealed a flaw on what information and how the president receives information.

The president’s ire was sparked by yet another round of criticism from European officials against the government’s bloody drug war that has killed nearly 4,000 people since he took office in July 2016.

“You give us money then you start to orchestrate what things should be done and which should not happen in our country. You bullshit. We are past the colonization stage. Don’t f…k with us,” he declared in a profanity-laced tirade against the European Union, something he’s come to be famous (or notorious) for abroad.

“You think we are a bunch of morons here. You are the one. Now the ambassadors of those countries listening now, tell me, because we can have the diplomatic channel cut tomorrow. You leave my country in 24 hours, all, all of you.”

Only trouble was that the criticism didn’t come from the European Union (EU), which a day later, released a measured, official reaction to Pres. Duterte’s threat to expel the envoys. The president was apparently incensed by a call made by Human Rights Watch to expel the Philippines from the United Nations human rights body – a suggestion later backed up by some European lawmakers.

The EU clarified that the lawmakers visited Manila earlier this month as part of a private trip organized by the Progressive Alliance; it was not an official mission.

The EU is the country’s 4th largest trading partner and the top source of foreign direct investments (FDIs) that’s generated up to half a million jobs in the Philippines. EU member nations is home to an estimated 700,000 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). The Philippines is currently negotiating to get preferential treatment for its products in the EU market.

It was obviously a half-baked, knee-jerk reaction to criticism of his flagship program, the campaign vow to eradicate the drug menace in the country. But despite his angry retort, Pres. Duterte has apparently realized just how untenable his blanket, stonewall defense of the anti-drug campaign is, if only for the short-term.

In an Oct. 10 memorandum, he ordered the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to take over the lead role in the anti-drug campaign. “All information/data received by the NBI, PNP, AFP, Bureau of Customs, Philippine Postal Office, and all other agencies or any and all ad hoc anti-drug task forces shall forthwith be relayed, delivered, or brought to the attention of the PDEA for its appropriate action,” the president directed.

The graft-prone national police figured in several high-profile killing of teenage drug suspects that’s been widely seen as extrajudicial killings. Just how PDEA’s 2,000 officers (vis-à-vis the 165,000-man PNP force) fares remain to be seen – and Pres. Duterte has hinted he may order the PNP back to the frontlines if he feels the drug campaign slackens.

This apparent oscillation might be the result of a tug-of-war in the corridors of Malacanang. Although the anti-drug crackdown is favored by most Filipinos, it also faces stiffening opposition both at home and overseas. Human rights groups, including the influential Roman Catholic Church, charge hundreds of extrajudicial killings allegedly committed by cops and so-called death squads that operate with seeming impunity.

Shifting the burden to PDEA could be Pres. Duterte’s way of diffusing international attention during the ASEAN and APEC leaders’ summit next month, including US Pres. Donald Trump’s scheduled stop in Manila.

Experience has shown that human rights is nearly always at the bottom of the Trump administration’s policy agenda, if it’s there at all. But it could easily mar the “warm welcome” that Malacanang seems bent on putting out for the visiting American leader.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has alluded to the “closeness” between Pres. Trump and Duterte. Both septuagenarians slant towards strongman rule, proven to be onion-skinned and are wont to lash out at critics and detractors.

Only time will tell whether Pres. Duterte has recognized the inherent weaknesses of his drug war strategy or it’s just part of a crude PR ploy to impress an important visitor.


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