Deerhurst: Is Duterte still marching in step with his military?

Deerhurst: Is Duterte still marching in step with his military?
When it comes to military matters, it’s rare that any statement by the president isn’t clarified, or downright contradicted, by the top brass

Increasingly, it looks like the Philippine military establishment and President Duterte are going through the sort of rocky patch that, in a marriage, would end in a messy divorce.

For one thing, it seems that they’ve reached the point where they’re no longer talking.


This was made clear when the president was asked to comment on the US Embassy’s warning about a possible terrorist attack on Central Visayas — which, of course, happened just two days later on Bohol. (Latest update here)

On the day before the kidnapping raid, he was asked his opinion on this warning as he prepared to board a flight to the Middle East at Davao Airport.

“Why should you worry about the US embassy?” he asked. “I should be worrying about my country, not the American embassy.”


Of course, he never misses an opportunity to belittle or denigrate the USA, so his implied dismissal of US intelligence capabilities was only to be expected.

However, if he’d known the background to the warning, he would never have waved it off. A successful attack on the heart of the Philippines, in the very centre of its tourism industry, would have been a devastating blow to his country’s economy.

So, we can only presume he wasn’t briefed about the intelligence that led to the warning — but why should he be, it came from America, right?

Wrong. The US Embassy was merely passing on intelligence it had received from the Philippine military a few days before.

So why didn’t the president also have this information? The only possible answer is that his military thought it best not to tell him.

Why they withheld such crucial intelligence from their commander in chief is impossible to say, but it doesn’t look good for their relationship.

This sort of disconnect between the head of state and his armed forces has been a constant feature of Duterte’s presidency.

Here are a few recent examples:

When the president accused the US of illegally storing arms in depots in the Philippines, the military immediately (without time to double check) contradicted him and clarified that it was actually humanitarian supplies.

Despite all the bluster about cancelling joint military exercises between the Philippines and the USA, these are going ahead, as they always do, year in, year out.

And when, just last week, the president — in an apparent about-face — declared that he was sending the military to occupy islands in the South China Sea, the top brass rushed out a press release making it clear that no such thing was going to happen, and they were merely upgrading existing facilities.

Other than these examples, there is another huge wedge between the president and the military — and that’s his oddly tolerant attitude towards armed groups that regularly kill soldiers.

Whether it’s the Communists or islamic insurgents, the president — despite his “Punisher” moniker — seems remarkably indulgent, often seeming to treat them like slightly wayward children.

In fact he’s gone further — in speeches before he became president, he appeared to defend Abu Sayyaf, blaming their actions, somehow, on America.

Where this will end is anyone’s guess — but my money is on divorce. Breaking a relationship is always messy, but when the split is between a head of state and his military, then expect fireworks.

It’s worth mentioning that of the politicians prepared to stick their necks out and publicly criticise Duterte, the two most prominent (non female) figures are both ex-army, and both veterans of military mutinies.