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The winners

And the winner at the ASEAN summit is… China.

The ruling of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, invalidating Beijing’s nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea, was the elephant in the room at the 30th summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

This was thanks to the summit chair himself, who will likely maintain his love fest with Beijing at the next ASEAN summit in November. It will take another decade before the Philippines chairs ASEAN again. By that time, China would have occupied parts of Palawan and Zambales with the Philippines’ blessing.

What was on the ASEAN agenda was the war on illegal drugs. Not a condemnation of ASEAN chair President Duterte’s vicious war, but support for a strong regional response, and genuine interest from several leaders in taking a page from Dirty Rody’s playbook.

Really, what did Duterte critics expect from ASEAN? It’s an old boys’ club of autocrats with different ideas, to put it mildly, about human rights.

Even Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, who attended the summit as her nation’s official representative, refrained from criticizing the host country’s president and ASEAN chair, upholding not human rights but the grouping’s cherished principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

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When certain ASEAN leaders opened their mouths during their Manila visit, it was not to express concern about Duterte’s version of a dirty war, but to ask him for pointers on how to go about it.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, whose government has been executing drug traffickers including foreigners, said he saw “so much in common” with Duterte; the two appear to have hit it off.

With warnings that the Abu Sayyaf and its kindred spirits have been touched by the Islamic State and are now augmenting their kidnapping profits with drug money, ASEAN leaders were undoubtedly all ears when Duterte called for a strong and coordinated regional response to what he said was a growing drug menace.

Last Friday, Widodo reportedly told Duterte: “I believe that you and I are driven by healthy common sense and by love for our people.”

Southeast Asia is the perfect region for the current ASEAN chair.

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ASEAN is no stranger to the drug menace. The border regions of three of its member states host the Golden Triangle, Afghanistan’s rival in opium production. The drug menace has fostered deadly violence, corruption and other crimes even beyond the triangle that straddles Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. Even Suu Kyi probably acknowledges the gravity of the problem in her country.

Du30 is not the first ASEAN leader to launch a blood-soaked campaign against the drug scourge. In the recent past, Thailand’s Thaksin Shinawatra cracked down on a booming trade in methamphetamine (their shabu), promising to eradicate the menace in three months. In those three months, 2,275 people were killed in Thaksin’s ruthless war.

Following Thaksin’s ouster, the Thai junta ordered a probe of the drug killings. A special committee concluded that up to 1,400 of the 2,500 fatalities attributed to the campaign had no links to drugs, but failed to establish Thaksin’s direct hand in the deaths.

Duterte might get off in the same way in case he faces investigation when his presidency is over. For all his cussing and public endorsements of short cuts to eliminating the drug menace, Duterte the lawyer is careful to maintain a degree of deniability in the extrajudicial killings attributed to his drug war.

Thaksin’s merciless war did not eliminate the drug problem in his country, but this has never deterred strongmen from adopting an iron hand approach in dealing with the menace.

Civil libertarians should worry that Duterte is actually inspiring other world leaders to take a harder approach to the drug problem and criminality without fear of losing popular support.

Even the leader of the free world seems impressed, ignoring a flood of critical reporting and unflattering commentary on Duterte by the western media. But then that’s Donald Trump, no fan of mass media, Latino narcos and other troublemakers. Trump likes Du30 so much he called and invited the Philippine President to the White House.

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Looking on the bright side, that was a seamless summit hosting in Metro Manila, so Duterte is also a winner. Even if he dropped the ball on the South China Sea and is selling out the nation to Beijing, the President was on his best behavior with state guests and proved to be a gracious host. It shouldn’t be too hard for him to grow into a statesman, although he might think, where’s the fun in that?

There was horrid traffic on the eve of the start of the ASEAN summit. But generally, implementing a “stop-and-go” traffic scheme for VIPs instead of blocking off road lanes or entire boulevards for the duration of the event caused minimal disruption. The scheme should henceforth serve as a model for future international hostings in Metro Manila.

Rerouting especially of trucks combined with staggered holidays (from Thursday for government workers, and from Friday for the private sector) also helped. It seemed like the Holy Week break in Metro Manila as people took advantage of the long weekend and went to the provinces.

With the break extended until today for Labor Day, Metro Manila remained relatively empty until yesterday as ASEAN delegates left. One of our editors was pleasantly surprised to have his early morning Air Asia flight from Cebu arrive at the NAIA domestic terminal an unprecedented 20 minutes early.

I didn’t hear of street people being rounded up and hidden from foreign visitors’ sight; people still slept along the Baywalk seawall and Roxas Boulevard bushes every night during the ASEAN gathering. It’s a developing country and it’s silly to try to hide extreme poverty in our midst.

Outside Metro Manila, there were no Abu Sayyaf terrorist bombings or kidnapping of foreigners. But Du30s communist friends in the New People’s Army killed a cop in a raid on a police station in Maddela town in Quirino and, worse, attacked Lapanday facilities in his home city of Davao on the day of the summit. Really, Du30 should see when he’s being jerked around by his so-called friends.

These include those who give him crumbs to back his drug war while grabbing Philippine territory. At the ASEAN summit, Duterte handed them a resounding victory.

 

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