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Wishful thinking

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - April 21, 2021 - 12:10am

With the general elections only a year away, and the country still battling an even worse COVID contagion, ousting President Duterte if there is an iota of truth to the reports is plain wishful thinking.

It’s possible that certain military personnel, some of them retired, are unhappy with the stance of the President and commander-in-chief toward Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea, and are discussing their resentment among themselves.

But it’s doubtful that this resentment would translate into an active effort to withdraw military support from Duterte.

Even if there is an attempt to initiate such a move, it’s also doubtful that it would gain the kind of support needed for a successful coup d’etat.

As we have seen in the past decades, no coup succeeds in this country without people’s support. At this point, amid this raging pandemic, people power can be tricky to muster.

The top brass of the Armed Forces of the Philippines will profess loyalty to the flag, the Constitution and the institution of the presidency. Under Duterte, AFP officers hope for promotion and an appointment to a civilian post upon their retirement from the service at age 56.

Since taking power, Duterte has done this with nearly all of the top officers of the AFP and the Philippine National Police (except those with criminal indictments). It’s the reason for his confidence that he won’t be ousted by “my soldiers,” and the reason critics say his pandemic response has been an unmitigated disaster.

There could be some adventurous mid-level AFP and PNP officers who might try something. But again, the elections are just a year away. A coup is such a destabilizing event and is sure to earn condemnation from democratic governments. It can only further derail our recovery from the pandemic. As it is, Moody’s Analytics has described the Philippines as the “laggard of the entire region” in terms of prospects for economic recovery.

*      *      *

The purported source of military unrest, however, is an issue that even OCTA Research, which has started a polling service, says could be a factor in the 2022 general elections.

Chinese activities in our 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) are not abstract ideas that can be brushed aside by the low-income majority of our voting population.

The activities have become a gut issue in the marginalized fishing communities along our western seaboard. They are losing their livelihoods and being driven away from their traditional fishing grounds by foreigners in massive fishing boats backed by militia and naval vessels flying the Chinese flag.

Defining our maritime entitlements in the South China Sea – not a resolution of a territorial dispute – was the reason the Aquino administration went to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. We got the definition, and more, which we didn’t ask for: the PCA invalidated China’s bizarre claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.

Instead of seeking international support to encourage Beijing’s compliance with the arbitral ruling, Duterte for the past five years has kowtowed to Beijing as if his country is a Chinese satellite.

This is where he and his security officials have parted ways; from the start, they have rejected his avowed pivot to China. There are enough patriots in the AFP to understand what’s at stake.

*      *      *

For all his immense personal popularity, Duterte has also failed to get Filipinos to support his pivot to China. Surveys have consistently shown China suffering from abysmal trust ratings among Filipinos.

The situation has not improved even if Duterte tries to paint Beijing as the savior of the Philippines from this pandemic.

In fact the opposite impression prevails: that his administration’s fear of offending Beijing at the start of this pandemic (as publicly expressed by his secretary of health) brought to our shores our COVID patients No. 1 and 2 straight from Wuhan, origin of the coronavirus, leading to our current wasteland of lives and livelihoods.

With COVID claiming 16,048 lives (and surging) in the Philippines as of yesterday, not even 20 million doses of China-made Sinovac (paid for by Filipino taxpayers) can dispel this sentiment.

In fact there is suspicion that the Duterte administration deliberately dropped the ball on 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccines, with a planned January 2020 delivery facilitated as early as July last year by the US State Department, because it wanted to give preference to Sinovac. “Sino va kumita” is going to be a rallying cry in the 2022 race.

Surely it’s no coincidence that Vietnam and Taiwan, global standouts in the pandemic response, did not worry about offending China’s Xi Jinping, and instead immediately closed their borders to Chinese travelers as soon as credible word came out about the COVID outbreak in Wuhan City.

As of Monday, April 18, Vietnam had a total of 2,785 COVID cases, with 2,475 recoveries and 35 deaths. Taiwan had 1,073 cases, 1,033 recoveries and 11 deaths. Both are developing their own COVID vaccines; both beat the global trend and posted modest economic growth in the pandemic year of 2020.

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It’s not just our fishermen who are losing their fish catch to Chinese. The country is also losing protected marine species such as giant clams, marine turtles and seahorses to Chinese poachers.

Pangolins in the wildlife markets of Wuhan – one of the animals suspected to have provided the link for the COVID virus to jump from bats to humans – might have been poached from the forests of Palawan.

Reacting to criticism that Duterte has been silent on the swarming of 200 Chinese vessels in Julian Felipe Reef – well within our EEZ – his mouthpiece said the Department of Foreign Affairs and Department of National Defense have already strongly denounced the incursion, and “the utterances of the alter egos are utterances of the President, unless the President renounces them, and he did not renounce them.”

I can see Duterte’s personal silence as part of a balancing act, but it will be remembered well into 2022. He won’t be ousted, but it will affect his hope for continuity beyond his term.

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