POSTSCRIPT / July 9, 2019 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Duterte last card: War or martial law?

AN overwrought President Duterte warned in his speech in Leyte on Friday: “Do not force me to declare war, because I have something else. I have a card which I can throw anytime. And you won’t like it. But at least it will give a sense of order.”

The President was taking off from a hot point – his dare to the United States to wage war on China on regional maritime issues, thereby triggering the 1951 Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty that binds the allies to help each other in the event of an armed attack on one of them.

It seemed that the President was talking of two options – (1) waging war against China and (2) throwing “something else,” a “card.”

Duterte’s threatening to play that “card” prompted us to pose on Twitter: “Is Duterte threatening to declare Martial Rule as his last card? Not to save the Republic but himself.” (We referred to it as Martial Rule because of its harsh aspects, but we’ll use “martial law” here to go with the common usage.)

Among the netizens who answered our question about what that “last card” might be was Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. who tweeted: “We go to war the president gets plenary war powers. Plenary.” (He repeated “plenary” as if to call attention to the Commander-in-Chief’s vast powers in wartime.)

We beg to disagree with Secretary Locsin, even if he is close enough to the President to second-guess his thinking. We do not see a war with China as Duterte’s threatened “last card.” Instead, we see it to be his probably declaring martial law nationwide, or its revolutionary equivalent.

And we believe that if Duterte takes whichever drastic step – wage war or declare martial law — it is not to save the Republic but to save his skin.

Duterte does not want a war with his friend and benefactor China. His suggestion of a war initiated by the US is just another Duterte bluff, puffed up with his usual bluster. It was good copy, for a while, like his cursing foreign dignitaries, but it should not be taken seriously.

In contrast, imposing martial law is a lot easier, now that all the elements needed are already in Duterte’s near-dictatorial control. The shock effect of martial law could achieve, initially, what he called “a sense of order” that some sectors associate with a military regime.

Not that we prefer martial law to a shooting war with China, but we hope Locsin is wrong, or just kidding as he sometimes is, in saying that Duterte’s “last card” is war.

In Leyte, Duterte dared the US to “fire the first shot” at China while he and “his” (possessive case) soldiers bring up the rear. One wonders if he cleared this comic script with his other new friend President Trump, or preliminarily compared notes with the US ambassador in Manila.

 Phl-US pact is for defense, not offense

THE PHL-US Mutual Defense Treaty, as its title and text say clearly, is a defense pact. It was/is not intended as a tool or excuse for offensive military action or aggression against any sovereign nation.

The treaty, never fully invoked in its 68-year existence, springs to action only if the Philippines/the US were attacked, or if Philippine/US forces, air/sea craft, or public vessels were attacked by military or militia forces of another state.

If the US were to initiate the attack or fire Duterte’s suggested first shot, that would violate not only the spirit of the mutual defense treaty but also myriad other treaties, conventions, codes of civilized conduct and common sense. But then, it’s Duterte talking.

Duterte, a lawyer, may want to review Article II of the Constitution that he swore to preserve and defend. It says: “Section 2. The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land and adheres to the policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation, and amity with all nations.”

His legal shortcuts and alleged violations of constitutional provisions pertaining to the nation’s territorial integrity and its marine wealth have raised a clamor for his impeachment. The political numbers game, however, cannot prosper in the Congress controlled by Duterte proxies.

The specter of impeachment and a groundswell of negative PR perception and action abroad may have pressed Duterte’s harried mind to raise the scare of a “last card,” true or not, whatever it is.

If we may borrow one of Duterte’s favorite adjectives for persons who cross him, his idea for Americans to attack China on behalf of their little brown brother Filipinos is not only juvenile – it is stupid.

Washington does not even have to react to his dubious dare, except probably to send friendly counsel to Duterte, either through his doctor or his foreign secretary, to relax and cool it.

Our own unsolicited advice is for the President to (1) rest for a few days until his July 22 State of the Nation Address, (2) refrain from making statements on Chinese issues, (3) leave the talking to Secretary Locsin, and (4) forbid his lawyer Sal Panelo from clarifying or interpreting his silence.

To recall, Duterte said in Leyte: “Let America declare the war. Let them assemble all their armaments there in South China Sea. Fire the first shot and I’d be glad to do the next. May RP-US pact man kaha tayo, then let us honor it. Do you want trouble? Okay, let’s do it!”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 9, 2019)

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