Duterte woos army amid talk of discontent in ranks

President Duterte with a picture of a Glock 30 pistol during his visit to the HQ of the Philippine Marines on Tuesday. Since taking office five months ago, he has given almost half his public speeches to a military audience - far more than his predec
President Duterte with a picture of a Glock 30 pistol during his visit to the HQ of the Philippine Marines on Tuesday. Since taking office five months ago, he has given almost half his public speeches to a military audience - far more than his predecessors.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Philippine President aware that good ties with military key to political stability

MANILA • Five months after his landslide election victory, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cannot stop campaigning. Yet, rather than courting voters who put him into office, he is now giving out handguns and G-Shock watches to soldiers.

He has given almost half his public addresses as President to a military audience - far more than his predecessors. The 71-year- old leader's refreshed stump speech includes promises to double troop salaries, improve healthcare for soldiers and secure modern equipment.

"Clearly he is trying to curry favour," said Mr Joseph Franco, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who previously worked for the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). "Duterte is aware that toying with the AFP would be a very bad idea."

Mr Duterte's outreach to the military is drawing attention in a country where coup rumours come as regularly as monsoon rains, with political opponents warning of the risk of discontent in an army with deep-rooted links to the main security ally, the United States.

Ties between the nation's civilian and military leaders, long a source of conflict, are key to prolonging a period of political stability that has made the Philippines one of Asia's fastest- growing economies.

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Military disaffection with Duterte will show if he orders soldiers to participate in the drug war, sharing the blame for extra-judicial killings with the police. The military will also baulk at a sudden shift towards China without due consultation and institutional acceptance.

'' MR SEGUNDO ROMERO, professorial lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University.

One senator warning of a military backlash against Mr Duterte is his staunch critic Antonio Trillanes, who was jailed for more than seven years for his involvement as a naval officer in several attempted coups against then President Gloria Arroyo.

"The officer corps are quite wary of the statements of President Duterte - they are not happy with the direction he is taking," Mr Trillanes said.

Still, there are no signs of the kind of instability that led to a popular uprising that toppled then President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Last week, S&P Global Ratings affirmed a stable outlook on the country's BBB rating, the second- lowest investment grade, even as it noted that the "predictability of policymaking" has diminished under Mr Duterte.

The President is not worried about any attempts to remove him from office, in part due to his high popularity rating, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon has said in an interview.

A poll in July - the latest one available - showed he enjoyed the trust of 91 per cent of Filipinos.

Mr Esperon confirmed that the administration has received reports of plots to oust Mr Duterte, but the groups mentioned do not have the capability to topple the government, he said.

"If indeed we prove that there is a destabilisation attempt, in due time, we will come up with a statement," Mr Esperon said. "In my view, I don't think there is any plot from the military."

The armed forces appreciate President Duterte's outreach and have not seen any signs of unease among senior officers, spokesman Restituto Padilla said. The brigadier-general said: "We feel honoured that he prioritised visiting our men and installations."

Mr Duterte built an important bridge to the military establishment with the July appointment of former president and army chief Fidel Ramos as special envoy in the country's South China Sea dispute with China.

Mr Ramos, 88, played a crucial role in halting coup attempts against Mrs Arroyo and former president Corazon Aquino.

Yet, despite Mr Ramos' pedigree, his influence as a retired general is "persuasive at best because he had become a politician and he is not in active command", said Mr Segundo Romero, professorial lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University who used to help formulate defence policies for the government.

"Military disaffection with Duterte will show if he orders soldiers to participate in the drug war, sharing the blame for extra- judicial killings with the police," Mr Romero said.

"The military will also baulk at a sudden shift towards China without due consultation and institutional acceptance."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 29, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte woos army amid talk of discontent in ranks'. Print Edition | Subscribe