Conflicts a concern ahead of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's state address

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arriving at the military camp in Marawi city, Mindanao, last Thursday. The battle against Islamist militants there is now in its third month.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arriving at the military camp in Marawi city, Mindanao, last Thursday. The battle against Islamist militants there is now in its third month.PHOTO: REUTERS

Wars on multiple fronts are hindering economic growth

President Rodrigo Duterte will deliver his second State of the Nation Address today, clouded by a protracted battle between government troops and Islamist militants for the southern city of Marawi, a drug war that is just heating up, and martial law that may reach beyond the shores of the insurgency- racked island of Mindanao.

Yet, the nation remains on an even keel. Growth is forecast at between 6 per cent and 7 per cent this year and the next.

That, however, has little to do with anything Mr Duterte's government has done so far.

The Philippine peso has fallen to an 11-year low, at 50.88 per US dollar, a reaction to interest rate movements in the United States. While a falling currency may unsettle nations that rely on manufacturing, it somehow works for the Philippines.

It buttresses the value of remittances by millions of dollar-earning Filipinos abroad.

And it lifts the income of outsourcing companies that employ nearly two million mostly young professionals. That is in turn stimulating consumer spending, the main driver of growth.

The middle class is still growing, and they are spending even more.

But things could have been better, if not for the wars that are likely to bedevil Mr Duterte till at least his second year as President and delay his ambitious 8 trillion peso (S$215.6 billion) "Build, Build, Build" infrastructure programme.

  • Not much achieved, yet still very popular

  • Though bombastic, President Rodrigo Duterte's first year in office has failed to deliver on many of the big promises he made when campaigning.

    His critics are quick to point out that war is still tearing apart the southern third of the Philippines, traffic remains horrendous in metropolitan Manila, labour-only contracting is still very much the norm, and more than 20 million people are still living below the poverty line.

    Yet, a recent survey shows Mr Duterte remains the "most appreciated" government official, with an approval rating of 82 per cent. What is driving his enduring popularity?

    Simply put, he remains "the president for an angry nation", said sociologist Randy David.

    "I am convinced about two things: one, that Mr Duterte has accidentally tapped into a deep well of anger against a dysfunctional social order, a system in which ordinary Filipinos could find no hope.

    "And two, that, with an angry president at the helm, Filipinos have stumbled into the age of resentment, expecting it will lead to change," said Mr David.

    This resentment may yet turn on Mr Duterte, if in his second year he still fails to deliver.

Because of the government's inability to contain it swiftly, the battle for Marawi city in Mindanao, now in its third month, is seen fuelling Islamist militancy, with the ultra-radical Islamic State in Iraq and Syria pushing even harder to carve out territory in Mindanao.

Even as government troops continue to battle militant groups that seized parts of Marawi on May 23, Mr Duterte last week opened another front, declaring all-out war against the communists.

He has called off peace talks with the National Democratic Front, after attacks by the New People's Army that left five of his security men wounded, and two marines and six policemen dead.

Addressing a communist leader who called him a "bully", he replied: "That is my job: to bully you and to kill you because there is a war going on between us and you."

The police, meanwhile, continue to pursue Mr Duterte's war on the narcotics trade, with small-time drug dealers popping up dead in some street or alley each night.

All these wars are sapping momentum from years of fast-paced growth under Mr Duterte's predecessor Benigno Aquino.

AGE OF RESENTMENT

I am convinced about two things: one, that Mr Duterte has accidentally tapped into a deep well of anger against a dysfunctional social order... And two, that, with an angry president at the helm, Filipinos have stumbled into the age of resentment, expecting it will lead to change.

SOCIOLOGIST RANDY DAVID, on President Rodrigo Duterte's enduring popularity.

Investment pledges for Mindanao have plunged 63 per cent to 6.87 billion pesos from January to last month. Ratings firms and multilateral institutions, meanwhile, have either kept or lowered their forecasts by a few notches. They are not expecting anything spectacular from the Philippines this year.

These do not bode well for Mr Duterte's cornerstone infrastructure programme meant to give jobs to millions in poverty. As things stand, most of the big- ticket items are still on paper, and it is unlikely this year that the Philippines will see a single yuan from the more than US$30 billion (S$41 billion) worth of investments and credit lines China has promised Mr Duterte.

To deal with both terrorists and communists, he has declared martial law across Mindanao. Far from offering assurance, however, it has led to concerns that military rule may fuel resentment among Muslims, which militants may exploit to shore up their depleted ranks.

A Marawi civic leader told lawmakers the military is already committing human rights abuses. A 20-year-old with special needs was interrogated by government troops who poured hot water on his hands, she said.

The communists, meanwhile, fearing a crackdown, are stepping up attacks on the military.

Mr Duterte's communications chief Martin Andanar said the President's State of the Nation Address will talk about a "comfortable life for all". "The theme is a comfortable life for all. It will focus on prosperity for all, law and order, and peace," he said.

But it is a sweeping theme that the facts on the ground do not support. Offering a sobering reminder, Ms Liza Maza, lead convener of the National Anti-Poverty Commission, said "more than 20 million are still in poverty".

"There are a lot of things that still need to be pursued. We're not even halfway there. We're actually just starting," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 24, 2017, with the headline 'Conflicts a concern ahead of Duterte's state address'. Print Edition | Subscribe