Duterte: Beneath tough talk, is he a potential peacemaker?

Duterte's personal ties with the communists and the Mindanao Muslims offer hope for a lasting peace agreement.

Mr Duterte, who supports the Davao Death Squad, may be brash, but his ties with rebels may actually end the rebellions.
Mr Duterte, who supports the Davao Death Squad, may be brash, but his ties with rebels may actually end the rebellions. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

The election of the Philippines' President-elect Rodrigo Duterte signals an important shift in the country's internal politics.

A lot has been made of Mr Duterte's tough-speaking, no-nonsense approach to crime in Davao. His two decades as mayor of Davao City in Mindanao have seen a drop in violent crime. This drop is attributed partly to his support of the "Davao Death Squad", a vigilante group that conducts extrajudicial killings of criminals.

In a region where violence (criminal and political) is part of the local history, Mr Duterte's approach was widely supported. However, beyond the tough, warrior-like front, he has also cultivated another persona - as a peacemaker. And ironically, he is possibly one of the best hopes for lasting peace in the Philippines.


A Maoist-inspired Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) rebellion that seeks social and political reform has lasted more than 40 years and claimed about 30,000 lives.

The CPP is supported by its military wing, the New People's Army (NPA) while the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) is the political front.

It seeks the removal of US influence and dismantling of traditional power structures that dominate relations between the peasantry and political elites. At its height in the 1980s, the CPP numbered more than 25,000 members. Its membership has dwindled to about 4,000, mainly from the peasant and indigenous communities.

Negotiations between the CPP and the government have repeatedly broken down amid accusations of bad faith and insincerity. In 2013, negotiations were called off after the CPP demanded that its rebels held in detention be released. The Philippine government rejected the demand, citing difficulty in ascertaining a rebel from a criminal.

Mr Duterte, who supports the Davao Death Squad, may be brash, but his ties with rebels may actually end the rebellions.  PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

Mr Duterte's longstanding relationship with the CPP's founder and ideologue, Jose Maria Sison, may provide a solution to the conflict.

Sison, who was Mr Duterte's lecturer at Lyceum University, has been in a self-imposed exile in the Netherlands after the Philippine government cancelled his passport while he was on a European lecture tour.

Mr Duterte's overtures to the CPP have been received positively by its leadership. Soon after his election, he met NDFP chief negotiator Fidel Agcaoili and committed to peace talks and amnesty for political prisoners.

He further offered the CPP four Cabinet posts in the labour, agrarian reform, environment and social welfare departments.

This offer does not mean the CPP would necessarily be part of the administration.

As Sison has made clear, the offer can only be accepted once there is a negotiated truce. With Mr Duterte due to be sworn in on June 30, it is unlikely that any CPP members would be part of the Duterte administration for now.

It, however, strengthens the hand of CPP leaders who are more inclined towards peaceful negotiations over armed rebellion.

The rapprochement has, however, been rejected by some members of the Filipino military and political establishment.

Former navy officer and coup plotter Senator Antonio Trillanes, and former police intelligence chief Rodolfo Mendoza have both discussed the possibility of a coup if Mr Duterte proceeds with his plans to bring the communists into his administration.


The Muslims in Southern Philippines (Bangsamoro or Moro nation) have resisted Spanish and American colonisation for 300 years. Since independence, that resistance is focused on the Philippine state.

At stake is the autonomy of Mindanao and its surrounding islands.

In 1989, an Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao was created as part of the peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).

As mayor of Mindanao's largest city and with family members from among the Bangsamoro, Mr Duterte's candidacy was strongly supported by the Bangsamoro groups.

His backing for the enactment of the Halal Ordinance in Davao City, which facilitates and regulates halal food compliance, and his support for the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) have won him favours in the restive region.

The basic law would have resulted in the creation of a Bangsamoro Autonomous Region, granting greater autonomy for the region and a demilitarisation of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

There are, however, other complications.

Mr Duterte's running mate, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, is opposed to the basic law, saying it would lead to civil war and strengthen the MILF.

The weakening MNLF has thus far rejected the basic law while the MILF has declared that its demilitarisation is conditional on the BBL being passed into law.

Mr Duterte now appears to have moved away from his support for the basic law and is pushing for federalism of the Philippines. While federalism would potentially grant local autonomy to the Mindanao (among others), they would remain as just another region within the Philippine state.

Still, the Bangsamoro appear to be hopeful of Mr Duterte's next moves. Having worked closely with him over the years, there is optimism that he will be an honest broker and help initiate peaceful settlements.


While Mr Duterte appears to have the force of personality and longstanding relationships with leaders of the CPP and the Bangsamoro, he still needs to navigate a political system that has failed to find a solution.

Sections of the military that have spent decades fighting the CPP and MILF appear to reject any settlement with the two groups.

The failed negotiations over the years have also created a distrustful environment among political elites on each side.

His challenge is not merely to negotiate a workable agreement but to convince every party to let go of the legacies of conflict and distrust. At the same time, he needs to assure the elements within the military and political elites and the rebel groups that they will remain relevant and influential.

While his extending the olive branch to the CPP and MILF is a positive start, Mr Duterte still needs to convince his administration that lasting peace is the best hope for the country. And hope that the CPP and MILF keep to their end of the deal.

  • The writer is a final-year PhD candidate at La Trobe University, Australia (International Relations). He researches International Institutionalism with a focus on Asean.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 28, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte: Beneath tough talk, is he a potential peacemaker?'. Print Edition | Subscribe