Duterte on the road again
Despite his age, President Duterte has taken to his international travel commitments with gusto—and that is good for the country. This week, not yet nine months into the presidency, he completed a series of introductory visits to the other nine members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He visited Myanmar (Burma) on March 19 and 20, to meet with both President Htin Kyaw and that country’s most influential political figure, State Counselor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi. He then proceeded to Thailand, to meet Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-Cha.
In the wake of the national and international controversy over his so-called war on illegal drugs, it must have been a welcome opportunity for the leaders of Myanmar and Thailand to sit down with Mr. Duterte for candid, closed-door discussions. While many opportunities exist during Asean and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summits for bilateral meetings on the side, there is nothing like an official visit, and uninterrupted time, for leaders to get to know one another better.
The visits are good for the Philippines because it allows the other leaders of Asean to gauge President Duterte up close, and because they show that the Philippines is fully committed to its responsibility as Asean chair this year, the 50th anniversary of the primary regional bloc. In Myanmar, Mr. Duterte also pledged $300,000 as humanitarian assistance to that country, which is suffering an outbreak of violence in its Rakhine state. This is not only a token of friendship between countries which share a postcolonial history; it is also a small gesture of appreciation for the assistance Myanmar extended to the Philippines after Supertyphoon “Yolanda.”
On Wednesday, Acting Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo pointed out that the two countries took the opportunity of the visits to reiterate their support for the Philippines’ chairmanship of Asean. Myanmar, which is close to China, reassured Mr. Duterte of its support for any engagement with external partners “on the basis of Asean-led processes and based on the key principles of mutual respect and mutual benefit.” Manalo also said that Thailand gave assurances of its backing for the President’s position “on the need to strengthen Asean and maintain Asean centrality to respond to current challenges in our region and also in dealing with our external partners.”
We realize these statements are exactly what are said during such visits; none of the leaders involved were breaking new ground. But that such statements of mutual assurance and support are exchanged is still worth noting. First, because they offer the Philippines the possibility of resolving its disputes with China with the help of regional pressure, rather than the bilateral option China insists on. And second, because sometimes these statements are drowned out by the President’s controversial policies and controversial language.
In his meetings with overseas Filipinos—which resemble campaign rallies, complete with a slate of Cabinet officials and a handful of senators with him on stage and, on the floor, enthusiastic supporters who spent hours on the road or on their feet to hear him—the President often goes into free-association mode, talking about his principal subject, the trade in illegal drugs, but then meandering into many other topics, some of them banal, some controversial indeed.
The last cycle of visits was no different. To give just one example, he criticized the Inquirer and the ABS-CBN network for running stories during the presidential campaign about what are purportedly previously unreported bank accounts. This criticism was part of an extended riff on what he says is a battle between the masa and the Manila-centric elite. “Ako lang ang nakalusot na hindi pili sa Maynila (I am the only president who was elected who was not Manila’s choice),” he said in Myanmar. But he also used his rambling speech to take his son Sebastian to task: “Dalawa na ang apo ko diyan, iba-iba ang nanay (I have two grandchildren by him, with different mothers),” he said to laughter.
In that light, an anodyne joint statement from the Philippine and Thai leaders—“The Philippines and Thailand have vibrant economic relations with a trade value of almost $8 billion in 2016. We have yet to reach the limit of our potentials”—is welcome.
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