One of the oddest exchanges of words we’ve seen in the last week was between President Rodrigo ‘Digong’ Duterte and Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria ‘Joma’ Sison.
The pair have known each other for many decades. As young men, Duterte was a student under then Professor Sison in the ‘60s.
The two gents exchanged accusations that the other was seriously sick. Mr. Duterte was more specific when he said that Joma had colon cancer, while Joma retorted that it was the president who was gravely ill. Of what, he did not specify.
Mr.Duterte, the communist leader pointed out, had yet to explain his one-week absence from the public eye last month. It was not the first time that the president disappeared either. He had done so on at least two previous occasions, but last month was the longest period he had been absent.
Digong is 72, while Joma is 78. No spring chickens they, but both are still relatively sharp mentally, although between the two it is the younger Duterte who has had mental lapses in recent months. Now and then, he rambles when giving speeches, jumping from topic to topic just like US President Donald Trump.
The once warm relations between the two Filipino leaders has cooled off recently after the president scrapped – again – the peace talks between the Left and the national government.
It’s difficult to point out which side is at fault. In fact, it now seems that a final peace agreement between the two sides will never take place in this lifetime. This is a shame since Mr. Duterte has had the closest ties to the underground Left among all Philippine presidents, yet even he has not been able to settle the rift that divides the two sides.
In resorting to an all-out war policy, Mr. Duterte has made sure that the communist rebellion – one of the oldest if not THE oldest in the world -- will continue for a few more years, if not decades. The president is following in the footsteps of another chief executive, a populist who could have ended the six decades’ old rebellion. This was deposed president and now Manila mayor Erap Estrada. Despite referring to himself as maka-masa, Erap called for total war against the Left as well as the Muslim rebellion in the south, resulting in thousands of needless deaths.
One other president who stood an excellent chance of ending not only the communist but also the Muslim rebellion to put up an independent homeland in Mindanao was Fernando Poe Jr., but he was cheated out of the presidency by Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
But that’s another story.
Messrs. Duterte and Sison are never going to forge a permanent and lasting peace between the national government and the underground Left even if they wanted to because the situation on the ground has become too complex. Too much illicit money is involved, and the operatives on the ground will not give up the millions that they earn each month that easily.
For the government, this means essentially the Armed Forces of the Philippines, of which Mr. Duterte is the titular commander in chief. The AFP would lose billions in “aid” from the US, and other friendly states, which now includes China and Russia.
The billions of pesos budgeted for the AFP would be slashed, which means the kickbacks for the procurement of equipment, arms, etc. would be lost to the bean counters within the armed forces.
It’s pretty easy to see who in the AFP earns millions. They’re the ones who retire with a lot more in assets than they should have, but whom even the mighty Commission on Audit is wary of investigating.
The leftists who are actually businessmen are even harder to identify. The leaders of the underground usually retire to their farms with secret golden parachutes. Others, like Joma, even end up as what the late Doroy Valencia called “steak commandos,” waging war against the established order from the comfort of their foreign homes. They also receive pensions from their host governments, incidentally.
For his part, Mr. Duterte has realized that he has to turn the AFP and to a lesser extent the Philippine National Police leadership into his new best friends, at least for as long as he is president. Without the AFP and the PNP's backing, Mr. Duterte’s hold on the presidency will be too precarious, and he knows it.
So now we can expect to have more public exchanges, more insults and put downs, between Messrs. Duterte and Sison. By their actions, neither of the two truly wants peace.