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A public policy blog from AEI
The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the United States is expanding its military support for the Philippines’ ongoing counterterrorism campaign against Islamist and other militant groups. Increased military cooperation marks a positive turn in our strained relations with this longstanding and strategic ally. But the United States needs to be very careful in how it manages other aspects of its relationship with President Rodrigo Duterte, including his campaign against the media and other critics.
Since May 2017, the Philippines has been at war with Islamic State-inspired militants in the southern province of Mindanao. An unexpected firefight between the Philippine military and members of the criminal-cum-Islamist extremist Maute Group in the city of Marawi led Duterte to declare martial law throughout Mindanao — home to 94% of the country’s 10 million Muslims.
While the Philippine military managed to beat back the advance of Islamist extremist groups and take out key terrorist leaders (though others may remain at large), an extended period of martial law remains in place. Duterte also declared the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing to be terrorist organizations, expanding the Philippines’ military efforts beyond the Islamist groups in the country’s south.
US military advisers assisted in the battle for Marawi, but tensions between the two countries stemming from the Obama administration meant that Duterte downplayed US assistance in favor of China’s support. The new “Pacific Eagle — Philippines” contingency operation renews counterterrorism cooperation that was suspended in 2015 and includes 200–300 advisory troops, equipment and technical support, intelligence, and surveillance and drone reconnaissance.
While the terror threat is real and US support is vital in confronting that challenge, many of Duterte’s critics rightly question whether terrorism is being used as a pretext to expand Duterte’s control over the country. His vigorous counterterrorism efforts (he’s claimed that he’s 50 times as brutal as the terrorists themselves) are matched only by his enthusiasm for attacking his political opponents — politicians, the Catholic Church, and a number of media organizations. This is particularly alarming because the risk of serious human rights abuses is much greater under martial law, which has been used in the past to crack down on political opposition and press freedoms in the Philippines.
Duterte has threatened to jail critics of martial law, used slurs against the head of the country’s Human Rights Commission and claimed that journalists are spies. Perhaps even more dangerous are efforts to amend the Philippine constitution to read: “No law shall be passed abridging the ‘responsible exercise’ of freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press. . .” (emphasis added). The Security and Exchange Commission has also attempted to revoke the license of the news organization Rappler. These attacks on democratic norms in the Philippines may foreshadow a slippery slide into dictatorship.
Improved relations with the United States could help turn the tide. But despite a largely successful trip to the Philippines by President Trump, the Trump administration’s reluctance to press Duterte on human rights means little has changed. If Trump and his team fail to stand up to Duterte on these issues, it will only reinforce perceptions among our democratic allies that the Trump administration favors international strongmen. Even worse, inaction may undermine all the hard work the United States has done to support human rights and democracy in a country vital to US national interests in the region. Whether Trump believes it or not, Duterte’s attacks on freedom of speech and of the press are no laughing matter.
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