Deal or no deal? Duterte’s flip flopping in the face of extremism

Duterte talks tough in public but tries to broker deals in the back rooms. Is he a warmonger or a peace monger?

by Oliver Ward

Duterte’s eccentric behaviour took an even darker turn. He threatened to eat the liver of the ISIS terrorists responsible for the beheading of two Vietnamese sailors. “I will eat your liver if you want. I will just add salt and vinegar”, he said, adding “I will eat it in front of you”.

The comments are even more bizarre considering only days before, Duterte was attempting to make a deal with ISIS terrorists. In the days following the siege of Marawi City, a senior Duterte aid reportedly reached out to the Maute brothers to form a back-channel deal.

From making a deal to making violent threats

The plan was to bring the mother of the Maute brothers to meet Duterte himself in Cagayan de Oro or Davao City. The Duterte administration used a cleric with connections to the Maute brothers to broker a meeting. Sharif, the cleric, claims that Duterte was willing to offer the brothers the implementation of Sharia law in their hometown. However, this claim could not be verified.

Then five days later, he cut all contact with the ISIS group. In a speech to the public on May 31st he publicly declared that the Philippines “will not talk to terrorists”.

Why try and make a deal with the terrorists?

Rebellions in Mindanao are nothing new. The relationship between local armed groups and the government has caused conflicts since the 1970s. Previous governments have engaged in peace negotiation and brokered deals, including Duterte himself. In May, Duterte himself tried to negotiate a deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the communist New People’s Army (NPA) where he offered them houses and soldiers in exchange for their support against the Islamic State-linked militants.

The rise of the Maute group is no different. Many of the financers of the Maute group were families with private armies. These families, like the Ampatuan’s, have worked with governments in the past. They have provided troops for the Filipino government and have previously been used to maintain stability in Mindanao. Balancing this relationship between armed groups and the government have been key to maintaining stability in the region.

For all of his aggressive rhetoric, Duterte welcomes communication and has proven to be willing to engage in negotiation. He has reached out to China and Russia and brought the Philippines closer to them. He has also called on other heads of ASEAN to forge closer ties. Opening communication channels and forging deals is very much part of Duterte’s strategy.

It is another U-turn for the Duterte administration

But this time, he abandoned his pursuit for a deal. His framing of the Marawi siege as “purely ISIS” means that he cannot be seen to be making deals with terrorists. The heart of the issue may be well trodden, but the Maute brother’s sympathy with ISIS strips Duterte of a valuable tool, his diplomacy.

His U-turns and constant flip flapping over important issues has been a problem with the Duterte administration. When he does it in the arena of foreign policy it is ineffective. When he does it in the face of extremists, it puts the country in danger. Sharif complained “the problem with our president, his mind is always changing”.

He cannot defeat Islamic extremism through force

Islamic terrorism cannot be defeated through force. Insurgencies spread through weak government and weak laws. Duterte’s extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention of political opponents and application of marital law undermine the law and government process in the Philippines.

His authoritarian style of government will only make the insurgency movement stronger in the country. No amount of guns and ammunition can stamp out extremist Islam. It only encourages it and makes extremists more determined.

The president’s threats of eating organs and killing and destroying ISIS members will only fuel the terrorists rage. In this moment of despair, the Philippines needs to preserve its systems of law and order. Without this, the fires of Islamic insurgency will continue to burn.