The military has read the equivalent of a Riot Act to their commander-in-chief on Chinese intrusions into the West Philippine Sea.
At the stroke of midnight Monday, April 19, in the last seven minutes of a 97-minute cabinet meeting-cum-television show, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte discussed something close to his heart and now, fearsome to his five-year-old presidency: The role of the military. He delivered what he called “an eloquent speech.”
Speaking in Pilipino, the commander-in-chief explained why he appointed military men or ex-military men in civilian positions in his government. “Because I believe in them,” he said Besides, “they are now civilians. They have undergone hardship during their military days.” “Like Delfin Lorenzana, who is old like me, do you think he will still tinker with things like a revolutionary government? That’s nonsense.”
Sounding gravely serious, Duterte recalled that at a recent command conference, the Defense secretary submitted a top secret document about what the president called “kabulastugan” (shenanigans), apparently talks or maneuvers of certain retired and active military people led, Duterte revealed, by a general.
In several Viber groups of generals, active and retired, they are engaged in animated debate on what to do in the light of President Duterte’s seeming indifference to what is happening in the West Philippine Sea. Since March 7, 2021, some 220 Chinese military vessels had formed a phalanx on Julian Felipe Reef (Union Banks), some 120 nautical miles west of Philippine shores, clearly within the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).
An EEZ gives the country sovereign rights, not ownership or sovereignty, but the right to exclusively fish and enjoy marine resources, such as oil and natural gas in the area. If the 220 Chinese vessels were fishing boats, they were clearly stealing Philippine resources—fishery and probably even minerals under the sea. A foreign vessel can pass through an EEZ but it has no right to fish or mine in the area.
On April 3, 2021, Defense Secretary Lorenzana protested the massive presence of the Chinese military vessels. “They have sought shelter from bad weather,” claimed the Chinese embassy which even berated Lorenzana. “I am no fool,” the Defense chief bristled on April 3.
On April 6, however, Lorenzana suddenly got sick with COVID and had to isolate himself. Was he told to shut up?
Two days later, on April 8, leading officers of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police, who are graduates of the elite Philippine Military Academy (PMA) issued a joint statement, through their two associations—the PMA Alumni Association and the PMA Retirees Association. That means active and retired officers of the AFP and PNP. The usual step meant they broke protocol and shunned diplomatic channels. They were in a bad mood.
The officers backed Lorenzana and accused the Chinese embassy of subverting the truth, or simply lying. The weather was good, not bad in the area, so the Chinese military vessels had no excuse to seek refuge in Julian Felipe.
The 220 Chinese vessels “is a huge number including the fact that Julian Felipe Reef is also not very far from the coincidentally named Mischief Reef which has slowly been turned into a military base by China over the last few years, so as to make any reasonable citizen suspicious of the whole situation,” the joint statement said.
“Julian Felipe Reef falls within Philippine jurisdiction and we have every right to defend it from foreign intrusion,” the PMA graduates told the Chinese.
“Aside from illegally fishing, Chinese vessels have also been harvesting endangered species on a significant scale, as well as harvesting giant clams in a manner that is severely destructive of the coral reef ecosystem,” the officers said.
“We urge the Chinese Embassy to respect our government officials and for the Chinese government to adhere to the rules as laid by international law,” the officers pleaded.
In not a few Viber groups, several generals burned the wires so to speak, debating options amid the blatant Chinese violations. Some considered bringing the matter up to the commander-in-chief. And what about withdrawing support in case he turns a deaf ear?
Viber talks being basically public, the matter reached the ear of the President who accordingly called a command conference. In his Monday night tete-a-tete with the people, Duterte discussed what happened in his meeting with the military high command.
He related: “Alam mo, ulitin ko ito ha. Nandito ‘yan, ‘yong mga military na nandoon. In a command conference, I was so—talagang downhearted ako because I expected the military to perform well na walang...” (“You know, let me repeat this. Some of the military officers who were there are here. I was really downhearted. Because I expected the military to perform well without (a whimper)”).
“Iyong sinabi ko, ako nandito ako kasi na —pagka akala ko makatulong ako sa bayan sa Pilipinas. Kaya ko kayo kinuha, kaya ko kayo pinatawag kasi akala ko makatulong kayo kasi it involved a general sa ano. Sabi ko, alam mo, hindi talaga ako mamamatay kung hindi ako Presidente. Kung tumindig lang ang Air Force head, ang Navy, Army, pati Police, kung tumindig kayo ngayon, aalis ako pagka-mayor. Uuwi ako sa ano. Ibig kong sabihin, I do not have the support of the military and so—ganoon lang kasimple.”
(“I am here because I believe I can serve the people of the Philippines. That is also why I summoned you all thinking you can help me, because it involved a general. I told them, if the heads of the Air Force, Navy, Army and the Philippine National Police take a stand now (against me), I will quit being mayor-president. I will go home. Because that means I do not have the support of the military. It’s that simple.”)
Duterte added, in English and Pilipino: “If we cannot work together with just buying medicines (vaccines?) then maybe we cannot work together on bigger things. So what’s the point? Sinabi ko talaga sa kanila. I do not—I do not work where I am not needed. And then kayo na mag-explain, explain to the Filipino people bakit ganoon.”
My view: The military has read the equivalent of a Riot Act to their commander-in-chief on Chinese intrusions into the West Philippine Sea. Your move sir.