On Sept. 11, in an interview that’s bizarre and provocative even by his standards, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte challenged dissident soldiers to try to mount a rebellion. The firebrand president said he had evidence that a sitting senator and some communist rebels were plotting to assassinate him and seize power on Sept. 21, the anniversary of the declaration of martial law by deposed dictator Ferdinand Marcos. This capped two weeks of high political drama that began when Duterte ordered the military and police to arrest the senator in question, Antonio Trillanes IV, a vocal Duterte critic who has regularly badgered the president about corruption allegations and accused him of being soft on China.
To be fair, Trillanes has a history of usurpation. As a junior naval officer, he helped lead a pair of failed uprisings in the mid-2000s. Former President Benigno Aquino granted Trillanes amnesty as part of a plea deal in 2011, but Duterte unilaterally revoked the deal on Aug. 31. The move set off a war of words between supporters of the president and those of Trillanes, with both sides trying to pull the military back into the political fray.
The military is mostly trying to stay out of it. On Monday, the head of the Philippine armed forces denied rumors that there was widespread discontent among the rank and file, yet he felt the need to remind them to stay out of politics. (The statement was a response to an incident in which a small group of soldiers and police tried to detain Trillanes but were blocked from entering the Senate, where Trillanes has been holed up.) The military also felt compelled to publicly deny rumors swirling in Manila of “unusual troop movements.” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, reprising what’s become a familiar role, downplayed the president’s claims and said the military wouldn’t detain Trillanes unless the courts issued a warrant, though he backed up Duterte’s claims about communist rebel involvement in the alleged plot. Notably, however, the military is also believed to have leaked documents supporting the validity of Trillanes’ original amnesty deal.
Along with the military’s apparent refusal to act on Duterte’s extrajudicial arrest order, this raises questions about the military’s loyalty to the president. Still, it’s unlikely that Duterte is in real trouble. Coup rumblings have dogged Duterte since before his inauguration in 2016, the rumor mill fueled by his divergence from the defense establishment on the South China Sea dispute, his outreach to Muslim Moro separatists and communist rebels, and the unpopularity of his drug war with the politically influential Catholic Church.
But there’s never been much substance to the rumors — even in late 2016, when Duterte issued an order restricting military personnel to their barracks, ostensibly as a way to prevent them from joining mass demonstrations against the burial of Marcos in the national heroes’ cemetery. Duterte has even generally welcomed the rumors, while hinting that he may step down to make way for a hand-picked successor before his six-year term expires anyway.
The days of political agitation by the Philippine military, which helped bring an end to the Marcos regime and then promptly tried and failed four times to oust his successor, appear to be long gone. The last time the military played any role as kingmaker was in 2001, when it declared that it would not crack down on mass protests against former President Joseph Estrada, leading to his resignation under corruption allegations. The two “coup” attempts led by Trillanes in 2003 and 2007 against former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo amounted to little more than seizing control of a pair of luxury hotels in a Manila business district.
Indeed, despite its reputation for political adventurism, the Philippine military is too divided along factional and socio-economic lines to take out presidents, and has been for some time. For a coup to succeed in the Philippines, it would need the support of the public, civil society groups and factions of the security apparatus outside the armed forces. There are few signs of any of these elements today. Duterte’s approval ratings have dipped somewhat, but he still commands a lot of public support. Protests against his drug war failed to gain momentum. He’s successfully navigated some of the most contentious parts of his agenda, including the Mindanao peace process. By all accounts, he’s broadly popular with the rank-and-file of the military, and he’s had two years to stack the senior brass with loyalists and dole out pay raises across the board. He’s gradually abandoned his anti-U.S. rhetoric and moderated his outreach to China. If Trillanes had the backing to pose a real threat, it’s doubtful that he’d be hiding out in his Senate office.
Even so, the latest standoff shouldn’t be dismissed as mere political theater. The battle for the Philippines between the United States and China isn’t going to be settled anytime soon, and the political strength of a Philippine leader will play a small role in that regard. It’s notable, then, that Trillanes’ corruption allegations have elicited such a strong response from the president. (Another opposition senator who’s been needling the president on corruption was jailed last year.) Philippine presidents, more often than not, have left office under clouds of corruption. This particular episode comes as Manila and Beijing are moving to reach an agreement on joint oil and gas exploration in parts of the South China Sea that the U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled are in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is set to visit for talks on joint development next week.
Any deal on the matter promises to be legally contentious and politically risky, inviting accusations of the president selling resources to a country that has blocked every Philippine attempt to develop its own oil and natural gas. A similar agreement between Manila and Beijing reached in 2003 fell apart by 2008 over corruption allegations against Arroyo – the president Trillanes twice tried to oust. The Philippines’ existing fields are rapidly depleting, so Manila is desperate to find a way to bring new fields online in the South China Sea. And with Western powers declining to intervene on Manila’s behalf, the Philippines has little choice but to negotiate on Beijing’s terms. There are some fights that Philippine presidents can’t help but pick.