Philippines: Kleptocrats Make A Comeback


May 4, 2022: Presidential elections take place in two days and the leading candidate is the son of Ferdinand Marcos, the most corrupt president to ever hold the office in the Philippines. This notorious kleptocrat, who died in 1989, has a son, 64-year-old Ferdinand Marcos Jr. The younger Marcos favors the nickname Bongbong, which comes from a popular stew but can also be interpreted as “fiery” or “inspirational.” The younger Marcos also favored BBM (Bong Bong Marcos). Politicians often adopt a nickname to enhance their popularity and such was the case with the son of Ferdinand Marcos, who has spent his entire adult life in politics and striving to revise the bad reputation of his father and his notoriously spendthrift wife Imelda. His father stole as much as $14 billion while in office and much of it has not been recovered. After the Marcos family fled to the United States the government established the PCGG (Presidential Commission on Good Government) in 1986 and gave it legal powers to track down and retrieve the billions stolen by the former president Ferdinand Marcos. Since then, the PCGG has identified over half the stolen billion and recovered about half of that, which comes to $3.5 billion. Less than half of that has actually been returned to the Philippines and some of that was in turn stolen by senior politicians then in power. Based on BBMs past performance, if elected the PCGG will be gradually weakened and “disappeared.” BBM has been caught trying to withdraw some of the family billions before the PCGG but he lawyered up and carried out a PR campaign to repair the damage. BBM may have successfully gained access to some of the foreign bank accounts where much of the stolen money was hidden. No one has been able to prove this and that becomes a lot more difficult if BBM is elected president.

The current president, Rodrigo Duterte was elected on the promise of reducing crime, drug related violence and corruption. Duterte had been doing this locally, as mayor of a major southern city, successfully since the 1990s and proposed trying to make it happen nationally. He did and his term-limited job as president lasts until mid-2022. His successor will find Duterte a tough act to follow and BBM was considered a longshot candidate. BBM, like other candidates, promised to keep current anti-drug and anti-terrorism efforts going but is vague on anti-corruption plans.

President Duterte considered running for the senate after his term as president but withdrew that effort at the end of 2021. Duterte is 76 and is waiting to see who his successor is and how his successor operates. C orrupt Filipinos, especially those from wealthy old families, believe that once Duterte is gone the good old ways will return. Presidents can only serve one term of six years and that is never long enough to make a serious dent in corruption. Duterte did this when he went after corruption at the highest levels and encountered formidable resistance. F ormer presidents, especially effective ones, retain a lot of influence on who gets elected and what happens after the election.

Duterte’s anti-corruption efforts will need all the help they can get if BBM replaces Duterte. Ferdinand Sr. was an extraordinarily corrupt politician who illegally held onto power from 1972 to 1986. Marcos was finally ousted by Cory Aquino, who was elected in 1986 and served one term. She allowed Marcos family members to return from exile in 1991. Many did and managed to stay out of jail. After Cory Aquino came several more traditional presidents, who paid attention to their Old Family connections and the term limits.

Duterte was unique because he lacked such strong connections. Through his mother he was distantly related to several Old Families, but his father was an outsider, with ancestors who came from China. This makes you less acceptable to the Old Families. President Duterte’s predecessor was an Aquino, whose mother also served as president and the one who led the effort to overthrow dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Now a son of Ferdinand Marcos is the leading contender to replace Duterte. The Marcos and Aquino clans are considered Old Families. The Aquinos, mother Cory and son Benigno Aquino III, both tried and failed to make much of a dent in corruption.

The major obstacles for any new president are family and friends, especially if both come from Old Families. The Aquinos are one of a few thousand families that control the economy, and have done so for centuries. This control predates the Spanish conquest of the Philippines in the 16th century. The tribal confederations the Spaniards encountered already had their elite families in control, and the conquering Spanish married into these clans, creating a Spanish/Malay ruling class which persists to this day.

These ruling families never fully accepted democracy, which was imposed by America a century ago, after having deposed the Spanish colonial government. The Spanish controlled the Philippines by working with the rich families. It was a feudal arrangement that the United States was unable to change much. The families feud a lot, but will unite to face a threat to the feudal system that keeps them in control. If any new president is going to succeed, he or she will have to prosecute and jail many members of their own class, including friends and family. That's hard to do. When Cory Aquino was president, she herself was not corrupt, but could not bring herself to punish family and friends who were. Any new president cracking down on corruption risks triggering a civil war, or at least a lot of violence because many of the families have private armies. After all, most of the corruption is among people who are the government. And those people are related to most of those most qualified (by education and experience) to replace them. Many members of the ruling families favor changing the rules, eliminating (or at least greatly reducing) corruption, and making it easier to grow the economy. But most powerful people like things just the way they are.

Duterte was not Old Family and unexpectedly won by promising to do nationwide what he had done in a southern city that went from lots of crime to little crime when Duterte was mayor. Duterte kept his promises, including efforts to go after the corrupt officials in the government, who were largely Old Family and could not pull any family strings to avoid prosecution. His successor was always considered likely to be Old Family and after several months of campaigning the leading candidate was Bongbong Marcos, son of one of the most corrupt Old Family presidents who says he will continue the Duterte policies, except for trying to negotiate with China. Old Families prefer to handle such negotiations with threatening foreigners unofficially. The official Old Family posture towards China is more inflexible.

April 29, 2022: In the south (Surigao del Sur province) NPA gunmen are increasingly going non-violent and are attacking politicians seen as corrupt. In several cases armed NPA men raided homes of candidates and stole weapons. The homes raided are those of candidates that refused demands for extortion. This less-violent (than usual) NPA effort to influence the May elections began this year. These NPA tactics are a result of declining membership and increasingly effective efforts by the military to defeat NPA violence. The NPA is trying to rebuild support in rural areas and reduce the number of tips sent via cell phones to security forces reporting NPA activity.

April 18, 2022: In the south (Sulu province) soldiers encountered another Abu Sayyaf bomb. This is the fifth such incident thus year and indicative that the local Abu Sayyaf group have a skilled bomb builder. Most areas have poorly trained and equipped Abu Sayyaf members and more of them are quitting or surrendering with their weapons to obtain amnesty. With fewer active Abu Sayyaf it is less likely that former Abu Sayyaf members will be hunted down and killed by still-active Abu Sayyaf. More and more areas in the south have Abu Sayyaf groups that have reached that tipping point.

April 15, 2022: In the south (North Cotabato province) troops responding to a tip encountered a well-known local NPA leader and an associate. These two opened fire and were killed. NPA leaders often refused to surrender but try to shoot their way out. The NPA leaders are usually killed, preventing the army from interrogating him.

In the far north (Cagayan province) a similar encounter between troops and NPA gunmen left three communist rebels dead. NPA forces in this province have suffered heavy losses so far this year. Former NPA members often aid the army, especially in finding NPA storage sites for ammunition, weapons along with NPA documents. Local villagers often aid in the search because former NPA men often do not know the exact location of the hidden weapons. The NPA often hides weapons so members can travel about unarmed as ordinary citizens. The exact location of these sites is normally known by only a few local NPA leaders.

April 8, 2022: In the south (South Cotabato province) troops tracked down and confronted four notorious NPA “tax collectors”. These are the veteran NPA members to collect extortion payments and transfer those funds to other NPA specialists who take care of disbursing the funds to purchase needed supplies or services.

April 6, 2022: In the south (Bukidnon province) troops encountered a group of armed NPA rebels and after a two-hour gunbattle killed four armed men. All of them turned out to be senior NPA leaders.

April 5, 2022: In the south (Davao del Norte province) three NPA gunmen surrendered with their weapons and equipment. Surrender means eligibility for amnesty, in which NPA members who are not wanted for capital crimes (murder, kidnapping and rape) are not punished. Amnesty also requires answering questions about local NPA operations. In this area that often includes more evidence of low morale and shortages of food, medical supplies and local support from civilians. These hardships often result in small NPA units and their leaders surrendering. Abu Sayyaf only has a few hundred active members and are short of cash, local support and new recruits. Kidnapping used to be a good source of cash, especially if foreigners could be taken. That has become more difficult and riskier because the military has increased the number and effectiveness of its land and naval patrols. That’s one reason for the move across the Sulu Sea, where Malaysian security forces stay in contact with their Filipino counterparts to locate and eliminate remaining Abu Sayyaf groups. Those now in Malaysia are not very active at all. They have few local supporters and consider Malaysia a refuge rather than an operating base for local attacks.

April 2, 2022: In the south (Basilan province) an army patrol encountered a large group of armed Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorists. At first there was a gun battle but the Abu Sayyaf men were able to flee and were pursued. This eventually led to another gun battle that left four soldiers wounded before the Abu Sayyaf men broke contact again, leaving two dead and taking four wounded men with them. Whenever possible, Abu Sayyaf carry their dead and wounded with them because if bodies are left behind the army can gain information about local Abu Sayyaf operations.

March 26, 2022: In the south (Basilan province) an army patrol encountered and killed a senior Abu Sayyaf leader. This was a serious loss because there are few senior Abu Sayyaf leaders left.

March 18, 2022: President Duterte said the Philippines would allow the United States to use Filipino bases if the Ukraine crisis spread to Asia. The Philippines has an MDT ( mutual defense treaty) with the United States but it is not always adequate to deal with Chinese tactics. American government priorities can change radically every four years because of presidential elections. The current U.S. president is seen as less steadfast in dealing with China and Russia. The Americans did join NATO efforts against the Russians and the Philippines hopes that extended to increased aggression from China in the South China Sea.


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