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Rodrigo Duterte

Is there more to President Rodrigo Duterte’s Boracay closure and drug war than meets the eye? 

Mark R. Thompson says low-profile dealings with a Chinese company, selective prosecution of drug traffickers and targeting of political enemies suggest there may be less wholesome (and less populist) reasons for the Philippine president’s moves

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 12:07pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 May, 2018, 7:51pm

With Boracay island’s white sands emptied of tourists after a six-month government-ordered closure late last week, the world again took notice of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s populist leadership style: melodramatic and personalised, with little concern for the consequences. 

The shutdown played well to his fan base as another demonstration of his iron will to cleanse the country of its social ills. Promising to deal with Boracay’s “smelly waters” due to untreated sewage and other environmental hazards, Duterte again effectively portrayed himself as a strongman willing to stand up to corrupt local officials and dodgy businesses. 

Top Philippine tourist spot Boracay closes under high security

But his surprise decision largely ignored the local fallout, with 30,000 jobs affected in an island tourist trade worth over US$1 billion last year (with only limited compensation offered) while deflecting from his own political problems (revelations last February that the International Criminal Court had begun a preliminary investigation of his bloody “war on drugs” that has left thousands dead in his less than two years in office). 

The way Duterte has dealt with Boracay’s problems is part of a larger pattern. He invokes graphic images to justify drastic decisions. He portrayed Boracay as a “cesspool” that must be closed. His 2016 presidential campaign was largely run on the narrative that drugs were ruining people’s lives and threatening to destroy the nation, with Duterte urging Filipinos to murder users and dealers whose dead bodies would fill Manila Bay until the fish grew fat. When rage is sufficiently aroused, extreme solutions become acceptable, even if the cost is lost jobs or even extrajudicial killings. 

Sun, sea, sand, Swat team: police prepare to close Boracay

Duterte often announces his controversial decisions in speeches, usually before he gives marching orders to his cabinet. He revealed his Boracay shutdown decision in a February 9 speech, surprising his audience and the nation and leaving his cabinet secretaries scrambling to find a way to implement the order within a very short time frame. 

Duterte’s decision to close Boracay is also an example of what University of Pennsylvania academic Denise van der Kamp terms “blunt force” regulation, typical of many developing countries, including China. It takes an all-or-nothing approach to a problem caused by non-enforcement of rules due to local corruption but in a manner that impacts equally those who obeyed regulations and those who did not. 

As Boracay shuts for six months, spare a thought for the locals

In the case of Boracay, Philippine economist Solita Collas Monsod estimates that nearly two-thirds of hotels and other businesses complied with environmental regulations, but all establishments have been closed whether they played by the rules or not. Instead of working to improve the enforcement of existing regulations to deal with violators, Duterte chose a top-down solution, shutting down the entire island, leading to mass lay-offs and forgone revenues. 

Boracay closure highlights ugly side to tourism boom in Southeast Asia

But there is another side of Duterte’s decision that has been overlooked. He has professed ignorance about recent government approval of plans by a Chinese firm to build a casino on the island. This raises questions of double standards, as presidential spokesman Harry Roque reported that Duterte was even threatening to dynamite structures on the island that threaten the environment. While Duterte has spoken of land reform in Boracay, returning land to the original farming community, it seems the opposite will happen, with the new casino and other high-end properties turning Boracay into a playground for the elite. 

In his mid-April visit to Hong Kong, Duterte generated considerable sympathy among local Filipinos by meeting domestic helpers at a Hong Kong branch of the Philippine fast-food chain Jollibee. But he also hosted a dinner for the owners of leading migrant employment agencies at a time when there was controversy around the abrupt recall of Philippine labour attaché Jalilo Dela Torre, who had investigated recruiter abuses. Despite long-standing promises to help workers in the Philippines itself, Duterte recently decided against issuing an executive order to put an end to widespread short-term contractualisation that keeps many working Filipinos poor. 

‘People are cursing us’: Boracay feels the sting of Duterte’s shutdown

Even his motives in the “war on drugs” have been questioned, with his son Paolo accused of having connections to a major drug-smuggling ring and the dismissal of charges against two major drug kingpins by his secretary of justice, whom Duterte was forced to fire. 

Is Duterte really closing Boracay just to clean up a ‘cesspool’?

The Boracay closure comes as the Philippines enters a political crossroads – with worries mounting that the country’s liberal institutions are being further eroded. Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, whom Duterte has called “an enemy” is likely to be removed from office soon, vice-president and presidential critic Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo is facing an electoral challenge from Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of former dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, and a new constitution is in the making. 

It is far from clear how effective the improvised clean-up of Boracay will be and whether it can be sustained in the long term. Analyst Matt Gebbie points out that “proactive” environmental protection is a far more effective alternative to such a reactive solution. But even assuming the shutdown does bring real improvements to perhaps the country’s most famous white sand beach, the Philippines will have paid a high price in terms of local jobs and lost revenue with tourists from around the world angered by cancelled bookings through this further demonstration of Duterte’s personalistic and arbitrary rule. 

Mark R. Thompson is professor and head of the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong, where he is also director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre. The views expressed here are his own