Duterte and his generals: A shock and awe response to the pandemic

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Duterte and his generals: A shock and awe response to the pandemic

The Philippine government's enhanced community quarantine and all its derivatives were patterned after the decades-long tactics of the military on border controls in its fight against armed groups.

“It was the former generals who suggested these. The military tightens borders to control the movement of the New People’s Army or the Abu Sayyaf. This time, however, the enemy is a disease,” Dr Tony Leachon, former member of the National Task Force (NTF) against COVID-19, told Rappler in an interview on July 28.

As the coronavirus outbreak flared in the country in mid-March, the Duterte administration placed Metro Manila, and then the entire Luzon, under lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus. Several weeks later, the types of quarantine implemented depended on the infection rate in different areas of the country.

To implement this and fight a virus that has killed over 2,000 Filipinos and infected over 93,000 as of Friday, July 31, Duterte deployed his generals to execute a method he’s most familiar with: shock and awe.

And now, the Philippines has one of the longest and most aggressive lockdowns in the world since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China early this year. 

'Sundalo ko'

The presence of former generals in the government’s pandemic response defies convention because one would expect health experts, scientists, and doctors to have prominence in a health crisis. But the reliance on soldiers even for civilian tasks has been the norm under Duterte.

The President is not apologetic about this, constantly referring to the armed institutions as "my military, my police."

In a public address on July 31, for instance, Duterte gave soldiers his newest orders: distribute coronavirus vaccines – once available. He said he trusted them more than politicians. "The backbone of my administration is the uniformed personnel of government," the President said.

Last July 21, in another public address, Duterte said he wanted the police to arrest, and even shame if they must, quarantine violators. The chief executive said mayors “have to do more” in punishing these violators. (READ: 'Hulihin talaga': Duterte wants stricter police enforcement during quarantine)

Back in April, Duterte ordered security forces to shoot dead unruly quarantine violators if they put the lives of police and soldiers in danger.

Following a dangerous spike in coronavirus cases in Cebu City in June, Duterte appointed Environment Secretary Roy Cimatu as deputy chief implementer for the Visayas. The former Armed Forces chief of staff dispatched soldiers and tanks to the streets of Cebu City to make sure residents heeded the lockdown.

“It was not an imposing approach on the civilian leaders, (but) actually just laying the right predicates and appealing to their sense of reason because all data showed clearly the problems," explained Major General Restituto Padilla Jr, spokesperson of the NTF. "Again, leadership is what is really needed, but a leadership that could get everyone on the same page. No politics, just work,” he added.

To the military, however, leadership is often exercised through shock and awe. Yet, ingrained in them is to bow to politicians and civilian superiors. These two practices have caused some problems in the pandemic response.

Overwhelming the enemy

A military tactic coined in the 1990s by American defense strategists, shock and awe became a buzzword when the US invaded Iraq in 2003. It means a swift imposition of force, overwhelming the enemy and giving them little time to retaliate.

It fits the President's style and temperament. He used this in his war against illegal drugs and his shakedown of the opposition and critics.

The people’s angry reaction to Duterte’s heavy-handed approach to the pandemic, though, showed that a shock and awe tactic alienates the public from government instead of getting them to cooperate and follow the day-to-day health protocols to avoid getting COVID-19.

Yet in a way, humanity today is indeed at war, trying to survive against an enemy invisible to the human eye.

In April, the New York Times wrote how even the Mossad, Israel’s highly secretive intelligence agency, helped in the Israeli government’s coronavirus response by acquiring medical gear and testing kits overseas, tapping into its vast – and deep – global network.

A Rappler source from the defense community said of the retired generals: “Tingin kasi nila nasa giyera sila (they think they are at war), but you cannot blame them.” They will always be soldiers who were trained to fight in battles even when they are in civilian clothes, occupying civilian positions.

Soldier's ideal role in a pandemic

When it was clear a global health crisis was unfolding, Leachon began reading up on pandemic responses because, he said, “I have never seen a pandemic in my lifetime.”

In his research, he came across playbooks that defined the military’s role in a pandemic.

Ginagamit mo ang military if uncontrollable ang social behavior ng tao.

Dr Tony Leachon, former NTF member

"(The military is used when the people’s social behavior has become uncontrollable.) For example, when those from the rural areas are invading the urban area,” Leachon said.

In the aftermath of Super Typhoon Yolanda in 2013, the military was brought in when the storm surge crippled Tacloban's local government and caused the city to collapse. The military restored order, assessed the damage, and distributed relief goods to the people. 

Duterte did not wait for an extreme scenario to unfold to bring in the troops. Even at the onset of the health crisis, the only non-military officials with prominent positions in any of the ad hoc groups the President created were Health Secretary Francisco Duque III and Cabinet Secretary Karlo Nograles.

Duque and Nograles are the co-chairs of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF). The vice chairman is Interior Secretary Eduardo Año, a veteran Army intelligence officer who became Armed Forces chief of staff.

The National Action Plan (NAP) is headed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, former commander of the Army Special Operations Command and defense attaché to the US, with Año also as vice chair. The NAP is considered the overall national strategy of the government to deal with the pandemic.

While the exact strategy remains vague to this day, what was clear in Duterte’s orders was that with the NAP, he expects the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police “to reinforce efforts” of the health department to contain the spread of the virus.

Then there is the NTF, the body that implements the guidelines and protocols of the IATF. The NTF is also headed by Lorenzana, with Año as his co-chair. Duterte appointed another general, Peace Adviser Carlito Galvez, as the chief implementer. Like Año, Galvez was a former AFP chief who had extensive work in the peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Duterte's most recent appointment to the crisis group is Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong, a retired police general, as contact tracing czar, after the latter successfully implemented it in the city and was able to control the spread of the virus in the summer capital.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr and Social Welfare Secretary Roland Bautista, both former AFP chiefs of staff, are IATF members, too.

Crisis action planning

A former defense official told Rappler that if there’s one thing that the former generals bring to the table, it is their experience in “deliberate crisis action planning.”

“You will expect that they have considered everything when making decisions. Sanay sila sa ganitong sitwasyon. (They are used to situations like these.) This is the value that the military generals bring,” the former defense official said.

Leachon said that the former generals listened to the doctors and the health experts at the IATF and NTF.

“And they are good soldiers. Gagawin nila trabaho nila at hindi sila mahirap kasama,” he said. (They will do their jobs and it’s easy to work with them.)

Earlier in July, however, Año caused a ruckus when he announced that police and local government representatives will go house-to-house and bring asymptomatic positive cases to state-run isolation facilities.

An outraged public said this was no different from the government’s tokhang operation, where police raid the homes of suspected drug users and pushers. Malacañang tried to assuage people’s fears, saying that the police will only accompany health workers who will go house-to-house and talk to the patients.

“You can just imagine how these former military men are also adjusting at the IATF that is led by Cabinet secretaries who are alter egos of the President,” said former senator and Navy junior officer Antonio Trillanes IV who now teaches public policy at the University of the Philippines.

For Trillanes, neither Duque nor Nograles have the "strong personality or gravitas to order people around...especially people who are bosses themselves."

For former Armed Forces chief of staff General Alexander Yano, implementers were needed to ensure people follow the health protocols, which was was why Cimatu was sent to Cebu City.

"I'm sure they have medical professionals to advise but the key issue is strict implementation. With the unusual surge in COVID cases in Cebu, national government needs to intervene," Yano said.

Despite being a senior citizen, considered part of the COVID-19 vulnerable sector, Cimatu immediately flew to Cebu.

One thing that cannot be taken away from the retired generals is their discipline and work ethic.

Former AFP chief of staff Alexander Yano

"They can be expected to work 24/7 without complaint. You can't usually expect that from ordinary civil servants. That's deeply ingrained even if they're already retired," he said.

"It’s not even the pay that entices them. They already receive their pensions. It’s really a sacrifice for duty,” Yano said.

Bowing to civilian authority

But here's the catch: even if they're already supposed to be the lead in implementing what needs to be done, the former generals find themselves deferring to civilian authority.

Leachon shared this observation, saying the generals would find it difficult to say no to civilian officials – even if a decision had already been made.

A ranking military official told Rappler that he gets to attend NTF meetings that stretch to 9 hours. “The meetings are organized even if they are very long. We get to listen to the best practices implemented to address the pandemic in different areas in the country,” the official said.

But, he sighed, not all decisions arrived at during the meetings are followed. The official said that he would later learn that after their meetings, some local government officials would convince Lorenzana and Año to change or adjust the decisions to suit what they want for their localities.

“When it’s the civilians that tell them to do something, there are no ifs and buts to them,” Leachon said.

Leachon noticed that the former generals, in particular, would yield to Health Secretary Duque and Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque. The two men, he said, have the ear of Duterte.

“Remember that when they decide on something in the military, that’s it. If they make a mistake, you will just hear them say, ‘Water under the bridge,’” Rappler’s source from the defense community said in a mix of English and Filipino.

Military hierarchy

Asked if the former generals still follow the military’s hierarchical nature, where the lowerclassmen cannot talk over their upper class, the source said: “It’s there but not so much really because they all listen to the input of the doctors and the economists in the teams.” Ultimately, he said, the IATF and the NTF decide as a collegial body.

The reality, however, is that while Lorenzana is technically the boss of everyone at the NAP and NTF, he isn’t the most senior among the former generals. The most senior is Cimatu, one of his deputies, who graduated in 1970 at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). Lorenzana graduated in 1973.

Even Esperon is just a year lower in batch than Lorezana, finishing in 1974 at the PMA. The rest, such as Magalong, Galvez, Bautista, and Padilla all graduated in the early or mid-1980s.

Leachon observed that Cimatu and Lorenzana were among the “quiet” ones at meetings, along with Bautista, the social welfare secretary. It's Esperon who had a lot of input at IATF meetings, Leachon said.

Siya pinakamadaldal sa lahat tuwing meeting (He’s the one who talks the most among the generals during meetings),” Leachon said. (READ: 'Borderline spyware': IT experts raise alarm over Duterte admin contact-tracing app)

Among the generals, Magalong is known to Leachon the longest, having advised the Baguio mayor in the city’s contact tracing efforts. Leachon also became friends with some of the former generals.

Leachon, a cardiologist, said he was struck most by the former intelligence officers – Magalong and Año.

Leachon described the two men as “soft-spoken and intelligent.” Año, he said, is an “intellectual but firm.” As the interior secretary who has oversight over local chief executives and the PNP, Año understandably is the decision-maker among the former generals, Leachon said.

Then there are others, too...

Rappler’s source from the defense community had also attended some IATF and NTF meetings. He witnessed the “many personalities” from other sectors who were adamant in insisting on what they want to happen.

“There were times when the same topic was discussed every day. Halimbawa, sinabi na nung una na alanganin 'yung gusto ng isa. Kinabukasan, pagpipilitan, so stalemate na naman,” the source said. (For example, one person is told that what he wants would be difficult to implement. The next day, this person will insist on what he wants again, so there would be another stalemate.)

One contentious issue the source remembered was the debate over the use of the rapid antibody tests, with the doctors and health experts explaining that the results they yield were not so reliable.

Eventually, the task force decided on releasing rapid test kits, but the source noted, the public now understands that the real-time reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) tests are more reliable. (READ: FAST FACTS: What's the difference between PCR, rapid antibody tests?)

Where's the task force spokesman?

Leachon said another peculiar thing with the NTF is, “it is given full responsibility but without the full authority to communicate its decisions.”

Leachon said Roque is the one who relays the NTF updates to the public. Padilla, a veteran military spokesperson, is hardly heard from as NTF spokesperson.

Roque is the head of the task force on strategic communications under the NTF, but as Leachon remembered, he was "not a regular attendee" of their NTF meetings. The presidential spokesperson would be represented by the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

"But sometimes, he (Roque) attended the last few IATF meetings," Leachon recalled.

The retired defense official Rappler interviewed also questioned the wisdom of having too many czars battling the pandemic, referring to testing czar Vicente Dizon (current chair of the Bases Conversion Development Authority); contact tracing czar Magalong; isolation czar Mark Villar (current public works secretary); and treatment czar Leopoldo "Bong" Vega (current health undersecretary).

All the 4 czars are under a retired general, Galvez. Yet all of them carry the weight and power of a big department or agency, or an election mandate in the case of Magalong – something that Galvez lacks.

For Rappler’s source who had attended IATF and NTF meetings, “too many cooks spoil the broth." He expressed the wish that "there was a smaller group handling the pandemic response.”

“Having a big group also dilutes each one’s accountability. You can easily pinpoint accountability in a small group,” he said.

Asked where Duterte figures in the government’s pandemic response, Leachon said what he knew was the President is briefed 3 days before he meets with the IATF and NTF.

Those who have seen the pandemic task force at work say the 75-year-old President is handicapped by 3 challenges: his age and health, his lack of experience in dealing with a national crisis, and his reliance on a shock-and-awe style of managing a problem that, to him, could only be implemented by his police and military.

For Trillanes, one of Duterte’s fiercest critics, there are no excuses. Accountability in the government’s pandemic response goes back to the commander-in-chief himself.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with Duterte as the head of the pandemic response team. However, he is the type of president who does not exercise leadership. So, the result is the disastrous situation we are in,” Trillanes said. – Rappler.com

Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.

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