Duterte’s military camp-hopping: way to soldiers’ hearts

MANILA, Philippines – It’s been a very busy third week for President Rodrigo Duterte. One activity in particular filled up most of his days since July 21 – hopping from one military camp to another.

As of writing, the Philippine President has dropped by 6 military camps:

Every visit involved a Command Conference or Situation Briefing with the camp’s highest officials as soon as he arrived. He would then head to a covered court to give a speech in front of the troops to be followed by a photo session with the soldiers. 

Here's his speech in Camp Nakar in Lucena City as an example:

During these camp visits, he was usually accompanied by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief Lt General Ricardo Visaya, and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr – all retired military men themselves.

Private media were only allowed to cover his speech to the troops. But these speeches made very clear his intentions during those visits: to assure the military of his devotion to them and his determination to support them both in fulfilling their duty and improving their personal lives.

Fatherly advice

His roughly 20 to 30-minute speeches were full-blown pep talks, Duterte-style. 

As expected, he dished out the usual President’s promises of devoting more funds to AFP modernization, buying more equipment, adding more soldiers.

But Duterte added a personal touch. In his characteristic way of addressing his audience, Duterte spoke conversationally – not so much as a commander-in-chief addressing his troops but as a friendly uncle with some advice to share and promises of gifts to his favorite nephews and nieces. 

For instance, in Camp Siongco in Maguindanao, he shared some family advice. 

Bantayan ninyo ha kung may mga anak kayo. Talagang spend time also with them. Alam ko sundalo ka, you are always out. But take all measures kasi pagka ang anak mo, may anak ka sa pamilya na tinamaan [ng droga], sira na ‘yung pamilya,” he said like a father imparting words of wisdom to a grown-up son with a young family. 

(Guard your children, okay? Really spend time with them also. I know you are a soldier, you are always out. But take all measures, because if your child is hit by drugs, your family is ruined.) 

He would get even more personal by telling soldiers to come to him should they have any pressing problems in their private life – serious sicknesses in the family, for example.

In Camp Nakar in Quezon, he said: “Kung may problema kayo, gaano kabigat. Alam ko ganoon ‘yan eh. Minsan may mag-sakit, cancer. You just go to your CO (Commanding Officer). Sabihin mo, pakitawag kay Secretary Delfin, then tawagan ako. Mag-usap tayo.

(If you have a problem, no matter how heavy. I know all about that. Sometimes someone gets sick, cancer. You just go to your Commanding Officer. Tell them you want to talk to Secretary Delfin, then he will call me. Let’s talk.)

TRIBUTE TO THE WOUNDED. President Rodrigo Duterte visits a wounded soldier at Camp Navarro General Hospital in Zamboanga City on July 22, 2016. Photo by Benjamin Basug/NIB

TRIBUTE TO THE WOUNDED. President Rodrigo Duterte visits a wounded soldier at Camp Navarro General Hospital in Zamboanga City on July 22, 2016.

Photo by Benjamin Basug/NIB

In Fort Magsaysay, Nueva Ecija, he broke down even more barriers by inviting the soldiers to Davao City and even offering to take them in there.

Kung madaan kayo ng Davao, maski sino, totoo – sabihin mo lang, “Yung sa Magsaysay kami.” Ako na ang bahala sa inyo,” he said to cheering troops. 

(If you happen to drop by Davao, anyone of you, this is true, just say, ‘We are from Fort Magsaysay.’ I will take care of you.)

In the same breath, Duterte switched from generous father to mischievous drinking buddy. 

Simple man lang ang buhay ng sundalo. Maghanap talaga ng inom ‘yan, pati maya-maya maghanap ng babae…na makausap. Eto naman,” he joked, to the delight of the soldiers.

(The life of a soldier is simple. He just looks for something to drink and later on, he will look for a woman…to talk to.)

Duterte would mix in his own amusing anecdotes about his life as president, sharing with the troops how lonely his life is as president, the challenges of maintaining two families, his travails with the women in his life.

'I'll take care of you'

But the light-hearted side comments would be accompanied by heart-felt declarations of his love for the military.

Kayo lang talaga ang nauna because I know your sacrifice. Kaya ko mahal ang pulis kasi alam ko namamatay ‘yan, pati sundalo, in the performance of duty,” he said in Camp Nakar. 

(I put you first because I know your sacrifice. That’s why I love the police and soldiers because I know you die in the performance of duty.) 

In a way that must have touched every soldier and policeman, Duterte identified with their extraordinary sacrifices.

“I salute you for your sacrifice and hard work. Being a soldier is not easy. It is fraught with danger every moment of your life even when inside the camps. And I know that you are a special breed apart from the rest of the male and female population of the country,” he said in Camp Siongco, Maguindanao.  

By the end of his speech, he would make them at least one concrete promise, whether it be the "incremental" increase of their salaries by August or the sale of the presidential yacht for funds to improve the AFP Medical Center. 

And like the vow he made to the Philippine National Police, he said he would protect them if things went awry in their fulfilment of their duty. 

“Don’t let it bother you, basta trabaho lang. Kung may magpakulong, ako. Sagot ko kayong lahat basta sa trabaho…I’ll take care of you and I will protect you,” he said in Maguindanao.

(Don’t let it bother you, just do your job. If someone wants you to go to jail, I’m responsible for you. I answer for everything as long as you did your job…I’ll take care of you and I will protect you.)

Duterte showed his care not just through words but through carefully planned actions.

In the Western Mindanao Command headquarters in Zamboanga City, he sat on the hospital beds of wounded soldiers. In the 60th Infantry Battalion headquarters in Davao del Norte, he visited the wake of the government militiaman who was killed in an alleged New People’s Army ambush.

The death of this man pushed Duterte to lift the unilateral ceasefire he declared with Communist rebels.

Call these side trips gimmicks for the press but there’s no doubt Duterte is trying to send a message. 

It’s the same message he sent as Davao City’s longest-serving mayor. Then as now, Duterte promised military and police benefits like food assistance and medical assistance. He fulfilled these promises too, according to Davao City police. (READ: Dissecting, weighing Duterte's anti-crime strategy)

Winning the loyalty of law enforcers is at the heart of Duterte’s governance style. He knows that much of his power as president lies in his direct authority over the military and police. 

COMMAND CONFERENCE. President Duterte presides over a command conference in a military camp in Basilan. Photo from Presidential Photographers Division

COMMAND CONFERENCE. President Duterte presides over a command conference in a military camp in Basilan.

Photo from Presidential Photographers Division

After all, he ran on a law and order platform. Uncompromising loyalty and obedience from the military and police is key to fulfilling his anti-crime campaign promises and rising to the challenge of other national security issues like terrorism and the maritime dispute with China. 

He wants to preserve this authority so much that he has said he will only support the Bangsamoro Basic Law if the portions allowing a new Bangsamoro region its own military and police are scrapped.

He maintains, “there must be a single chain of command.” 

Duterte wants so much to make good on his promise to soldiers and police that he was willing to compromise on some of his plans for federalism, another of his main advocacies. 

His new preference for Constitutional Assembly as a way to amend the Constitution is because a Constitutional Convention will be too expensive and will mean less funds for the planned salary increase of military and police.

There is strong reason to believe Duterte will be successful in gaining their trust. Those who have worked under him attest to his extraordinary powers of inspiring loyalty. 

After all, when the most powerful man in the country tells you he will "never abandon you," you are bound to believe him. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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