Royal Thais in bind; African nations quit Hague crime court By Hamish McDonald.

Duterte words offend West’s commentariat

A mourner clutches a picture of Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.
A mourner clutches a picture of Thailand’s king, Bhumibol Adulyadej.

While we’ve been watching the Donald v Hillary show, our region has been plunged into turmoil by the death of an 88-year-old king and the thought bubbles of a 71-year-old president.

First the president. On his foreign trips since he took office in Manila at the end of June, Rodrigo Duterte has taken shots at the alliance between the Philippines and the United States.

In Vietnam in September, he said he was keen to strengthen ties with powers such as Russia. “So I am serving notice now to the Americans and those who are allies,” he said. “This will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines–US, the last one.”

In Beijing on October 19, he announced a tilt to China, after being greeted by Communist Party supreme Xi Jinping as a “brother” and offered $US24 billion in projects. “I will not go to America anymore,” he said. “We will just be insulted there. So time to say goodbye my friend.” As for Manila’s recent win in its Permanent Court of Arbitration case against China’s claims in the South China Sea, that would “take a back seat” during his talks (and it was only obliquely mentioned).

The next day, he told a gathering of Chinese and Philippine business chiefs in the Great Hall of the People: “In this venue, I announce my separation from the United States, both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost … I’ve realigned myself in your [China’s] ideological flow, and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

The Western strategic commentariat has been aghast. Taken at face value, it was the time-honoured Philippine cry of “Yankee go home” – without the usual rider of “and take me with you”. The first island chain trapping the Chinese navy in its home waters would be irreparably breached, the web of regional counterbalancing against rising China ripped at the centre.

Let’s see. Duterte’s baffled cabinet has been quick to hose down their chief, with “What the president meant” statements. “We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbours,” finance secretary Carlos Dominguez and economic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia said. “We share the culture and a better understanding with our region. The Philippines is integrating with ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea.”

On arrival home, Duterte was backing off. “It is not severance of ties,” he said. A spokesman said Duterte wished to “separate the nation from dependence on the US and the West, and rebalance economic and military relations with Asian neighbours”. This week Duterte told an audience in Japan he wanted all foreign troops out within two years. The US has troops at five Philippine army bases, most helping against Islamist groups in Mindanao. It’s not clear if Duterte will block calls by US warships and aircraft.

Duterte is meanwhile under further attack over extrajudicial executions of suspected drug dealers he has explicitly authorised, with the body count approaching 4000. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Court are collecting evidence of Duterte and his officials “ordering, requesting, encouraging or contributing” to crimes against humanity.

That doesn’t seem to worry Xi Jinping, who offered help in setting up Chinese-style boot camps for drug addicts, but the Chinese are wondering if their mercurial new friend can be relied on for anything.

Under the previous president, Benigno Aquino, the Philippines experienced economic growth faster than China, thanks to its English proficiency tapping into the global service economy, and had successfully taken the legal high road in its maritime dispute. All that is being submerged in trash-talk and violence.

1 . Royal Thais in bind

That King Bhumibol Adulyadej was dying has been the whispered background to the turmoil of Thai politics for several years. The military coup, the new constitution, the draconian application of lese-majeste law, everything was about managing the succession when it arrived.

Yet it appears some key arrangements still have to be settled. Soon after the sombre announcement came on October 13 that the king had “reached the heavens”, the prime minister and former coup leader Prayuth Chan-ocha declared that Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn would replace his father on the throne.

By the next day, however, there was a delay in the process. “His Royal Highness’s only wish is to not let the people experience confusion or worry about the service of the land or even the ascension to the throne,” Prayuth announced. “He said that at this moment, everyone and every side, including His Royal Highness himself, are still stricken by grief and sorrow, so every side should help get through … this enormous grief first. When the religious ceremony and funeral have passed, then it will be an appropriate time to proceed.”

But the ceremonial cremation is likely to be a year away. Instead of inviting Vajiralongkorn to ascend the throne, as the constitution sets out, the military-controlled parliament appointed a “regent pro tempore” in the form of the Privy Council chairman, former prime minister and army general Prem Tinsulanonda.

While the Privy Council head is the appropriate figure to become regent, the likely length of the regency and Prem’s background has given rise to much speculation. Prem, 96, has been Bangkok’s arch-royalist for decades, and is reputed to have strong doubts about Vajiralongkorn, both for his playboy lifestyle and his one-time links to the exiled billionaire-politician Thaksin Shinawatra. The army-royalist network has got everyone under control, except their new king.

The speculation is that Prem will use his regency to impose new limits on royal prerogatives, particularly in military promotions and control of the Crown Property Bureau assets, valued upwards of $50 billion. Some wonder if Prem still nurtures his old hope of pushing the crown prince aside and enthroning his popular and more conventional sister Princess Sirindhorn. She has been given new prominence by being appointed to arrange the royal cremation.

Vajiralongkorn has not yet spoken directly to the Thai public. He must be glad he has his own battalion of bodyguards. Meanwhile Prem himself, by virtue of becoming regent, is now covered against criticism by the lese-majeste law.

2 . African nations quit Hague crime court

African leaders feel victimised by the International Criminal Court, though many feel the attention is deserved. Indeed, of the 10 investigations of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity since the court opened in 2004, nine have involved African leaders or governments.

So the leaders are taking their countries out of the court’s jurisdiction. Burundi started the trend this month, with its president Pierre Nkurunziza signing off on the necessary legislation, which was enacted the day after Burundi blocked three United Nations human rights investigators from entering the country to investigate abuses during Nkurunziza’s latest election win.

South Africa is next. It has sent a letter to the UN secretary-general notifying its withdrawal. “The Republic of South Africa has found that its obligations with respect to the peaceful resolution of conflicts at times are incompatible with the interpretation given by the International Criminal Court,” it said, according to a Reuters report.

Its president, Jacob Zuma, had been irked by criticism over his refusal to arrest Sudanese leader Omar al-Bashir, charged by the ICC in 2008 over ethnic cleansing in the Darfur region, when he visited Johannesburg for an African Union summit last year. Under the treaty setting up the ICC, all of its 124 signatories are obliged to arrest wanted suspects in their territory. South Africa’s own court of appeals called the impunity given Bashir disgraceful conduct. This week Gambia became the third African country to announce an exit from the ICC.

No petulance from Kenya, however: its president, Uhuru Kenyatta, was actually indicted by the ICC, and appeared in court at The Hague to defend charges of organising tribal violence following elections in 2007. The charges were eventually dropped, partly because the prosecutors met government obstruction when trying to gather evidence. Hakuna matata, and Kenya remains with the court. This week Kenyatta commuted the death sentences of all 2655 men and 92 women theoretically waiting execution in his country (the last execution was in 1987).


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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2016 as "Duterte words offend West’s commentariat".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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