Days after his return from a historic trip to the Middle East, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte also arguably made history at home in a national address that vented his exasperation with the armed forces.

In an hour-long têtê-a-têtê televised interview this month with his chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo, Duterte lamented how he had “reached the limit” of “my persona” – a rare public admission of the tough-talking leader’s diminishing ability to steer policy.

At the heart of the president’s protestations was his patent inability to command soldiers to execute a warrantless arrest order and launch court martial proceedings against his chief opposition critic, Senator Antonio Trillanes.

Trillanes, an ex-naval officer with ties to top military officers, has flexed those connections in the ongoing stand-off, where he has resisted arrest through his parliamentary immunity while pillorying the president in press interviews for his alleged abuse of power.

Duterte lashed out at the military in his televised address for disrespecting his democratic mandate and being ungrateful for the significant boost he has administered to armed forces’ salaries and benefits.

“I’m not trying to win you over. It’s because I was elected president. Now you have the mandate to protect the people and preserve the nation. You want to destroy that? That’s okay,” he complained in the address referring to the armed forces.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the resident Filipino community at a convention hall in Singapore, April 28, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Feline Lim
President Rodrigo Duterte addresses the resident Filipino community at a convention hall in Singapore, April 28, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Feline Lim

Since winning elected power in mid-2016, Duterte has sought to tightly control the police and armed forces, lavishing them with praise, attention and resources.

While he has largely succeeded with the Philippine National police (PNP), the force at the forefront of his lethally controversial drug war, the military has remained largely aloof and professional, passively aggressively emphasizing the need to uphold the rule of law and constitutional procedures.

The military’s support would be crucial if Duterte ever opts to implement martial law nationwide, a lurch in the name of national security that would pave the way for more overt authoritarianism. Martial law is currently imposed over the volatile southern island of Mindanao to curb rising Islamic militancy.

The president’s rant betrayed his apparent fears of a potential coup against his widely perceived as abusive and overreaching regime.

Though more professionalized than some of its regional peers, particularly in Myanmar and Thailand, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has historically played a key and often decisive role in politics.

Philippine Marine Special Operation Group (MARSOG) stands on attention during their send-off ceremony ending their combat duty against pro-Islamic State militant groups inside a military headquarters in Marawi city, southern Philippines October 21, 2017, a few days after President Rodrigo Duterte announced the liberation of Marawi city. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco
Philippine Marine Special Operation Group in Marawi, Mindanao, October 21, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

In 1986, for instance, the AFP decided to withdraw its institutional support from the by then unpopular Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, as nationwide protests known as the EDSA People Power revolution brought the capital to a chaotic standstill.

The military’s political role, however, would extend well beyond the Marcos regime’s downfall. Corazon Aquino (1986-1992) barely survived as many as nine coup attempts which nearly extinguished the country’s then-budding democracy.

If not for America’s military support, then exercised via large bases and facilities at Clark and Subic, Aquino’s newly created democratic government would have likely succumbed to revolts spurred by disgruntled military officers.

It was not until President Fidel Ramos (1992-1998), a former AFP chief and defense minister, that the military started to truly professionalize and gradually internalize the principle of “civilian supremacy” under democratic rule.

Less than a decade after Ramos’ election, however, the military once again played a crucial political role by withdrawing support from populist president Joseph Estrada, whose rampant corruption provoked the second EDSA People Power revolution in 2001.

An activist shouts slogans during a protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte near the Malacanang palace in Manila on September 21, 2017. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis
An activist shouts during a protest against President Rodrigo Duterte near the Malacanang Palace in Manila, September 21, 2017. Photo: AFP / Noel Celis

It would thus not be surprising if Duterte fears a similar type of military-backed action in response to his extra-legal crackdown on political opponents, a scorched-earth drug war that has taken thousands of lives and earned international opprobrium, and a broad assault on checking-and-balancing democratic institutions.

Since taking office, Duterte has ordered the imprisonment of Senator and ex-justice minister Leila De Lima on trumped-up drug trafficking charges and engineered the expulsion of Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Sereno through a controversial and perhaps illegal quo warranto complaint.

Both had been outspoken critics of his drug war and authoritarian tendencies. Duterte’s war on drugs has allegedly killed as many as 23,000 suspected drug users, provoking a potential referral to the International Criminal Court at The Hague on accusations of crimes against humanity.

Duterte has also made common cause with communist rebels and China, both viewed by AFP top brass as potent national security threats.

In response, the military has lobbied hard to maintain robust defense relations with America, opposed peace negotiations with communist rebels, and stiffened its stance on the nation’s South China Sea disputes with China, at times seemingly independent of Duterte’s own pro-China engagement policy.

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures during a Reuters interview at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo in Quezon city, metro Manila, Philippines February 9, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco - RTX30A9V
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana gestures during an interview at the military headquarters of Camp Aquinaldo, Manila, Philippines on February 9, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Romeo Ranoco

The televised one-on-one exchange with Panelo was supposed to cover a wide array of national issues, ranging from surging inflation to rice shortages to international relations.

But Duterte’s presentation zeroed in on the unwillingness of what he called “my soldiers” to imprison Trillanes and place him under a court-martial. A former navy officer, Trillanes launched two failed coups, in 2003 and 2007, against then president and now House of Representatives Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a top Duterte ally.

Though Trillanes spent more than seven years in jail on the mutiny charges, he garnered significant public sympathy for his stand against Arroyo’s alleged corruption, enough to win election to the Senate from prison. He later earned a political amnesty under the previous Beningo Aquino administration.

“Duterte overreached and miscalculated,” Trillanes, who is still holed up inside the Senate to avoid arrest, said in a media briefing earlier this month. “He wanted to push the boundaries of his executive power, but the brazenness of the manner in which he did it forced the institutions to push back.”

Duterte has cause to want to silence Trillanes. The outspoken senator has launched investigations into Duterte’s personal finances, spearheaded a Senate probe into his family’s alleged drug trade links, and lodged a drug war-related complaint against him at the ICC.

Senator Antonio 'Sonny' Trillanes in a May 5, 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Senator Antonio ‘Sonny’ Trillanes in a May 5, 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Duterte has sought to place the outspoken senator back in prison through the nullification of his amnesty.

In an August 31 proclamation, Duterte tried to nullify the validity of Trillanes’ executive amnesty and ordered his military to carry out his arrest. Instead, the AFP leaked documents to the media that showed the validity of Trillanes’ amnesty, while dragging its feet in implementing the warrantless arrest order.

Many of Trillanes’ classmates at the prestigious Philippine Military Academy (PMA) are now battalion commanders and firmly perched at the upper echelons of military power.

Political observers believe those same officers were likely instrumental in rejecting Duterte’s order to nab Trillanes, opting instead to emphasize the AFP’s constitutional duty as “protector of the people and the state.”

“I have stated my clear stand on the matter. If the AFP thinks I am not competent, that I am not qualified to be sitting. It’s up to you,” Duterte exclaimed, accusing the military of siding with Trillanes and taunting them to “go to [Trillanes] and stage a mutiny or revolution or whatever.”

“You are free to do that. As a matter of fact, I am encouraging you to do that, so it ends here,” he dared.