NEW YORK (AP) — Incoming President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. wants to “re-introduce” the Philippines to the world and has ambitious plans for his nation on the international stage and at home — if the twin specters of the pandemic and climate change are to be overcome or not at least can be managed.
And if he can overcome the legacy of two people: his predecessor and his father.
He also wants to strengthen ties with both the United States and China — a delicate balancing act for the Southeast Asian nation — and like many of his fellow leaders at the United Nations, this week he called on the countries responsible for global warming for help less affluent nations counteract its effects.
Marcos, who was swept into office this spring, is already making a subtle and obvious distinction between himself and his eloquent predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who alienated many international partners with his violent crackdown on drug trafficking and the crude rhetoric he used to rouse supporters would have.
When asked if Duterte had gone too far with his deadly crackdown on drugs, Marcos directed the criticism at those carrying out the plan.
“His people sometimes went too far,” Marcos told The Associated Press on Friday. “We saw many cases where police officers, other agents, some were just shady characters who we didn’t know exactly where they came from and who they worked for. But now we’re after them.”
Marcos, 65, sat on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly’s annual meeting of heads of state and government for a wide-ranging interview in New York. Three months into his tenure, he appeared energetic and enthusiastic – and eager to project his vision for the nation beyond its borders.
On Thursday, he met with US President Joe Biden to strengthen the sometimes complicated relationship that has oscillated between the two nations since the Philippines spent four decades as an American colony in the early 20th century.
“There were little things where maybe they weren’t ideal,” Marcos said. “But in the end, that general path was to strengthen and strengthen and strengthen our relationship.”
Alongside Duterte, Marcos also has to distinguish between himself and the most iconic figure in the Filipino public: his late father, whose name he shares. Hero to some and marauding dictator to others, Ferdinand Marcos Sr. ruled from the 1960s to the 1980s, including a tumultuous period of martial law and repression. He made the family’s reputation an indelible part of Philippine history.
Addressing the family legacy directly is something the son is at least explicitly reluctant to do, although he vehemently objects to the use of the term “dictator” to describe his father’s rule. For him, his parents’ political baggage is a remnant of the past.
“I didn’t indulge in this political back and forth regarding the Marcos family,” he said. “All I was talking about was, ‘What are we going to do to get to a better place?’ And people reacted.”
An engagement, he said, would simply have been a makeover – and an unnecessary one. “It does not help. It doesn’t change anything,” he said. “So what’s the point?”
The elder Marcos placed the Philippines under martial law in 1972, a year before his term expired. He sealed off congressional and newspaper offices, ordered the arrests of political opponents and activists, and ruled by decree. Thousands of Filipinos disappeared under his rule; Some were never considered.
Marcos also pursued a differentiated political line with his predecessor. Distancing himself from Duterte’s overt rule can serve him well at home and internationally, but Duterte’s popularity helped catapult him into office, and the former president’s daughter, Sara, is Marcos’ vice president.
The extrajudicial killings linked to Duterte’s years of crackdown provoked calls for an outside investigation into his government, and he vowed not to rejoin the International Criminal Court – a principle Marcos agrees with. Because, Marcos asked, why should a country with a functioning legal system be judged from somewhere else?
“We have a judiciary. It’s not perfect,” he said. “I don’t understand why we need an outside judge to tell us how to investigate, who to investigate and how to proceed.”
Marcos, like many other leaders, has portrayed the coronavirus pandemic – as a balancing act between keeping people safe and ensuring life can move on.
“We took a very extreme position in the Philippines and we ended up having the longest lockdown of any country in the world,” he said. “That was the decision of the previous government. And now we’re coming out now.”
In recent days he has both lifted a national mandate to wear masks outdoors and extended a “state of emergency” – something he said he didn’t necessarily want to do, but keeping the statement allows more people to continue to get help.
“It’s not very encouraging when people look at your country and see, ‘Well, it’s in disaster.’ This is not good for tourists. This is not good for the visitors. It’s not good for business,” Marcos said.
Fostering ties with China, particularly in the face of Beijing’s aggressive maritime policies, could be a daunting prospect for a nation so closely and historically linked to the United States. But, says Marcos, it is possible – and necessary.
“It’s a very fine line that we have to walk in the Philippines,” the President said. “We don’t subscribe to the old Cold War ‘spheres of influence’. … So it’s really guided by national interests, number one. And second, keeping the peace.”
Peace comes in many flavors. Last week Marcos traveled to the southern part of the nation – a predominantly Muslim area of a predominantly Catholic country – to express his support for a multi-year attempt to help a former rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, give up their arms and govern their autonomous region effective.
While Moro has entered government, smaller militant groups, including the violent Abu Sayyaf, continue to fight against the government and carry out sporadic attacks, particularly in impoverished rural regions with weak law enforcement. Marcos dismissed Abu Sayyaf as a group that had no cause other than “banditry.”
“I don’t think they are a movement anymore. They fight for nothing,” Marcos said. “They’re just criminals.”
Marcos has not specified exactly why the Philippines had to be reintroduced, although the country’s image took a hit from 2016 to 2022 under the Duterte administration.
“The real purpose I brought to this visit here in New York was to try to re-introduce the Philippines to our American friends, both in the private and public sectors,” he said.
And now that the pandemic is truly over, he said, the nation must find and follow a fruitful path.
“We have to position ourselves. We have to be smart about forecasting and be a bit forward-thinking,” he said.
“We don’t want to go back to what we were doing before the pandemic,” Marcos said. “We want to be able to participate and be an important part of the new world economy, the new world political situation.”
Ted Anthony, Director of New Storytelling and Newsroom Innovation at AP, was news director for Asia Pacific from 2014 to 2018, based in Bangkok. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/anthonyted and visit https://apnews.com/hub/united-nations-general-assembly for more AP coverage of the UNGA