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Duterte woos army as opponents warn of discontent in ranks

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Five months after his landslide election victory, Rodrigo Duterte can't stop campaigning. Yet rather than courting Filipino voters who put him into office, he's now giving out handguns and G-Shock watches to soldiers.

[BANGKOK] Five months after his landslide election victory, Rodrigo Duterte can't stop campaigning. Yet rather than courting Filipino voters who put him into office, he's now giving out handguns and G-Shock watches to soldiers.

Mr Duterte has given almost half his public addresses as president to a military audience - far more than his predecessors. The 71-year-old leader's refreshed stump speech includes promises to double troop salaries, improve health care for soldiers and secure modern equipment.

"Clearly he is trying to curry favour," said Joseph Franco, a research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore who previously worked for the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. "Mr Duterte is aware that toying with the AFP would be a very bad idea."

Mr Duterte's outreach to the military is drawing attention in a country where coup rumors come as regularly as monsoon rains, with political opponents warning of the risk of discontent in an army with deep-rooted links to main security ally the US.

Ties between the nation's civilian and military leaders, long a source of conflict, are key to prolonging a period of political stability that has made the Philippines one of Asia's fastest-growing economies.

One senator warning of a military backlash against the president is Antonio Trillanes, a staunch critic of Mr Duterte who was jailed for more than seven years for his involvement as a naval officer in several attempted coups against former President Gloria Arroyo.

"The officer corps are quite wary of the statements of President Duterte - they are not happy with the direction he is taking," Mr Trillanes said.

Still, there are no signs of the kind of instability that led to a popular uprising that toppled former President Joseph Estrada in 2001. Last week, S&P Global Ratings affirmed a stable outlook on the country's BBB rating, the second-lowest investment grade, even as it noted the "predictability of policy-making" has diminished under Mr Duterte.

Mr Duterte isn't worried about any attempts to remove him from office, in part due to his high popularity rating, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said in an interview. A poll in July - the latest one available - showed he enjoyed the trust of 91 per cent of Filipinos.

Mr Esperon confirmed that the administration has received reports of plots to oust Mr Duterte, but the groups mentioned don't have the capability to topple the government, he said.

"If indeed we prove that there is a destabilisation attempt, in due time, we will come up with a statement," Mr Esperon said. "In my view, I don't think there's any plot from the military." The armed forces appreciates Mr Duterte's outreach and hasn't seen any signs of unease among senior officers, spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said by phone.

"We feel honoured that he prioritised visiting our men and installations," BG Padilla said of Mr Duterte.

Mr Duterte's push for closer ties with the military comes as he leans on the police to crack down on drugs, a war that has led to thousands of deaths. The president routinely bolsters his tough-guy image with references to his tenure as mayor in the southern city of Davao, where he admitted to killing people.

Mr Duterte's frequent outbursts against critics of his lethal anti-drugs campaign - particularly the US - have spooked investors. The Philippine peso sank to a seven-year low on Monday and stocks extended declines on Tuesday as global funds sold the nation's stocks for a 24th straight day.

While Mr Duterte has a tendency to contradict himself at times, his anti-US rhetoric has increased after an expletive-laden tirade against President Barack Obama earlier this month prompted their first-ever meeting to be cancelled.

The Philippine leader has since called for an end to joint patrols in the South China Sea, and pushed for increased economic and military cooperation with China and Russia. Just this week, he said relations with Washington were reaching "a point of no return" and he accused the US of manipulating the peso.

Mr Duterte's comments don't always mesh with the plans of the Philippine defense establishment, said Ashley Townshend, research fellow at the United States studies centre at the University of Sydney.

"It's telling that in the hours and days after some of these comments have been made you have had the foreign minister and other senior advisers sort of scurrying to make sure that their US partners are aware that they are not throwing out the US alliance," he said.

At home, Mr Duterte has also reached out to communist rebels waging war against the government for almost five decades. He gave Cabinet posts to two political activists nominated by the National Democratic Front, the political wing of the insurgent movement, and freed more than a dozen other members ahead of peace talks that started in Oslo last month.

"That issue is very sentimental and emotional to the armed forces because not only resources were spent but also lives of soldiers and assets were lost," said Congressman Gary Alejano, who also joined a failed coup against Ms Arroyo in 2003.

"It is dangerous because you are now allowing the enemies of the state inside your house."

Mr Duterte built an important bridge to the military establishment with the July appointment of former president and army chief Fidel Ramos as special envoy over the South China Sea dispute. Mr Ramos, 88, played a crucial role in halting coup attempts against Arroyo and former President Corazon Aquino.

Yet despite Mr Ramos's pedigree, his influence as a retired general is "persuasive at best because he had become a politician and he is not in active command," said Segundo Romero, professorial lecturer at the Ateneo de Manila University who used to help formulate defense policies for the government.

"Military disaffection with Mr Duterte will show if he orders soldiers to participate in the drugs war, sharing the blame for extra-judicial killings with the police," Mr Romero said. "The military will also balk at a sudden shift towards China without due consultation and institutional acceptance."

Mr Alejano, the congressman and former coup plotter, said "only time will tell" whether Duterte can keep the military happy or the threat of a coup will increase.

"If you have to compare the past uprisings and the reasons behind such uprisings, there are bigger issues now compared to before."