Column: Good Loren, Bad Loren

Published on January 18, 2011.

A SIMPLE but stirring sight—I thought the photographic record of Sen. Loren Legarda’s recent courtesy call on Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma (Myanmar) was definitely newsworthy, and could have elicited more supportive commentary. The fate of the Burmese democratic icon should be of the greatest concern to Filipino democrats, for reasons both personal (we see in her another Cory Aquino, a reluctant symbol of the democratic struggle) and collective (her fate reflects the fate of the long-suffering Burmese people).

But I suppose Legarda’s celebrity, and the nature of her fame, got in the way. I am not aware that any newspaper carried the photograph—bland and basic, to be sure, like every other picture in the family album—on the front page. Perhaps Legarda’s unceasing public relations machine (at least one press release every single day!) caused editors and other news gatekeepers to discount the value of the photograph.

Daw Suu Kyi, however, is the world’s most prominent political detainee. She may have been freed last November from house arrest, but she remains effectively a prisoner in her own country. She faces the dilemma only the evil genius of a totalitarian state can devise: She is free to leave, but if she does she almost certainly won’t be allowed back in. That was why she could not be at her dying husband’s bedside in 1999. The Burmese military junta tried the same tack with the controversial elections it sponsored last year; it extended the bizarre legal case against Daw Suu Kyi to disqualify her from running, and then released her after the predictable results rolled in, expecting the mere fact of her freedom to legitimize the exercise.

Now she is caught on the horns of yet another dilemma: How to reunite the political opposition, some of whose leaders took part in the sponsored vote, and at the same time press the case for democracy and peaceful change in Burma.

It is a tricky task, one which every democracy must support—which is why every single visit by a foreign dignitary, every single statement from a foreign ministry, is filled with import. Legarda’s visit, as chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, adds to the pressure on the Burmese junta. The additional weight may be slight, may have all the mass of a piece of straw, but then the work of diplomacy may be understood as the delicate art of breaking a camel’s back, and necessarily involves the accumulation of infinitesimal details.

The Burmese military junta and the civilian parties its former generals have created are, in a word, illegitimate; every single act of diplomacy that reminds them of this fact ought to be welcomed. I think Legarda, who is a regional representative of the United Nations and has an extensive international network of high-level contacts, is one of the few Filipino politicians who can “pull off” a visit to Daw Suu Kyi with the promise of a “follow through.” (Former Speaker Jose de Venecia would be another.) An admirer of Daw Suu Kyi’s, I am encouraged by Legarda’s decision to go to Rangoon.

* * *

Despite topping the Senate race twice, despite an obvious appetite for hard work, despite a solid legislative record, Legarda suffers from the perception that she is inordinately ambitious—an accusation, I have written before, that is not hurled at the likes of the popular but do-nothing Sen. Francis Escudero. (Please, tell me something concrete, something specific and lasting, that he did for the people of Sorsogon, whom he represented in Congress for nine years.) Part of the perception must have something to do with the fact that she is a woman; part with the circumstance of her ascent to popularity, as a “mere” news anchor. Of these two, I think she has proven herself superior to her fortune (to misuse a quote from Rizal). As she has demonstrated in both the Estrada impeachment trial and in the NBN-ZTE hearings in the Senate, she has a knack for asking the most revealing questions; the first got Clarissa Ocampo to reveal exactly what she knew about Estrada, the second forced Romy Neri to hide behind the Supreme Court. It is a skill, backed by hours and hours of study and preparation, that very few of the Senate’s lawyers can approximate.

* * *

But there is yet another part to her public image, and that is what may taint her reputation for good. She is perceived as too pragmatic by half.

The cartoonist Jules Feiffer once drew an indelible portrait of Robert Kennedy—John’s brother, the youngest attorney general of the United States, senator from New York, finally and tragically candidate for president. The cartoon showed the two sides of the famous political late bloomer, “Good Bobby” and “Bad Bobby,” and the lengthy caption began this way: “These are the Bobby Twins. One is a Good Bobby. One is a Bad Bobby. The Good Bobby is a courageous reformer. The Bad Bobby makes deals.”

Legarda is a member of the Senate Electoral Tribunal—a fitting choice, I thought then, when I voted for her last May, because of her own unfortunate experience with election fraud and her difficult decision to play by the rules and invest in the expensive electoral protest process. But on Koko Pimentel’s protest against Migz Zubiri, Legarda has unaccountably chosen to be silent. Not only silent, but again and again part of the controversial majority which deliberately misunderstood the rules of the SET. I cannot find an explanation, except to suggest that, back in the Senate, she can no longer see herself in the protestant, but in the powers that control the process of protest. Those of us who voted for her should challenge her: Explain yourself.

Otherwise, we can guess the caption to her legacy: “There are the Loren Twins. One is a Good Loren. One is a Bad Loren. The Good Loren is a courageous reformer. The Bad Loren, alas, makes deals.”

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