Site for new temporary housing for evacuees, Bito Buadi Itowa, Marawi City. October 22, 2017; 4:17 pm.
I wrote this originally as a Facebook Note.
A personal hero of mine died yesterday. The great poet Richard Wilbur was 96.
He wrote beautifully, embracing form and tradition to plumb the truth of “the things of this world.” (The title of one of his books of poetry, taken from one of his most famous poems.) He described our world with all the innocence of a faithful eye:
“Gold crosses, cornices, astonishment
Of panes, the turbine-vent which natural law
Spins on the grill-end of the diner’s roof …”
Even something as ordinary as peeled onion became transformed, or rather was seen in a higher light:
“How the shucked tunic of an onion, brushed
To one side on a backlit chopping-board
And rocked by trifling currents, prints and prints
Its bright, ribbed shadow like a flapping sail.”
In my Newsstand column last Tuesday, I wrote:
The actor Pen Medina delivered a scorching speech at the Sept. 21 rally in Luneta; he was right to hold to account the so-called “dilawan” for their role in creating an elitist system, but he was wrong to gloss over the militant Left’s participation in the current elite.
As it turns out, I was wrong to think that the iconic actor had deliberately left out the militant Left from his bracing analysis. He wrote the following comment as a gentle rejoinder to my column:
I stand, gratefully, corrected. And I hope to catch Mr. Medina in one or two of those other venues for discussion.
I saw “Respeto” a second time last night, and it was even better than I remembered. Just on the level of craft alone, the movie is must-viewing: The actors do not seem to be performing at all, but only living out their portion of life. (Dido De La Paz is unforgettable as Doc; the rap stars Abra and Loonie are a revelation—but it seems unfair to point to individual actors when the ensemble acting is so fluid and generous and on point.) The story is gritty AF but punctuated repeatedly by genuinely funny moments. (In this sense, it is very much like the Noli.) The cinematography finds the hidden poetry of Manila’s ugly quarter (the tracking shots, the chase scenes in what is our own flyover country, above all the calming, clarifying episodes in the cemetery). The writing is first-rate (and the English subtitles match it). Not least: the music! I am not a hiphop or rap fan, but I came away from the first viewing with a new respect for this nasty, brutal but legitimate art. (That the rap battles were improvised on set, as director Treb Monteras said in one interview, is another reason to respect this angry, difficult form.)
The theme is bleak, and the reality the movie gives vivid life to is as complicated as our own tortuous history. But that this independent movie even got made, and that it is so good, equal parts heart and craft, is both proof and source of hope.
Without meaning to, I started an occasional series of columns on unfortunate appointments to key government positions. It was prompted by Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay’s kowtowing (a word with Chinese roots!) to an aggressive China; I patterned the use of the word “unfortunate” after Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley.” (Irony, though, sometimes refuses to travel.)
“The unfortunate Mr. Yasay” was published on July 12, 2016, the same day the arbitral tribunal awarded the Philippines a near-complete victory in its case against China. “No one wants to go to war,” I wrote. “[T]hat’s what diplomacy and international law are for, to assert our rights and our claims without recourse to violence. It is unfortunate that, even before he starts, Yasay has surrender on his mind.”
On August 23, 2016, I followed up (that is, it became a series in my mind) with a column on “The unfortunate Salvador Panelo,” then, as now, the chief presidential legal counsel. Many things are unfortunate about Sal Panelo, but I focused on the quality of his lawyering. “He argues like an ambulance chaser …. The great principles that animate the higher practice of the law, not merely to resolve disputes but to discover truth and dispense justice, are inconveniences that must be rationalized away.” Also: “Panelo has … argued, in more than one instance, that basic principles of law do not mean what generations of lawyers have been taught they meant.”
Both Panelo and Yasay (since rejected by the Commission on Appointments because of his American citizenship) were appointed by President Rodrigo Duterte. The third column was on an appointee of President Gloria Arroyo’s—Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Diosdado Peralta. His decision rationalizing the burial of the remains of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani provoked great outrage. On November 15, 2016, in “The unfortunate Justice Peralta,” I wrote: “There is none so blind as he who refuses to see. Associate Justice Diosdado Peralta’s ponencia in the Marcos burial cases will go down in history as the cowardly rationalizations of a willfully blind man; he deserves the opprobrium coming his way. He still has six years to serve in the Supreme Court, but his legacy will be forever defined by this badly written, ill-thought-through, deliberately obtuse majority decision.”
The fourth column in the series went back to a Duterte appointee: the solicitor general who told the public, and by extension the Court of Appeals, that he was effectively a member of the Supreme Court. In “The unfortunate Calida, ’16th Justice’,” published on February 21, 2017, I wrote: “it is both unethical and illogical for a solicitor general to assert that he is ‘considered’ as another Supreme Court justice, because in fact he isn’t and because the separation of powers requires that he shouldn’t be.” I concluded: “Calida’s invocation of his supposed stature as the 16th Justice was plainly meant to put pressure on the Court of Appeals.”
The subject of the next column in the series is probably Duterte’s most famous, and possibly most consequential, appointment: In “The unfortunate Bato dela Rosa,” published on May 2, 2017, I gave three reasons (reasons shared, of all people, by Speaker Bebot Alvarez) why “No chief of the Philippine National Police has brought as much disgrace and discredit to the institution he heads as Ronald ‘Bato’ dela Rosa, a likeable enough police officer promoted beyond his capacity and competence.”
Who should I write on next?
Written on the day of the controversial second State of the Nation Address, and published on July 25, 2017.
Since I first met him in August 2015, I have tried to describe Rodrigo Duterte, the man and politician, as fairly, as completely, as I could. In this column and before various audiences—rule of law advocates in The Hague, student leaders on Katipunan Avenue in Quezon City, Asian news executives in Bangkok, campus writers in Legazpi, journalists in Perugia, even residents of my hometown of Cagayan de Oro—I have sought to give President Duterte his due.
I have always pointed out that, in private, Mr. Duterte is unfailingly courteous, and thoughtful and responsive in conversation. He makes bold statements (arguing, for instance, that the presidency is not powerful enough) but leavens them with an earnest mien, a healthy sense of humor, even a talent for mimicry. I’ve met him only thrice — a group interview at the Inquirer that lasted for about four hours, a chance encounter at the Naia 2 airport, a presidential debate — but my impressions have found an echo in the recollections of the senators and Cabinet secretaries I’ve interviewed since his election.
I have also always noted that Mr. Duterte is a genuinely charismatic personality; I have seen his effect on an audience of about 50 as well as a massive crowd (the thanksgiving rally in Davao City after his victory) of perhaps 500,000. There is really something there that many people respond to. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has seen this charisma at work, not only in the President’s native Davao but in Tokyo, too, when Mr. Duterte came visiting. It is a mistake to dismiss this talk of mass appeal or reduce it to cult-like conduct. (To be sure, there is that, too.)
But put a microphone in front of him, and (time to look afresh at this tired phrase) all hell breaks loose. Continue reading
Only one conclusion makes sense. Published on July 18, 2017.
I have nothing against the senators who dined with President Duterte earlier this year; those who castigate them, essentially for showing up for dinner, have forgotten the role of the two political branches in our system of government. It would be a real scandal if the President dined with justices of the Supreme Court alone; recent history tells us that the illegal consultations Ferdinand Marcos sought with members of the Court built the constitutional foundations of his authoritarian regime. But lawmakers are supposed to work with the Executive—that is how our system is meant to function, especially when the senators belong to the administration majority.
I also do not understand the absolutist position that critics of the majority take when administration-aligned lawmakers express their outrage or their disgust over the reinstatement of Supt. Marvin Marcos. Sen. Ping Lacson, for instance, gave vent to his frustration over the special treatment for Marcos, the police colonel who oversaw the execution of Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa inside a Leyte subprovincial jail last November, by resorting publicly to President Duterte’s favorite expletive. But some of the feedback he got from social media took him to task for enabling the President in the first place — without so much as an acknowledgement that this key player in the Senate majority is now on a collision course with the President.
Politics is addition, and the more voices we hear condemning the extrajudicial killing of a politician by police officers, the better. Continue reading
Another 10-part Twitter thread, starting here. (You can of course click on the card below.)
In the last four years, I’ve written four columns making the case that “Marcos was the worst,” period.
In September 2013, in “Marcos was the worst,” I argued that the dictator Ferdinand Marcos was the most corrupt man in Philippine history. “Compared to Ferdinand Marcos, however, [Gloria] Arroyo and [Joseph] Estrada were rank amateurs. Marcos institutionalized corruption on such a scale we continue to feel its effects today. In his 20 years in power, the country’s foreign debt metastasized from about $1 billion to over $25 billion; in a statement released last year, FDC repeats the estimate that as much as a third of all that debt, about $8 billion, went into his pockets or those of his cronies.” (I also argued that, measured against his own anti-communist standard, he was a colossal failure in containing the communist insurgency he said was the reason for declaring martial rule in the first place.)
In September 2014, in “Marcos was the worst (2): The SC,” I argued that Marcos, who prided himself on his legal acumen and painstakingly constructed a legal facade for his dictatorship, systematically subverted the Supreme Court and the rule of law itself. “Marcos, entering the second half of his second and last term, was anxious about how the Supreme Court would rule on the constitutionality of the suspension of the writ, which had been immediately challenged. So he did what came naturally to him: He subverted yet another democratic institution.”
In September 2015, in “Marcos was the worst (3),” I argued that the Marcos era represented the fourth occupation of the Philippines. “In 1981 Marcos inaugurated what he grandly called the Fourth Republic. But it is closer to the truth to say that his regime was, in fact, the Fourth Occupation. After the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese, Marcos used martial law to colonize the Philippines.”
And in September 2016, in “Marcos was the worst (4),” I argued that Marcos succeeded in imposing martial rule because he had manipulated, intimidated, or incentivized the business community into supporting what he called the New Society. “But the Marcos regime lasted as long as it did, not only because Marcos’ Ilocanization of the military had turned it into a pliant tool, but also because many businessmen believed political stability was in their best interest; the Americans, too, found his anticommunism appealing.”
This is the same man a majority of justices on the Supreme Court allowed to be buried at the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, the very same man honored by the National Historical Commission of the Philippines with a monument and by President Duterte with a province-wide holiday.
Haven’t yet had a chance to write about World Justice Forum V—held at The Hague last July. Aside from allowing me to meet rule of law advocates and role models, it moved me to take the next step in a rule of law project I’ve been worrying for some time. It was good to meet kindred spirits, including exemplary Filipino delegates.
Column No. 450, published on July 11, 2017. (What a thrill to meet RBG.)
On the eve of the World Justice Forum at The Hague, I asked the guest of honor, the eminent Ruth Bader Ginsburg, associate justice of the US Supreme Court, about how to build consensus in collegial decision-making institutions. I had the Philippine Supreme Court in mind: One majority decision and 14 separate opinions in a landmark case involving the exercise of extraordinary powers did not seem to me to be a sign of strength, but rather of weakness in the shaping of consensus. I did not say any of this — only that in my impression, building majority decisions could be problematic. She replied, initially, by asking questions.
Do the justices lunch together? she first asked. (Later, she asked a related question: Do the justices have their own dining hall? I confessed that I did not know, but guessed that they did.) Do they live near each other? Most of her questions were in this personal vein. I can remember only two questions that were directly related to the work: How many serve on the Court? (This question may have been asked by Judge David Caron, who sat between us; I am no longer certain.) When I said 15, she asked: Do they work in panels? Continue reading
Published on July 4, 2017, but perhaps apropos reading for yesterday’s celebration of National Heroes Day.
The honors paid last month to Luis Taruc, cofounder of the Huks, invites us to think, again and with a greater sense of complication, about our notions of heroism.
An Inquirer editorial tried to anticipate the public’s response to the unveiling of a historical marker at Taruc’s place of birth and to the statement of recognition from the National Historical Commission of the Philippines “that Luis Taruc is a hero” by identifying three types of possible reception. “This pronouncement may strike some as belated but deserved recognition; others may criticize it as insufficiently historical or an affront to the memory of other heroes; still others may wonder what all the fuss is about.”
If not indifference, I would venture that wonder at what all the fuss was about was the majority reaction — but I did see criticism of the Taruc pronouncement. Inquirer columnist Manolo Quezon was one of those who showed his disagreement by circulating a Philippines Free Press cartoon listing Taruc’s many iniquities. I respect Quezon’s position, not only because his grandmother Aurora Quezon was assassinated by the Huks in 1949, but even more so because his work is shaped by a deep understanding of Philippine history.
Recognition of Taruc’s heroism, however, forces us to take a closer look at the different, even conflicting, narratives of heroism we have learned to tell. To make a nation, it takes all kinds of heroes. Continue reading
A 10-part Twitter thread, starting here.
When the President went missing. Published on June 27, 2017.
I understand, from the official daily schedule circulated on Monday by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, that President Duterte will make a public appearance today for the first time in almost a week. The “tentative schedule” (these releases are almost always classified as tentative) shows the President attending the “Eid’l Fitr Celebration” in Malacañang at 7 p.m.
This marks the second time in as many weeks that Mr. Duterte has been missed. He was not seen in public from June 12 to 16, and again from June 21 to 26 — assuming, that is, that he keeps his appointment tonight. (It is the only appointment on his agenda today, according to the schedule shared with the reporters and bloggers who cover him.)
At a general meeting of the Public Relations Society of the Philippines last week that I was privileged to address, a gentleman during the Q&A noted the traditional media’s “failure” to report on the President’s whereabouts. I understood what he meant, and conceded his point (in a word, the media should dig deeper), but I also noted other factors at work that made the President’s first prolonged absence controversial. Continue reading
Published on June 20, 2017.
At an Inquirer forum on Philippine independence and the rise of China, the young historian Leloy Claudio said something in passing which generated some Twitter attention. “If Rizal were alive today, he’d be ‘dilawan,’” Claudio said. He was referencing Rizal’s struggle for civil liberties as an indication that he would be, in today’s reductionist, polarized setting, not a Duterte supporter but an Aquino reformist—that is, a “Yellow.”
We mark Rizal’s 156th birthday at a time when the incumbent President is seeking to overhaul Philippine society itself; as Claudio’s remarks suggest, Rizal today seems more indispensable than ever. I think I know why: He reminds us what it means to be Filipino. Continue reading
Always ahead of the curve, Lourd de Veyra circulated this six-line poem some time ago; it is a reflection on the nature of tyranny. (W. H. Auden wrote it in January 1939, and I believe was referencing Adolf Hitler.) We can listen to Auden himself recite the poem, here.
Epitaph on a Tyrant
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Published on June 13, 2017.
I meant to write on Rizal and President Duterte, but taking part in the Defend Democracy Summit at the UP School of Economics on Monday brought me face to face with the human toll of the Duterte administration’s irresolution in defending the West Philippine Sea. We must make time to understand the Duterte era from a historical perspective; on Thursday, the Inquirer and the De La Salle University seek to do just that, with a historians’ forum on Philippine independence and the rise of China. But today—today I want to talk about Norma and Ping and the fishermen in Zambales they represent. Continue reading
Updating, again. This column was published on June 6, 2017. I took the photo of Justice Carpio on June 5, about half an hour before he conducted a group interview with the Inquirer.
This could be the question that will haunt us in our old age. Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio asked the Meet Inquirer Multimedia forum on Monday to imagine that moment, years from now, when our children and grandchildren will sit us down and ask us: “Who lost the West Philippine Sea to China?”
It is our “civic duty,” Carpio said, to raise the alarm today about the imminent loss of our territory and our waters, to forge a national consensus on what needs to be done, and to defend the West Philippine Sea. Continue reading
On a worrying choice of words. Published on May 30, 2017.
When President Duterte arrived from Moscow, a day after he imposed martial law on all of Mindanao, he gave a speech explaining the rationale for his exercise of extraordinary power and then conducted a news conference. In response to a question about the rules of engagement now in place in Mindanao, he gave an extended answer, which included the following statement:
“You know, I have always maintained that my duty, my sacred duty to preserve and defend the Filipino, does not emanate from any constitutional restriction.”
“It is in my oath of office. I beg to disagree with anyone. In this oath of office which I promised to God and to the people that I will protect and defend the country.”
(I am using the official transcript provided by the Presidential Communications Operations Office.) Continue reading
Published on May 23, 2017.
On April 24, lawyer Jude Sabio submitted a “communication” to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, seeking an investigation into crimes against humanity allegedly masterminded or committed by President Duterte and 11 other officials. We do not know what will happen to Sabio’s action; the procedures are detailed for all to see or study on the ICC website, but for the Philippines, this is a case of first impression.
For some members of the political opposition, the ICC might also prove to be the court of last resort. The impeachment complaint Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano filed against the President was disposed of in a matter of hours; there was no “prejudicial questions” maneuver to create at least the semblance of deliberation (as in the first impeachment complaint filed against President Gloria Arroyo in 2005). While ICC prosecution does not require the state that is party to the Treaty of Rome to exhaust all remedies (the ICC prosecutor has “motu proprio” powers), it can also step in when “the State is unwilling or unable genuinely to carry out the investigation or prosecution.” Continue reading
Time to play catch-up again. I’ve 12 columns (three months’ worth) to post; here is the first. Published on May 9, 2017, in what already seems like a different era.
The administration allies pushing for the impeachment of Vice President Leni Robredo suffer from two disadvantages: the absence of a substantive basis on which to ground their complaint, and the presence, the counter-example, of a substantial complaint. I mean, of course, the impeachment case filed by Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano.
Whatever one may think of President Duterte, or of the courage or duplicity of his political opposition (take your pick), I hope we can agree that the Alejano filing is a serious undertaking. It does not only assert the violation of high crimes (the essence of an impeachment initiative); it also offers testable proof. For instance, in detailing an entire pattern of words spoken and actions taken to adopt what Alejano called “a state policy of inducing policemen, other law enforcement officials, and/or members of vigilant groups into … Extrajudicial Killings,” he asserts that Mr. Duterte was liable for:
“making the killing of drug suspects and other suspected criminals as one of the principal bases of promotion and/or retention of Police Commanders such that Police Commanders in whose areas there are no reported killing of suspects are under threat of being replaced.”
It is a chilling charge, but it can be proved or disproved. Continue reading
On June 8, I joined a “forum on civil liberties and democracy” at De La Salle University on Taft Avenue called “Gathering Hope”—and came away a little more hopeful. Part of the reason I showed up was to see Rene Saguisag, the great civil libertarian of our time, in action again. I was fortunate to sit beside him, and took a couple of pictures of him in mid-speech (at that point when he was recalling an old story about a mischievous boy and a grandfather figure, whose moral the grandfather summed up in the following wise: “The answer lies in your hands”). Continue reading