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
The 2nd In the Shadow of the Dragon forum, held at the auditorium of the De La Salle University Rufino Campus, in BGC.
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.
South China Sea expert Jay Batongbacal, at the Defend Democracy Summit. June 12, 2017.
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
Antonio Carpio, Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
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
The fifth in my occasional series of “unfortunate appointments” is the first on a non-lawyer; as it happens, the government’s chief law enforcement official. Column No. 440, published on May 2, 2017.
Bato in Davao, at the massive thanksgiving rally for President-elect Duterte. June 4, 2016.
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. His chief claim to fame was his total support for the presidential candidacy of Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, whom he worked with closely when he was Davao City police chief; the main reason he remains head of the country’s 170,000 police officers is the President’s complete trust in him.
There are at least three reasons why Dela Rosa has seriously damaged the institution he leads. As early as January this year, these reasons were already clear to any observer of the PNP’s performance and indeed to any genuine friend or ally of the President’s. In the aftermath of the scandal over the kidnapping and killing of the retired Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo right inside PNP headquarters (the crime took place in October, but came to light only in January), one of the President’s closest political allies, Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, called on Dela Rosa to resign. In the agitated statement Speaker Alvarez released on Jan. 20, after the full scale of the scandal became clear and threatened to bring the President’s so-called war on drugs to a permanent and premature end, the three reasons can already be discerned.
Now, in the wake of the revelations last week about the hidden detention cells inside Manila Police District Station No. 1, and especially after Dela Rosa bombastically offered what Sen. Panfilo Lacson rightly called an “incomprehensible” and “very arrogant” defense of the secret jail, it is time to revisit Alvarez’s position.
Like many, I do not want the military to oust President Duterte; that attempt at a cure (to speak figuratively) may prove to be worse than the disease. Like many, I only want our democratic processes to function, our checks and balances to work, our politicians to grow a spine worthy of the dignity of their office—so that everyone, Duterte included, can be held accountable not only by history but in real time. The lesson from the history of democratic polities is clear: The consent of the governed depends on limits placed on government. Published on April 25, 2017.
I have written in this space before: There is no conspiracy to oust President Duterte, and there are no destabilization attempts against his administration. What is the “point,” then, of all the criticism? To ask the question is to misunderstand the role of a free press, an unco-opted opposition and the democratic project itself. In our different ways, we criticize to hold him accountable.
Let me limit myself to the responsibility of journalists. Continue reading
The second column prompted by the IJF17 panel discussion on “Reporting Emerging Authoritarianism.” Published on April 18, 2017.
As it turns out, more research exists on authoritarian followers than on authoritarian leaders. I do not know this paradox for a fact, but I believe someone who does: the psychologist who is a leading scholar on authoritarianism, Bob Altemeyer. I was led to his work by a presentation Alexa Koenig of UC Berkeley made at the International Journalism Festival two weeks ago; I have since read his “The Authoritarians,” available for free online. It makes for instructive reading. It helps explain our experience under martial law, and why we may yet again find ourselves on the road to authoritarian rule.
The paradox can be explained simply. As Altemeyer writes: “The psychological mystery has always been, why would someone prefer a dictatorship to freedom? So social scientists have focused on the followers, who are seen as the main, underlying problem.” Continue reading
Published today, April 4, 2017 — but in a different time zone, and in a different frame of mind.
I find the phenomenon of willful blindness in the Duterte era vexing, and would like to take a closer look. To begin: There are degrees of not seeing.
Some are born truly sightless, or qualify as legally blind. Different institutions would have different definitions for legal blindness, but I think the nontechnical phrasing used in Merriam-Webster comes close to a common basis: “having less than 1/10 of normal vision in the more efficient eye when refractive defects are fully corrected by lenses.” (That means that seriously visually impaired people who can see well enough to drive with the help of corrective lenses are not, in fact, legally blind—a common misconception.)
Some are blind because they are unable, or unwilling, to question what they see. Continue reading
“Criticism of the President is not destabilization.” Published on March 14, 2017.
A concerted campaign to destabilize the Duterte presidency exists—but only in the opportunistic minds of political entrepreneurs like Sandra Cam or the anxious imaginations of political virgins like the President’s diehard devotees. I can also include the likes of the smart, articulate political veteran Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano, whose fortunes now depend completely on his erstwhile running mate.
They have one thing in common: no real power in the Duterte administration, only access or the promise of access to the inner circle. Continue reading
Pastor Manny Pacquiao takes center stage, again. Published on March 7, 2017.
Yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, the following trended on Twitter: #DDSBigReveal, Lascañas, Senate, Manny Pacquiao, Davao Death Squad, and Spiritual Renewal. The six trends were all related to the Senate hearing conducted by the committee on public order to assess retired policeman Arturo Lascañas’ dramatic accusations against President Duterte.
The last, in particular, referred to the witness’ explanation for changing his testimony. Last October, before the Senate committee on justice, he denied the existence of the Davao Death Squad. It was just “media hype,” he said. On Feb. 20, at a news conference in the Senate, and then yesterday, under oath a second time, he said he had been forced to lie the first time because his family’s safety had not yet been secured, but that he really wanted to tell the nation what he knows about Mr. Duterte’s alleged personal liquidation squad because of a “spiritual renewal.”
I can understand why several senators questioned Lascañas’ conversion story. (I use “conversion” here to mean, not a moving from one religion or denomination to another, but rather a turning—that’s the root of the word—from one path to another.) It goes to the issue of motivation. Why change one’s mind, and perjure one’s self? The senators are right in assuming that neither should be taken lightly. Lascañas does have some serious explaining to do.
But I think one reason “spiritual renewal” trended on Twitter yesterday is people reacted to the narrow view some of the senators held about that religious experience. Continue reading
The politics of the so-called war on drugs is addition. Column No. 431, published on February 28, 2017.
Before the Duterte administration resumes its so-called war on drugs in earnest, we should ask ourselves: Is the “surrender” of a “drug personality” addition or subtraction? Let’s say there are 1,000 residents in a barangay. The local police and barangay officials agree that an estimated 100 residents are into drugs, whether as user or as pusher. If 50 residents surrender to the police when the authorities conduct what is now known as a “tokhang” drive, how many drug personalities will the barangay now have? Is it now 50, because the number of 50 surrenderers has been subtracted from the estimate? Is it still 100? Or is it 150, because the number 50 has been added to the base?
Allies and supporters of the President have called on those who criticize the war on drugs for its high death toll to consider the bigger picture—starting with the number of surrenderers. On Jan. 18, the Philippine National Police spokesperson gave an update: Since the national “tokhang” plan went into effect (it is officially known as Oplan Double Barrel), the police have visited some 6 million houses, and processed over 1 million surrenderers.
What does it mean to surrender? Continue reading
A memorable phrase from prominent political analyst Mon Casiple, our guest in tonight’s INQ&A radio/Facebook program: “In the House [of Representatives], a congressman has one eye on the President. In the Senate, a senator has one eye on the presidency.”