Tag Archives: Rodrigo Duterte

Column: ‘A bunch of shameless hypocrites’

Published on February 7, 2017.

After the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines issued its pastoral letter on extrajudicial killings, one of President Duterte’s closest allies took direct aim at the bishops. “Sinners [that] they are, the Catholic Church has no moral ascendancy to judge what is right and wrong,” Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez said via SMS. “They are simply a bunch of shameless hypocrites.”

It is good that the Speaker, by all accounts a straight talker and a practical man, was clear about his antecedents, because anyone else paying attention to Philippine politics would have thought he was referring to his own chamber of Congress. Having engineered the most recent wave of political turncoatism in our history, he is no stranger to accusations of hypocrisy. What is a majority composed of newly elected or reelected politicians who changed political parties for power and convenience, after all, but a bunch of shameless hypocrites?

But Speaker Alvarez is a power center in the administration, not only because he is one of the handful of true believers who pushed a reluctant Mayor Rodrigo Duterte to run for president, but because he shares the President’s core beliefs. His broadside at the Catholic bishops, generalized to include the entire Church, springs from the same source as the President’s contempt for the religion of his strong-willed, sainted mother. That the Church has “no moral ascendancy”—this is the authentic Dutertismo note. Continue reading

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Column: Question: Will vigilante killers follow Bato?

Published on January 31, 2017.

The details are still scarce, but the big picture is clear: Upon instructions of President Duterte, the chief of the Philippine National Police has ordered a temporary stop to the administration’s so-called war on drugs. This is a good thing. Even if it is only temporary, it is welcome news, because it means—very simply—that fewer poor people will die in police shootings in the next several days.

I had joined my voice to the chorus of concern about the killings continuing even as the country hosted the Miss Universe beauty pageant, for only the third time in the competition’s history. We urged a temporary stop to the killings, to avoid the demoralizing, indeed immoral, spectacle of an entertainment extravaganza conducted against the backdrop of antipoor violence.

This much was clear to many of us from the start: Mr. Duterte’s war is being waged largely against people who are guilty of the crime of poverty. Take a look at the casualty lists; read the news stories; listen to the witnesses. Very many of the killed were poor. To have more of them die in the streets—without benefit of due process, under the murkiest of circumstances—while the world’s most beautiful women paraded in their swimsuits and evening wear made for an even greater scandal.

The order of Director General Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, announced the same morning the nation was avidly following the finals of the Miss Universe pageant, is belated then, but bracing.

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Column: Why we MUST fight fakes

Published on January 24, 2017.

The inauguration of the Trump presidency is a true, deeply disorienting pivot in history; it may lead to the end of the post-World War II international order. The only certainty is uncertainty: As his dark inaugural address reminded us and his first acts in office confirmed, Donald Trump will upend many rules and traditions designed to limit the power of the American president, and as a consequence dramatically reshape US relations with the rest of the world.

But many Filipinos watching the Trump takeover over the weekend may have felt a shiver of déjà vu. We’ve seen this kind of brash talk, media hostility and enemy-oriented war footing before; when President Duterte speaks of the illegal drugs problem he is fixated on, it can assume the contours of the apocalypse. If Trump has his American Carnage, Mr. Duterte has his Philippine Collapse (or, maybe, Pambansang Bad Trip). If Trump has his “movement,” Mr. Duterte has his 16 million voters (a part of the body politic he sometimes mistakes for the entire country). And if Trump has his Twitter-enabled, cable-news-fueled campaign against media, Mr. Duterte has his social media army (and his sometimes uncontained contempt for inquisitive journalists).

But in at least one aspect, President Trump has trumped President Duterte. From Day One, the American president and his administration have declared war on reality; both Trump and Press Secretary Sean Spicer have for instance falsely claimed a much larger estimate for the inaugural crowd, despite overwhelming TV, photographic, and eyewitness evidence; and adviser and campaign manager Kellyanne Conway rationalized the false claims as “alternative facts.” The most that Mr. Duterte and his various spokespersons have done is either blame the media for reporting his statements, or ask journalists to exercise “creative imagination” in interpreting the remarks. Continue reading

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Column: No conspiracy, only resistance

Published on January 17, 2017.

From where I stand it is clear to me that there is no conspiracy to oust President Duterte; what there is is growing resistance to Dutertismo. Those are two entirely different things.

On previous occasions I have identified three troubling aspects of the Duterte presidency: the high number of killings in the war on drugs, the hasty pivot away from the United States and toward China, and the rehabilitation of the Marcoses. As best as I can tell, these are the sources of rising public discontent, and the proof is accumulating both in the surveys and in the streets. The same polls that show a general support for the war on drugs reveal an equally robust majority concerned about the killing of mere suspects; a majority also mistrusts both China and Russia, countries the President likes because they share his contempt for human rights. The corpses, mainly of poor Duterte voters, continue to pile up in the alleys, while anti-Marcos protesters have taken to the streets and will do so again.

But to appreciate that there is no conspiracy, all one needs to do is take a look at the disarray of Duterte critics, who cannot agree on messaging, plan a sustained program of political action, or even unite behind Vice President Leni Robredo. There ARE movements, or stirrings at least, but as far as I can tell they are issue-oriented: fighting the culture of death, including the proposed lowering of the age of criminal liability; determining the future of the Philippine-American military relationship, especially in discussions within the armed services; campaigning against the Marcoses’ return to power.

All these are legitimate political exercises; only those who equate criticism with ouster plans would see them as destabilizing. Continue reading

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Column: The most-read opinion of 2016, and why

Published on January 3, 2017.

A look at the most-read opinion pieces published by the Inquirer last year shows that politics, especially political anxiety over the Duterte presidency, was the dominant concern of our readers. It also shows a healthy mix of the types of opinion that resonated with the audience: columns, of course, but also an editorial, a contributed commentary, a letter to the editor—and a vivid illustration of the digital “long tail.”

But let me begin with a word about the limits of this overview. I am using statistics from the online consumption of the opinion pieces (both web and mobile). I am limiting myself to only the Top 10 pieces read online, which together account for almost one-twentieth of all Opinion traffic. I am basing the ranking on page views, as tracked by Google Analytics (not on share numbers, which can help show consumption only on social media). And I can tell you that all these 10 opinion pieces enjoyed a minimum of six-digit traffic.

(I can also add that traffic increased substantially over 2015 levels, for both Opinion and the website as a whole.)

By far, the most-read opinion piece of 2016 was Solita Monsod’s Aug. 27 column, “De Lima’s record speaks for itself.” This essay on the politics of vindictiveness generated 2.5 times more page views than the last item in the Top 10 list. It begins forthrightly: “This persecution of Leila de Lima is getting out of hand. That it is led by President Duterte makes it even worse. The President, who, in his State of the Nation Address just last month, described himself as ‘not vindictive,’ has proved otherwise.” (It was also shared almost 50,000 times.)

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Column: Why we must criticize Duterte

Published on December 27, 2016.

Today marks President Duterte’s 180th day in office; by one measure, his famous campaign pledge to crack down hard on crime and illegal drugs in six months has reached its deadline. Of the 6,000-plus Filipinos who have been killed in the President’s war on drugs, however, many have been clearly innocent: children caught in the crossfire, victims mistaken for other people. Tomorrow, the Catholic Church remembers the Holy Innocents—the first-born children massacred on Herod’s orders in the jealous king’s attempt to kill Jesus. It should also be an occasion for Christians throughout the country to reflect on the true costs of Mr. Duterte’s war, and to harden our opposition to it.

I have argued before that because “Christianity believes in the possibility of redemption,” any initiative which does not respect this belief, such as the President’s all-out offensive, mocks the Christian faith. “I realize that …. it is certainly the duty of the policeman to protect the community from criminals, even to the point of shooting them. But the police killings in the war on drugs share a common characteristic: Except for the odd case, all of the suspects were shot in the head or in the back. There was no attempt to disarm or to maim, if the suspects were in fact fighting back.” (We should note that this is exactly how ex-president Fidel Ramos criticizes Mr. Duterte’s war, as an abandonment of long-standard rules of engagement.) The way the war on drugs is conducted, however, “does not only run counter to the best practices of effective antidrugs campaigns in the world, or to the constitutional guarantees of due process and the protection of human rights, but it is also, strictly speaking, unchristian.” Continue reading

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Column: This President needs help

Published on December 20, 2016.

If they haven’t yet, President Duterte’s friends and allies need to organize an intervention. He has been shooting himself in the foot even more than usual these last several days; his closest friends should recognize this self-destructive behavior for what it is: both compelling proof that the messenger is running away from the message, and a cry for help.

The President’s many variations on the theme of giving up are not the cause for concern. All presidents have spoken of the terminal loneliness of the job; every president since Marcos has said something about how forbidding or fundamentally unfriendly Malacañang is. Mr. Duterte’s repeated expressions of regret or wistfulness about running for office and winning the presidency—summed up in his ejaculation, “Susmaryosep! If you only knew, if I could just take it all back”—are perhaps more poignant than those of other presidents, but they follow a pattern. They are, in a word, familiar.

It is rather the President’s statements, where he speaks against his own interest, that should concern his friends and allies. This conduct is not normal. Continue reading

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Column: Different from other presidents

Published on November 29, 2016.

At a forum hosted by the Asian Media Information and Communication Center last Friday, I had a chance to paint a picture of the conditions journalists labor under when covering President Duterte. With Marites Vitug’s own take, it was meant to prompt discussion:

President Duterte is an unusual subject, different from most other presidents, in many ways. A large part of the challenge of covering him can be explained by these differences. Let me cite four related pairs of unusual.

He was a truly reluctant candidate. This helps us understand why, six months after the election, he can still startle with unexpected talk about his readiness to give up his post. He is the only president who speaks of resigning if certain policies are already set in place, who talks of sitting down with alleged coup plotters, who pledges to leave the presidency if his critics can meet certain (admittedly impossible) requirements.

At the same time, he is the one president who is fully committed to use the full range of presidential powers, the one who casually mentions imposing martial law or suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, who threatens to marshall legislative consensus to abolish an office created by law, who readily takes to the bully pulpit to name suspect oligarchs or suspected criminals.

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Column: Duterte’s three changes are here

Published on November 8, 2016.

Despite what its various spokesmen say, the new order is not markedly different from previous administrations in the fight against corruption, or the drive to fill the infrastructure deficit, or even the pursuit of peace. I write this knowing that excellent people are in charge of certain key departments, including Ernie Pernia at Neda, Liling Briones in Education, Judy Taguiwalo at DSWD. I realize that Vice President Leni Robredo has been given the room she needs to make an impact in housing. I know that peace stalwarts like Jess Dureza and Irene Santiago are hard at work to build on what has been done before.

But if there is a difference, an improvement, in these matters, it is a difference in degree. And as far as the anticorruption campaign goes, the new administration may be said to retrogress. (See third concern below.)

On three concerns, however, it is clear that the Duterte administration is fundamentally different from other post-Marcos administrations. Change has come, in three deeply unsettling ways:

The killing spree. Unlike any other presidential candidate in Philippine history, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte campaigned on a promise to kill fellow Filipinos — as many as 100,000 criminals, he said, whose corpses will clog Manila Bay. Was he indulging himself in hyperbole, or merely joking, or in earnest? Some 4,000 kills later, the answer should be clear. He was dead serious.

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Column: Human rights defenders are beautiful

Published on November 1, 2016.

Last week, fresh from his triumphant visit to Japan, President Duterte revealed, among other things, that God had talked to him about his cussing; but then he also let his disdain for human rights advocates slip out again. In one of those stream-of-consciousness free associations that punctuate his unscripted remarks, during his post-arrival news conference the President complimented the latest Filipino beauty queen, Miss International Kylie Verzosa, and then added a gratuitous insult.

Let me use ABS-CBN’s more complete version (but with my translation): “Of course, I am happy. I am always happy if our beautiful women win all the titles. Kasi Pilipino tayo [Because we are Filipino], it gives us konting hambog (a little to brag about). It lifts the [spirit.] Parang mayabang tayo. Kita mo, magaganda mga Pilipina [Like, we can be proud. You see, Filipinas are beautiful],” Mr. Duterte said. Then he said: “Pero kayong lahat diyan sa human rights commission, mga pangit (But all of you there at the Commission on Human Rights, you are all ugly).”

The President was his usual bantering self, and the unexpected punchline had many people laughing, but it is a mistake to think that he was also not dead earnest. Since the CHR, under then chair Leila de Lima, investigated him in 2009 for possible human rights violations in relation to the killings attributed to the so-called Davao Death Squad, he has harbored a sense of resentment against the constitutional agency. Continue reading

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Column: The Supreme Court vs the Marcoses

Published on October 18, 2016.

If the Supreme Court did not exist, an Inquirer editorial once argued, it would be necessary to invent it. We can add a corollary: If an occasion demanded its invention, it would be the series of legal issues arising from the Marcos dictatorship. Ferdinand Marcos rose to power through skillful use of the means of democracy—the same democracy he and his wife then subverted when he imposed military rule and assumed absolute power.

The Marcoses, to steal one of Philip Larkin’s unforgettable opening lines, “they f*ck you up.”

I use the present tense, because even though Marcos himself died a quarter-century ago, many parts of the legal and political and cultural edifice he built persist to this day. So yes, the Marcoses continue to mess with our mind—and proof lies in President Duterte’s unrepentantly legalistic view that nothing bars him from ordering the burial of the dictator’s remains at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (and honoring his campaign promises).

It’s a narrow interpretation of a tenuous legal principle, against the whole weight of history. This is Marcosian in both inspiration and execution, a privileging of the created legal order at the expense of national experience and the public interest.

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Column: Does Duterte know how to listen?

Published on October 11, 2016.

Last April, ex-President Fidel Ramos told me and a few others, with a twinkle in his eye, that he was voting Ro-Ro: not Roxas-Robredo, but Rodrigo Duterte and Leni Robredo. It was about time we had a president from Mindanao, he said. He also said he felt partly responsible for the Duterte candidacy because he had encouraged it as far back as the early 1990s, when he was president.

This is a debt of gratitude Mr. Duterte recognizes. The very first words he said at his inaugural address were in honor of his benefactor: “President Fidel Ramos, sir, salamat po sa tulong mo (thank you for your help) making me President.”

On the 100th day of his presidency, Mr. Duterte received a startling gift from Ramos: a strongly worded column in the Manila Bulletin, summing up the first 100 days as “Team Philippines losing badly.” Continue reading

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Column: President Duterte, statesman

Published on September 27, 2016.

LAST FRIDAY, President Duterte revisited his quarrel with the European Union and said, among other things, that he did not care for the act-like-a-statesman argument.

“Tapos hindi daw ako statesman. Excuse me? Hindi daw ako statesman. Ang pagkaalam ko, tumakbo ako ng presidente, wala mang posisyong statesman doon sa ’min, bakit mo ko pipilitin maging statesman?” Duterte said. (“And I’m no statesman? Excuse me. I’m no statesman, they said. What I know is, I ran for President. There is no position of statesman there at home. Why will you force me to be a statesman?”)

Then he added, in English: “I never took a course of statesmanship and I do not intend to be one.”

We understand where the President is coming from. He campaigned for the presidency on his tough-as-nails, curse-like-a-sailor persona; he did not run as Mr. Nice Guy. If we see the national situation from his perspective, there may really be no time, no margin, for niceties and nuances.

But in fact the President must learn to act like a statesman because it comes with the job. His new position is not only head of government but also head of state. It is in that second, higher capacity that he is expected, not only to meet the timeless meaning of statesmanship (not thinking of the next election or the next Senate committee hearing or the next news cycle) but also the more time-bound one: speaking carefully on behalf of an entire nation he represents. Continue reading

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Column: Killing suspects is also unchristian

Published on September 13, 2016.

THE VILIFICATION of the United Nations seems to have stopped; now the focus of presidential ire seems to be on the United States. But it is only a matter of time before UN involvement in Philippine affairs comes under attack again; the flawed but functional guarantor of international arbitration and human rights campaigns will necessarily be heard from again.

Here’s a thought, to prepare for the inevitable: The UN is not a remote organization, located half a world away and only distantly connected to goings-on in the Philippines. It is in fact intimately involved in Philippine society. In response to a query I posted about how many people the UN has working in the country, Martin Nanawa of the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office in the Philippines wrote back: “We have 1,449 National and 240 International Staff in the Philippines under the UN umbrella, which is spread over more than 25 different Agencies, Funds, Programs, and Organizations.”

That’s a lot of ears on the ground; it is folly, or wishful thinking, to suggest that UN experts do not know what is going on in the Philippines.

* * *

To the policy and legal arguments against the extrajudicial killings at the center of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs, I would like to add the religious dimension—not because I am particularly religious or find myself on moral high ground, but because many men and women who fight this war or support it are Christian. Continue reading

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Column: ‘Are they human?’ is a dangerous doctrine

Published on September 6, 2016.

IT PAINS me to write this response to a series of provocative tweets from Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ—because he is a beloved and instrumental mentor to me, and because he has been right, over the years, on issues large and small. But on Aug. 28, the president of Ateneo de Davao University staked out a position regarding President Duterte’s justification of the war on drugs that I cannot agree with and which in fact I find downright dangerous.

I am late to the issue, because while I happened to be in Davao City when he posted those tweets, I had not yet fully recovered from a bout with a particularly nasty strain of the flu. But I did read the tweets in real time. They were posted in reference to a series of statements the President made the previous Friday, Aug. 26.

In the middle of a critique of human rights advocates, the President had stopped and then said:

“In the first place, I’d like to be frank with you. Are they (drug users) humans? What is your definition of a human being? Tell me.”

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Column: The unfortunate Salvador Panelo

Published on August 23, 2016.

IN 1992, Salvador Panelo ran for the Senate. That year, there were 12 six-year terms and 12 three-year terms at stake. Panelo, now the chief presidential legal counsel, ran as one of the 24 candidates of the Marcos political party, the Kilusang Bagong Lipunan or KBL.

Out of 163 qualified candidates, Panelo came in 125th. Tito Sotto topped the Senate race, with 11.7 million votes. The last of the 24 winning senators was reelectionist Butz Aquino; he earned 3.9 million votes. Panelo had 289,000 votes, less than 8 percent of Aquino’s. Of the 24 KBL candidates, he ranked 13th. The loyalist lawyer Oliver Lozano, who came into prominence after the Marcoses fled Malacañang, earned 407,000 votes.

(Fun fact: In 1992, Gloria Arroyo came in 13th; that is, she won a three-year term. It must have seemed like a disappointment for the first-time politician, but in 1995 Arroyo ran again for a full six-year term and this time topped the Senate race, immediately becoming a viable presidential or vice presidential candidate for 1998.)

Why do I bring up Panelo’s dismal record in his single attempt at national office? Elective office is a bruising affair and it is entirely to Panelo’s credit that, at least once in his life, he threw his own hat into the ring. We should not gainsay his attempt.

But it seems he learned one lesson from his defeat: If he had the appetite for politics but not the personality for elections, he can serve winnable politicians in an advisory capacity. Continue reading

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Column: The President as lawyer

Published on August 16, 2016.

IT HAS been some time—30 years, in fact, or an entire generation—since a lawyer served as president of the Philippines. Before San Beda graduate and city prosecutor Rodrigo Roa Duterte, there was UP graduate and bar topnotcher Ferdinand Edralin Marcos. That time did not end well.

What can we expect from another lawyer in Malacañang? President Duterte has used two constitutionally mandated ceremonies to speak directly to this question; he has also spent some time in his ongoing series of visits to military camps to say something about what we can call his philosophy of law. Believing, as I have written before, that in the democratic project the law is too important to be left to lawyers alone, I would like to put in my two centavos’ worth. (We all should.)

Before 1986, when the Marcoses were chased out of the presidential palace, almost all the presidents were lawyers. There were only two exceptions: Emilio Aguinaldo, the generalissimo who led the successful Philippine Revolution at the turn of the 20th century, and Ramon Magsaysay, the defense secretary who broke the back of the Huk insurgency in the 1950s. All the others were lawyers, and from the start promising ones: Manuel Quezon, Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas, Elpidio Quirino, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal, and Marcos were all bar topnotchers, a meaningless distinction in other countries but in the Philippines a definite political advantage. Even Jose Laurel, the president of the Second Republic under the Japanese, was also a topnotcher and a heavyweight lawyer.

In the first 50-odd years of Philippine self-government, then, lawyers served as president for 45.

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Column: Understanding Duterte: 40 theses

Published on August 9, 2016.

  1. IT IS a mistake to think of President Duterte as Donald Trump without the orange skin and the ridiculous hair.
  1. He is not only not a bigot, as he himself said; he also has real, quantifiable achievements in his two decades as Davao City mayor.
  1. Even Mr. Duterte’s bitterest critics will not deny these achievements. They may argue about scope and impact, but accept these feats.
  1. In contrast, Trump has built a reputation and created wealth based largely on deception: the shady deal, the lease of his name, the scam.
  1. To be sure, the Duterte record is shadowed by the killings in Davao City, often attributed to the Davao Death Squad.

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Column: P-Noy and Du30, compared

Published on June 28, 2016.

THE TRANSITION from the Aquino to the Duterte presidencies gives us an opportunity to compare the two presidents. I have chosen the following three points of comparison; others may wish to discuss other reference points. President-elect Rodrigo Duterte comes out ahead in one, President Aquino leads in another. The third is a toss-up, with perhaps the Filipino public ending up losing.

First, their electoral mandate. No one of the presidents elected under the 1987 Constitution has received a majority of the votes cast in their respective elections. The combination of a multiparty setup and a first-past-the-post system all but ensures that all presidents of the Fifth Republic win with a mere plurality of the vote.

Of the five presidents elected since 1987, Mr. Aquino in 2010 won the largest share of the vote: 42 percent. Fidel V. Ramos became president in 1992 with only 23.5 percent. At 39 percent, Duterte’s share is the second smallest after Ramos’ not only since 1987 but in history. Continue reading

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Column: Don’t let ‘Dabawismo’ be Duterte’s ‘Cavitismo’

Published on June 14, 2016.

AS A loyal son of Mindanao, I would like the first president from the “great island” to succeed. But how will success be defined? By measuring the number of corpses of suspected criminals floating in Manila Bay? By forcing through the burial at the heroes’ cemetery of the same dictator against whom his own mother led the protest struggle in Davao? By counting the number of institutions—the Catholic Church, the media, the United Nations, the embassies of our allies—he has criticized?

This is not a made-up list, but a quick look at some of President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign promises and postelection pronouncements. News organizations did not invent these statements; they merely reported them as newsworthy, because Duterte himself chose to emphasize them. In his speech at the mammoth victory rally in Davao City, for instance, he spent a lot of time criticizing both the Catholic Church and the media; at one point, he started talking about the Bureau of Internal Revenue—and then promptly dropped the topic when something reminded him yet again of his complaints about the media. And off he went again.

And yet reasonable people, distinguished experts in their own right, have welcomed the advent of the Duterte presidency. In Davao, the president of the Jesuit university, Fr. Joel Tabora, and its leading feminist and citizen advocate, Irene Santiago, have offered cogent reasons for optimism without wishing away Duterte’s language or reputation; in the Cabinet, he has named eminences who were not part of his usual circles, such as Ernie Pernia and Liling Briones, to cite just two outstanding appointees. That a close associate like Mayor Leoncio Evasco remains part of his inner circle, or an advocate-academic like Judy Taguiwalo would accept an appointment, is auspicious, for those looking for signs. Continue reading

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Column: Cayetano on Duterte and the media

 

Published on June 7, 2016.

I have had occasion to criticize Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano directly in this space, but I believe he does not take it against me. He is a rare breed of politician in that sense; he seeks to engage even his (occasional) critics, confident in his ability to make his case. When I had the chance to interview him during the campaign period, the vice presidential candidate was his usual articulate self—he mentioned the fact that I had criticized him before, but only in passing, and only as an example of the difference in our responsibilities: his as a politician, mine as a journalist.

His views on President-elect Rodrigo Duterte’s criticism of media practices, and in particular of those of national media organizations based in Manila, hold a special fascination for me then. Over the weekend, I heard him express these views thrice: at the “VIP lane” leading to the massive victory rally dubbed “One Love, One Nation” in Crocodile Park in Davao City on Saturday, on stage at that rally, and in an exclusive interview with Inquirer.net (also carried live on Facebook) the following day.

I found his VIP lane version to be the most developed and on point, and I would like to engage with his views as he expressed them then, in a chance interview (the far better term for ambush interview, which came into use during the first Aquino administration) by national and local media.

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Column: Duterte’s China

Published on May 31, 2016.

IN BEIJING, China, this week, as in Siem Reap, Cambodia, four weeks ago, conversations among Asia News Network editors often revolved around, or returned to, the Duterte phenomenon. In the last month or so, some of the most-read stories shared among the 21 member-organizations have been about the unlikely candidacy or unexpected victory, the unsettling rhetoric or unconventional habits, of the Philippine president-elect.

(The most shared story on ANN in the last seven days? “Duterte: My day starts at 1 pm.”)

Often, in these conversations, the first question is: Does he mean what he says? Then the rest follow: Has he had experience at the national level? What is he known for aside from his law and order policies? Who are part of his inner circle? Who advises him on foreign policy? And, inevitably, like a punchline to a familiar joke you see coming: What is his real position on the South China Sea?

It is possible that the seeming inconstancy in the Duterte approach to the territorial and maritime conflict in the South China Sea is strategic. What does it mean when one day he talks about shelving our claims aside in exchange for Chinese bankrolling of major infrastructure projects in the Philippines, and another day he talks about planting the Philippine flag himself in the Spratly Islands? Perhaps it is meant to keep China off balance.

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Column: Duterte and the coming bloodbath

Published on May 24, 2016.

ON NOV. 16, 1999, President Joseph Estrada appointed his then-favorite policeman, Director Panfilo Lacson, as the new chief of the Philippine National Police. The next day, the special operations group that Lacson led before his appointment, the Presidential Anti-Organized Crime Task Force, killed eight men in Fairview, Quezon City, in what some witnesses called a “rubout.” Seven of the dead were later identified as suspected robbers; the eighth, a civilian bystander, was later reported to be the alleged mastermind of the robbery gang.

It was an arresting start to a controversial (and, as it turned out, abbreviated) term. For many, the spectacular violence was seen as precisely a violent spectacle, staged to strike fear among criminals.

Three renowned lawyers immediately raised the alarm. (I quote from an Inquirer editorial written some 10 years after the event.)

“Sen. Raul Roco told a news conference: ‘Lacson must be made to explain: Why, on your second day, did seven people die? How many will die on the third day? What are your projected plans on the 14th day?’

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Column: From wimp to pimp?

Published on May 17, 2016.

IN A wild, improbable campaign with many twists and turns, here is the final, improbable twist:

Rodrigo Duterte is Benigno Aquino III, part two.

The 2016 presidential election turned out to be the 2010 vote all over again. Duterte comes to the presidency with the same mandate, the same level of popular support, that Aquino enjoyed in 2010: Like Aquino, he rode a genuine groundswell to capture 15 million votes; like Aquino, he is comfortably ahead of the second-ranked candidate’s 9-million total; like Aquino, he led a field with at least four strong candidates. (Mar Roxas as the Joseph Estrada of 2016: another improbable turn.)

At this point, the reader who believed that the change-is-coming rhetoric of the Duterte campaign was code for anti-Aquino sentiment would be almost apoplectic. How can the tough-talking man-of-the-people be compared to the mild-mannered, out-of-touch elitist? Surely they are complete opposites!

Not in terms of electoral mandate, they’re not. Continue reading

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Column: Is it, in truth, a protest vote?

Published on May 10, 2016.

Is support for presidential frontrunner Rodrigo Duterte a protest vote, against the Aquino administration? Yes, but also no. The idea that one single factor explains the surge of the controversial mayor of Davao City in the last six to eight weeks of the campaign period—a surge that as of this writing looks powerful enough to bring Duterte all the way to the Pasig River and into Malacañang—is (to borrow the language that critics of Duterte supporters like to use) lazy, even self-indulgent. This reductionist reading tells us more about the analyst than the phenomenon under analysis.

If the plan is to show disapproval of or outrage at the way the administration has mismanaged the MRT system in Metro Manila, or misjudged the immediate response to Supertyphoon “Yolanda” in Tacloban, or mishandled a secret operation that led to the death of 44 Special Action Force troopers in Mamasapano, the candidacy of Vice President Jejomar Binay would have served as an appropriate or adequate vehicle.

When Binay finally resigned from the Cabinet after failing to win President Aquino’s endorsement, he declared himself, in unmistakable terms, the leader of the opposition. In fact, he used the SAF 44 as literal backdrop, and called out the administration (correctly, in my view) for its many blunders.

But, one might argue, Binay was not only running in opposition; he was also proposing to turn the rest of the Philippines into Makati City, the central business district he has governed as mayor for two decades. Wouldn’t this vision thing undercut the protest-vote interpretation?

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