• After the Aquino interview, more questions

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    Ricardo Saludo

    A YEAR since stepping down as President, Benigno Aquino 3rd granted his first interview to an online news service, covering such issues as foreign relations, pork barrel investigations, illegal drugs, and the January 2015 massacre of 44 police commandos in Mamasapano, Maguindanao.

    Critics will surely dispute Aquino’s assertions and defense of his record. He said, for instance, that “in international relations, there’s been a spate of conflicts” since his term ended.

    Presumably, he was referring to the word war between President Rodrigo Duterte and Western leaders and governments, as well as the United Nations. Aquino then contrasted his approach: “I’m not a believer in fostering conflicts.” He hoped that there would be less conflicts to “open doors of opportunity” for the country.

    Who’s fight cost Filipinos more?

    In fact, both leaders had their share of conflicts, and one may argue that Aquino’s confrontation with China was more damaging to the Philippines than Duterte’s tiffs with the West.

    Beijing curbed trade, investment and assistance during the Aquino years, and we now see how much was restricted in the $24 billion in Chinese assistance and investment offered to Duterte during his October visit to Beijing.

    On the other hand, Western governments continue their assistance, and Washington has even ramped up security aid to help Duterte defeat terrorists in Mindanao. Indeed, his independent foreign policy has unlocked assistance from a wider range of powers, from Moscow and Beijing to Tokyo and Washington.

    Further on China, Aquino said he sought to have a discussion with Beijing on maritime claims, so that even if no immediate agreement was reached, there could be discussions toward determining each nation’s rightful claims in the long term. Yet his adversarial tack, even resorting to international arbitration sure to get China stonewalling, only squelched talks with Beijing.

    Rather, it was President Duterte’s conciliatory approach that not only obtained early concessions like the return of Filipino fishermen to Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal, but also launched bilateral negotiations to resolve territorial issues over time.

    The whole truth in drugs and pork
    His remarks on two more controversial issues would also raise critics’ eyebrows: illegal drugs, pork barrel and the Mamasapano massacre.

    On narcotics, he claimed to have undertaken “significant” efforts to combat it, noting that official estimates of drug addiction fell to about 1.3 million in his first years in office, and rose to 1.8 million only in 2015.

    Critics will cite other numbers. In Duterte’s first year in office, P82.5 billion worth of narcotics was seized by law enforcers, against P4.8 billion in Aquino’s last year, according to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA).

    Other Duterte data dwarfed equivalent figures under Aquino: 86,984 drug suspects arrested in the former’s first year, ninefold up from 8,766 in the latter’s last year. Nine shabu labs shut down, including two mega-labs, against three under Aquino. Fully 152 drug dens closed, nearly double the 82 before. And way, way ahead are the 1.3 million pushers and users surrendered under Duterte.

    On the pork barrel scam, Aquino wondered how Janet Lim Napoles, the accused broker of congressional corruption, could be tapped as state witness in the new investigations launched by Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre. Aquino also questioned the reversal of her illegal detention conviction.

    Of course, due process requires that investigations and charges be completed before one can assess if any probe is valid and useful in the quest for justice and truth. And in the pork barrel controversy, there had been criticism of partisan justice under Aquino, or as Catholic bishops put it, “selective prosecution” of opposition stalwarts, while administration allies are untouched.

    Now, a new investigation seeks to address this partiality and ferret out the whole truth on pork, based on budget accounts in the hands of a new government. And that has to include the Priority Development Assistance Fund of then-Senator Benigno Aquino 3rd, who got his share of PDAF from 2007 to 2010, but was never subject to inquiry.

    More questions for Aquino
    Indeed, Aquino’s remarks in the interview may just raise questions in critics’ minds about the issues covered. Thus, on PDAF, he certainly needs to shed light on his own senatorial finances, including whether the fund went to any suspect non-government organizations like those allegedly used by Napoles in pork graft.

    On Mamasapano, he has yet to detail exactly what he did and what instructions he may have given, which may have affected the train of events leading to the killing of 44 troopers of the Philippine National Police Special Action Force.

    Did he order military units to stand down instead of firing artillery and sending reinforcements to drive away attacking rebels? Did he stop communications with suspended PNP Chief Alan Purisima at the height of the battle between 10 in the morning till six at night, after all SAF 44 were killed? And what exactly was the extent of US involvement?

    To be sure, some or all of these questions may cover classified or secret matters, but they should be asked of Aquino now that he is able and willing to talk without compromising the dignity and prestige of the presidency.

    On other controversies, maybe he may say why he never investigated the disappearance of more than 2,500 cargo containers in 2011—the worst spate of smuggling in the country ever? He himself lambasted contraband for letting guns and drugs gush in his 2013 State of the Nation Address, yet never bothered to probe those who let thousands of containers slip in untaxed and uninspected.

    And if we may throw in one last query, would the former President care to comment on the Supreme Court’s unanimous finding that funds under his P157-billion Disbursement Acceleration Program were allocated to programs and projects not covered by any budgetary appropriation, based on evidence submitted in the DAP case?

    Was the high court wrong, or did he and then-Budget Secretary Florencio Abad disburse funds without the congressional authority required by the Constitution?

    Of course, we will understand if he invokes his right against self-incrimination.

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