A NUMBER of friends called me on Wednesday morning to ask if I had already sold out to President Rodrigo Duterte. Whatever happened to you? they said, after reading my column, “Saving President Duterte.” In it I said I was rather delighted that although the Catholic bishops denounced the drug killings in their February 5, 2017 pastoral letter, they did not condemn DU30. They did not ask him to abandon his anti-drug campaign, but only asked to end the summary killings.
This was the same message of the former President of Colombia, Cesar Gaviria, who fought a bloody anti-narcotics war against the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar, in an article meant precisely for DU30 in the op-ed section of The New York Times. Treat illegal drugs as a social problem, not a military one, he said; do not repeat our mistakes. To which DU30 swiftly replied, “Idiot,” referring to the highly respected Latin American leader. Earlier, he sent PNP Chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa to Colombia to learn from its drug experience.
In my column, I said I had never given up on DU30, whatever his faults. His tendency to insult those who disagreed with him had long ceased to astound me; what continues to disappoint me, however, is his apparent belief that words like “fuck you,” “son of a whore,” “idiot,” and other obscenities are a good substitute for sound arguments and clear ideas. Theyare not. Insult is a gentlemanly art, which one learns to enjoy at a certain intellectual height; it provides a distinct sparkle in politics, letters and the arts.
Winston Churchill called Clement Atlee a “modest man with a lot of things to be modest about.” When Nancy Astor said, “if I were your wife, Winston, I’d put poison in your tea,” he replied, “if I were your husband, Madam, I’d drink it.” When a large hunk of a Texan asked the diminutive Carlos P. Romulo how it felt to be a pygmy in the company of giants, the Filipino diplomat said, “Like a dime among nickels.” Instead of calling a woman he immensely disliked by a vulgar name, the Filipino poet Jose Garcia Villa told her, “you have such a face that could give birth.” And she thanked him for it. Instead of telling some ill-mannered newsmen at the Foreign Office to “drop dead,” the late former Foreign Secretary Narciso Ramos, FVR’s father, said: “Man is made of dust. Dust settles down. Be a man.” And they never found out what he meant.
Hoping in DU30
I said that DU30, whatever his faults, was worth saving and could still be saved, and hoped that God, in his wisdom, would transform him into an apostle as he transformed Saul of Tarsus into Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles, on the road to Damascus. This remains my prayer and my hope. A good and gracious Protestant bishop texted me to say, “Those who joyfully leave everything in God’s hand will eventually see God’s hand in everything.” And a missionary sister residing in Indonesia emailed me to say, this was also her own thoughts and thanked me for what I wrote. At a press forum in Quezon City, where I supported DU30’s “independent foreign policy,” some of my media friends chided me for what they thought was a clearly pro-DU30 endorsement.
But before the day was over, while en route to the Philconsa Day celebration at the Manila Hotel, where I had been asked to deliver the invocation, I learned from friends that I had just joined the august company of God, the Catholic Church, the Pope, some bishops and priests, who had all been publicly abused by DU30. I could not avoid being surprised. I had written many critical pieces on the President, and never got a “putang ina” before. But precisely when I thought I was being completely positive and helpful, that’s when I finally got it.
Does DU30 read his critics?
I could take any insult from any source, but the point is, did the President read at all what I wrote, or did he simply ask a subliterate aide to read it for him and give him his subliterate appreciation of the same? I had not written a satire, which uses irony, exaggeration or double entendre to suggest the opposite meaning of what is written. As a rule, I try to avoid satire for a very good reason: My dear friend of happy memory, the incomparable Adrian Cristobal, once criticized a public official by offering him a left-handed compliment, but the politician responded energetically by profusely thanking him, to his utter embarrassment.
There was no way anyone could have drawn a contrary meaning from what I had written. I simply summarized what the bishops had said in their pastoral letter, pointing out the distinction they made between the extra-judicial killings and the drug war. They wanted the killings stopped but not the drug war. I then offered a few observations on how the President could refocus and reshape his war, and how he could use the collapse of his truce and peace talks with the CPP/NPA/NDF, which he now calls a terrorist organization, to reorganize his communist-ridden government, and to identify himself better with the moral values of the rest of the nation.
This thing about Fuda
Then I expressed satisfaction with the President’s statement about his alleged visit to the Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou after the New Year. This was a sensitive issue, which I did not want to touch, after my initial mention of it in January, but the fact that he finally confirmed it struck me as a welcome sign that he has decided to become more transparent. So, I thought I was free to commend him for it. This proved to be a miscalculation.
I completely misread how sensitive he remained about the issue. And I had been part of it from the very beginning. It was this column that first asked whether or not DU30 had gone to the cancer hospital in Guangzhou after Malacanang failed to state competently where the President spent the first several days after the New Year. He had disappeared from public view, and the official line was that he had decided to rest in Davao, all by his lonesome without exposing him to anyone.
No one in Davao had seen him in Davao, and no one in Manila had seen him there either. When some Malacanang reporters asked the presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella if the President ever went to Manila during that time, he did not say, “there is no record of that.” Instead he said, the President may have spent part of the holidays in Manila.
This incompetent answer gave credence to speculations, coming from a chain of highly reliable sources, which I myself did not want to take at face value, that he had gone to Fuda. So, I asked the question, did he, in fact, go to Fuda? I never suggested, and have not suggested until now, that the President is suffering from cancer; I have simply quoted his statements that he is afflicted with Buerger’s disease, Barrett esophagus, and constantly recurring migraine. I also reported that he had a bout of dizziness in Lima, Peru, which prevented him from attending the APEC official dinner, and another in Malacanang a few days thereafter.
DU3O’s health not an issue
In that particular column, I discussed the incompetence of his spokesmen, which created unnecessary problems, rather than the President’s state of health, which I did not even discuss. then. But Malacanang’s kneejerk response was to talk about the President’s health, prompting the public to focus more on it rather than on the spokesman’s capability and competence to protect the President, which was the only point I raised. Seeing how highly sensitive the President was to the issue, I decided to lay off it, despite various corroborating details that followed.
But the forces of incompetence remained. While every effort was being made to convince the public that DU30 did not visit China on the first week of January, a news story on page 10 of the Philippine Star reported that he would be going back to Beijing in May to firm up contracts that were first discussed during his last state visit to China. This just didn’t wash. No head of state ever goes back to a foreign country to follow up on commitments made by the host government during a state visit—this is normally left to the resident ambassador, or to Cabinet ministers and even heads of agencies.
During the Chinese New Year’s festival at the Makati Shangri-la, a Chinese embassy official confirmed to me that a very special meeting would be held in Beijing in May, and President Xi Jinping has pleaded to DU30 to attend it. Philippine ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana confirmed this by saying DU30 would be going there for a One Belt, One Road conference. It all looked very neat, except that according to some Southeast Asian diplomatic sources whose government has been invited to the same conference, this would be a meeting of Cabinet ministers only, not heads of state or government.
Then the Philippine branch of the Fuda Cancer Hospital entered the fray. They put out an ad saying DU30 may have gone to China in January but never went to Fuda. Then it gave a full description of its capability to treat the most advanced cancer patients. I stopped myself from asking any questions. But without any effort on my part to stay with this story, a highly reliable diplomatic source informed me that he had seen actual documentary proof that DU30 had visited Fuda in January. He was in no position to share the proof, but said he had examined it, and that he did not doubt its authenticity. I found his claim credible, but did not want to touch the story, in deference to PDU30.
At the 117th anniversary of the Manila Bulletin on February 2, I spoke to some members of the Cabinet, and decided to share the information with one of them—-as a personal favor to DU30. I told the Cabinet member I did not want to touch the story, but the reported proof could leak to anybody, and it was best that the President prepared for it.
Apparently, the Cabinet member shared the story with DU30. But instead of thanking me for the input, he decided I was trying to embarrass his presidency. Indeed, no good deed goes unpunished. At the Philconsa Day celebration that evening, Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II, who was the guest of honor and speaker, called me the President’s “flavor of the day.” I did not object to the distinction, but I thought there was reason to be concerned that the right conclusions no longer flowed from the right premises.
The martial law bogey
At the open forum, I asked Aguirre about the possibility of DU30 proclaiming martial law. Under the Constitution, in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it, the President may declare martial throughout the Philippines or in any part thereof. We have not been invaded, and although we have the CPP/NPA/NDF and MILF rebellions, these had been neutered by the ceasefire and peace talks with both insurgencies. But DU30 has just cancelled the ceasefire and the peace talks with the CPP/NPA/NDF, and declared the latter a terrorist organization. Does this not give DU30 the right, or reason, to declare that rebellion exists, for which the immediate solution could be martial law?
Aguirre seems to believe so. Thus, the talk about martial law continues.