For me it testifies amply to both the tenacity and the complicity of the Filipino polity and, by extension, society. It was a photo taken during a recent national security council (NSC) meeting, of four former presidents of the Philippines posing smilingly with the current one. For some foreigners like us it is strange enough that in a functioning democracy such as the Philippines, an NSC meeting would actually include former executive leaders.
It is one thing to bring in the major current legislators such as the relevant chairmen of various congressional and senate committees, because although they may hold different political views than the presidential administration, they nevertheless have clear and present stakes in the security of the country. But to bring in the former presidents? Didn’t their respective mandates to run the country expire a long time ago? Is there no fear that they might somehow insinuate their ways into interfering with the policies of the current administration?
Well, apparently not, at least, I guess, in the Filipino way of thinking. Or it might even be broadened to be said to be an “Asian thing” — respect for the wise advice rendered by seniors. And some of these “seniors,” or former national leaders do sometimes come to be useful too, as is perhaps evident in the appointment, confirmed in the NSC meeting, of former president Fidel Ramos to be a special envoy to China for negotiating for the peaceful resolution of the disputes between the two countries on the high sea separating them. Mr. Ramos may be called the Philippine “old China hand,” for he had vast experience interacting with the Chinese before, during and even after his own presidency, most notably as one of the co-founders of the annual Bo’ao Forum for Asia held annually on Hainan island, bringing together the senior political and economic figures and also major thinkers of Asia and beyond to discuss regional challenges. And of course Mr Ramos is well known to be a Filipino patriot, having personally took part in various socio-political movements over the years to bring about more democracy and clean governance to the country. So with him staging dialogues with China, a lot of mutual confidence would have existed even beforehand, thus hopefully enhancing the pace and quality of the talks.
So perhaps coopting former national leaders into taking care of present national and even international business is not such a bad idea overall. The United Nations, for one, routinely “makes good use” of the experience and stature of former statesmen to generally enhance world peace and development and specifically to resolve conflicts around the world. The UN secretary-general at any one time would appoint former presidents, prime ministers or foreign ministers of good standing (at least not being tainted by scandals or having been forced to step down under disturbing circumstances) to be his “special representatives” to try to bring together the major figures in typically armed disputes and try to persuade them to at least reach ceasefire, if not outright peace settlement.
Sometimes these retired senior figures would even have to put their lives at stake by traveling to war zones. Many civil wars and cross-border conflicts, primarily in Africa and the Middle East, have indeed been averted or quickly resolved by these essentially prominent mediators, saving the lives and properties of millions innocent civilians in these regions. But of course there were notable failures too, especially when these supposed peacemakers got too “ambitious” and tried to reach deals which were perhaps too elaborate or idealistic. A case in point was when former United States secretary of state (during the Carter administration) Cyrus Vance was appointed as the UN secretary-general’s special representative to try to broker a deal for the peaceful resolution of the then warring conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. During his time, Vance was of course instrumental in forging the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt which won the leaders of both countries their Nobel Prize. But in the case of former Yugoslavia, Vance decided to work closely with the then European Union special envoy, former British foreign minister David Owen to essentially “carve” the vastly multiethnic regions into various small “pockets” of land, or enclaves, many not interconnected with others of the same ethnic majority, numbering into tens or even a hundred or so. The resulting so-called Vance-Owen Plan was almost instantaneously rejected by all the rival parties. The former Yugoslavia would see many more years of wars and cruelty before the present, more stable borders were established.
Coming back to the Philippines, and to the photo at hand, I was also quite struck by the joviality with each other of the various presidential figures. I mean, for example, didn’t Gloria Arroyo essentially led a version of People’s Power to overturn her predecessor Estrada and replace him, with the active help of Ramos? And wasn’t Arroyo herself arrested and prosecuted during Aquino’s administration? And yet they are now willing to set aside their political differences and join hands in improving the Philippine national fate? Well, this is indeed a very resilient polity and society that you have.