A LITTLE over a week with the new President and I have a sinking feeling that what informs much of our opinions about how this country should be run is a closet conservatism, if not a closet Catholicism, that is very rabid about choosing between black and white.
Here, one finds that we apparently don’t like gray areas, and in this sense President Duterte will always fail: rhetoric pa lang, talo na siya.
The transition period
I’ve been judged as someone who is faltering on principles, on fundamental beliefs about human rights, given my general silence about the killings of alleged drug dealers and drug lords after Duterte won the elections.
But it was really just about this: in the month or so between the time the President won the election and took his oath, my attitude was that the only person to blame for the killings and roundups should’ve been then President Noynoy Aquino. After all, he was still President, and he was still responsible for the peace and order situation in the country. The truth is no matter what the then President-elect was saying, PNoy was still in charge.
But no one made him take responsibility, and we did not hear a peep from him about the roundups and killings. Mainstream and social media had pretty much agreed that this was all because of the President-elect’s rhetoric. In the process, we let PNoy get away with it.
And when then President-elect Duterte acknowledged the killings, saying that it’s entirely possible that it is the policemen themselves who are killing potential witnesses who might squeal on them, few discussed this as one of many possible explanations for the killings.
After all, it was easier to pin what was happening on the ground to the then President-elect’s rhetoric. Discussions were not welcome.
Now as President Duterte, the international media, with data from local media, have been talking about the Philippines given the roundups and deaths. Aljazeera.com has reported 45 killings since June 30 (as of July 5), all with “suspected links to drug trafficking.”
On July 5 Duterte announced the names of police generals who in one way or the other have become embroiled in the drug trade. “Ito ‘yung mga tao who were given the honor to join the academies of our country, the PNP or the PMA, at the expense of the public. … By any language, it is really treason. Huwag ninyong lokohin ang bayan sa panahon ko kasi hindi ako papayag.”
We are reminded that this is the rhetoric that won the President this election, but also it is rhetoric that is being proven to be anything but just that, because there are directives and orders that are affecting what is happening on the ground, and it is—good or bad—a fulfillment of the promise Duterte made during his campaign.
This is what keeps me in this gray area, it’s what forces me onto it, because while I did not vote for this President, I respect those who did. Maybe their experience of living in the Philippines is such that the violence that drugs wreak on their lives is very different from my perceptions of it from the distance my social class affords me? Maybe all that I believe about drug rehabilitation, about justice, about jail time, maybe all that is theoretical and not at all what is true or correct for those who are actually victimized by the illegal drug trade?
I do not mind that this President’s beliefs put mine into question, and that the vote of 16 million Filipinos has necessarily put me in my place, gray area as that place might be. As a good friend has told me: it’s only when you’ve been in that gray area can you even decide to go in either direction of black or white. At least if those are options at all.
First 100 days
Since Duterte won the elections, I have accepted an almost schizophrenia, always doing a double-take, always rethinking, reassessing, reconsidering where I stand on issues.
Because, on the one hand, there is the President’s iron-fist method of dealing with criminals that requires a discussion about human rights, about crime and the right to live free from fear, about crime and the criminal’s rights to due process. On the other, this is the first President I’ve seen who is very clear about what nation needs, about how the marginalized and poor have suffered enough, about who it is we need in government, and what kind of government we need.
There are those appointments from the militant sector, yes. But also there are symbolic decisions, ones that are premised on what is best for nation, even when it might not be seen as “presidential.” Say, sitting down with militant activists who were escorted from Mendiola and into the Palace on inauguration day. Breaking bread with the poor that same evening, and telling them “Kaunting tiis pa” instead of making impossible promises. Meeting with the Vice President and bringing her to her car afterward—a breach in protocol, but what a gentleman would do. Appearing at the Gilas game and raising his fist to the chanting crowd. Wearing the Philippine flag and the plainest of barongs on inauguration day.
The decision to not rock the boat with China any more than the past administration already has, and as per Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay, searching for a special envoy to China (I suggest Chito Sta. Romana, please!), only bodes well for peace over Scarborough Shoal. It is also consistent with his directive to begin peace talks with the Communist Party, as well as create the conditions for peace in Mindanao. There is also the freedom he has given Cabinet Secretaries as far as serving the people is concerned, including fixing the benefits for and status of contractual employees, and opening up gates closed on impoverished farmers for years.
Others have said they are cautiously optimistic. I am constantly optimistic but necessarily critical, balancing the rhetoric with the actions, the articulations with the symbols. I am also critical of myself, and am happy to stay in this gray area in the meantime. With President Duterte, I’m pretty sure I’m going to be here for a while.