If President Rodrigo Roa Duterte’s 14-minute inaugural address was the shortest on record by any Filipino president, his first State of the Nation Address on Monday was one of the longest. What was reportedly intended to last 38 minutes went on for 92 minutes after so many ad libs. No one wept as Communication Secretary Martin Andanar said he did when he first read the draft speech—instead, mirthful laughter rippled across the hall as PDU30 departed from his text and cracked jokes. Neither did the audience levitate to patriotic heights, as the highly exuberant communications chief had suggested. But PDU30 was interrupted by incessant applause as he cemented his bond with his audience.
PDU30’s first SONA was unlike any previous SONA in terms of spirit. The occasion was clearly festive. On Commonwealth Avenue, where angry and fire-breathing demonstrators used to clash with the police, the spirit was celebratory of the new government. The barbed wires, container vans, military tanks and menacing fire trucks that used to block anti-government marchers toward the Batasan were all gone, and the habitual demonstrators now milled around the Batasan waving little flags or wearing T-shirts supportive of the President.
The singer not the song
PDU30 did not have to write his own speech and revise it 10 times (according to Andanar) to find a more highly receptive audience. The joint session of Congress and their guests were clearly more interested in the speaker than in his speech. Yet it wasn’t bad at all.
DU30 began by speaking to the most relevant issue of the day. Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had just been freed by the Supreme Court from years of “unjust detention” and was now seated with two other former Presidents, Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Estrada, as the duly elected House member for the 2nd District of Pampanga and a free person. Her supporters had begun calling for just retribution against former President B. S. Aquino 3rd, who was smarting from the SC decision, and had chosen not to attend the joint session.
“We cannot move forward if we allow the past to pull us back,” DU30 said. “Finger-pointing is not the way…I will not waste precious time dwelling on the sins of the past or blaming those who are perceived to be responsible for the mess that we are in and suffering from…. It is the present we are concerned with and the future we should prepare for. …Those who betrayed the people’s trust shall not go unpunished, they will have their day in court. And if the evidence warrants, they will have their day of reckoning, too.”
The last victim
These words found perfect resonance in GMA’s own words. Asked whether she thought of getting back at PNoy, she answered with deep conviction, “I want to be the last victim of political persecution, using the justice system.”
The last time I heard something like this was from SC Justice Abraham Sarmiento who lost a brilliant son to the torments of martial law. Finding an opportunity to get even with the regime that hastened his son’s death, he said: “In a democratic framework, there is no such thing as getting even.” Clearly suffering has transformed GMA into a deeply spiritual person; the nation is all the richer for it.
DU30 may have been touched in a similar way. Despite his earlier remarks against the Church, and against Pope Francis at one point, he assured the nation that “while I am a stickler for the principle of separation between Church and State, I believe quite strongly that there should never be a separation between God and State.”
Recent photos showing DU30 paying his warm respects to Cardinal Ricardo Vidal, the archbishop emeritus of Cebu, and Cardinal Luis Antonio (Chito) Tagle, the archbishop of Manila, and on the friendliest terms with Archbishop Romulo Valles, the archbishop of Davao, tend to show that the President is much more spiritually inclined than he would like people to suspect.
In his speech, DU30 vowed no let-up in his war against drugs. This, he said, has already netted 3,600 arrests and the surrender of 120,000 drug dependents, 70,000 of them pushers, out of an estimated population of 3.7 million drug addicts, since July 1. “We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier and the last pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars or are below the ground if they so wish,” he said.
To help in this fight, he would like to see a stronger Witness Protection Act, and a Whistleblowers Act. To help the poor, he would like to see more lawyers in all the regions under the Public Attorney’s Office.
Reacting to his human rights critics, DU30 said, “Human rights must work to uplift human dignity. But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country.” This is obviously not the last word on this issue; we should see this debate prosper in the days ahead.
But even a drug-free society must first have peace. DU30 called for an end to centuries of mistrust and warfare with the Moros, and decades of ambuscades and skirmishes from the CPP/NPA/NDF.
He announced a unilateral ceasefire with the communists and asked them to respond. He called for a resumption of the peace talks.
He indicated support for the passage of the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, without “the things you do not want.” These referred to the unconstitutional provisions, as pointed out by the Senate committee of former Sen. Ferdinand (Bongbong) Marcos Jr. There is also one petition before the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro, on which the proposed BBL is based.
To foster investments and job creation, and ease the tax burden on the citizenry, DU30 wants to see a simpler, more equitable and more efficient tax system with lower personal and corporate income tax. At the same time, he wants to see the bank secrecy law relaxed. For the poorest families, he ordered the Department of Social Welfare and Development to give them a monthly rice subsidy, to make sure they eat, in addition to the conditional cash transfer they regularly receive.
For the informal settlers, he ordered that there be no demolition without relocation, and that all relocation sites be provided with the basic infrastructure, electricity and other utilities. He reiterated full support to the indigenous peoples but urged them to use the laws that had been enacted in their favor, “to help themselves.”
For the Overseas Filipino Workers, he wants to see the eventual creation of a Department for Overseas Filipinos. He wants to see the validity of Philippine passports extended from five to ten years. And drivers’ licenses from three to five years.
He promised to put in the necessary infrastructure for agriculture, tourism, transportation and communication, and to address the monstrous traffic problem in the metropolis through a maximization of use of primary and secondary routes, and by reviving the Pasig River Ferry System to service Mandaluyong, Pasig, Taguig, Marikina and Quezon City.
He wants to see more and faster commuter trains in Metro Manila, fast long trains in Mindanao; and a new runway at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport by transferring general aviation (the private planes) to Sangley Point. But knowing the depth of the problem, he wants Congress to provide emergency powers to the agencies concerned, “if they like.”
He wants to see the country, notably Metro Manila, garbage-free, so he wants the Carmona Sanitary Landfill project pursued. He wants to see Laguna Lake, in which an ambitious Belgian-supported development project had been cancelled by the Aquino administration without any hearing, developed into a vibrant economic zone, with the fishermen as its first beneficiaries.
For business, he wants to end the bottlenecks in all regulatory and processing activities, everything identified with red tape. He wants free wifi in all public places, and he wants the Department of Information and Communications Technology to develop a National Broadband Plan to accelerate the development of fiber optics cables and and wireless technologies to improve internet speed.
And he wants his Cabinet to be more proficient in its use.
Among his most controversial statements were those on federalism and on reproductive health. “The implementation of the Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Law must be put into full force and effect so that couples, especially the poor, will have freedom of informed choice on the number and spacing of children they can adequately care and provide for, eventually making them more productive members of the labor force.”
This was probably part of the speech which the President said he did not write. Many suspect that some politicians have complained about the non-full implementation of the RH Law because the government has failed to release so much money for contraceptives, and this has affected some continuing benefits for the political salesmen of RH.
We need to revisit the RH Law because of the inherently infirm constitutional ruling of the Supreme Court. The ruling describes the law as a “population control measure,” but considers it “not unconstitutional” in spite of that. Population control is outlawed by the Constitution. As I put it to the SC during the Oral Arguments on this Law, something which none of the learned Justices seemed to understand, “If the State is the primary protector of conception, it cannot be the source of contraception.”
On federalism, this is a large issue that deserves an extensive debate. Many appreciate the President’s enthusiasm, but under the Constitution, any revision of or amendment to the Constitution may be proposed by the Congress or the people themselves, but there is no mention of the President. His hands are tied, strictly speaking.
Talking to China
The third issue which deserves a bit more attention is our evolving relationship with China, following the ruling by the Permanent Council of Arbitration on our maritime dispute in the South China (West Philippine) Sea, which Beijing has decided to ignore. Some people had expected the President to make it one of the central points in his SONA. But it merited but one sentence: “With regard to the West Philippine Sea, otherwise known as the South China Sea, we strongly affirm and respect the outcome of the Permanent Council of Arbitration as an important contribution to the ongoing efforts to pursue the peaceful resolution and management of our disputes.”
The President wants to talk to China, and has named FVR as his special envoy to Beijing. But previous to this, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. has said there won’t be any bilateral talks anymore. Before the July 12 ruling, Yasay had announced he was ready to discuss the possibility of joint exploration of mineral and marine resources in the disputed areas with Beijing. But the euphoric reaction to the ruling in favor of the Philippines, and the intense pressure coming from Manila’s allies, notably the United States, not to talk with China, compelled Yasay to make a U-turn. No more talks, he said.
Now DU30 has named FVR. I spoke to FVR after the SONA and he seemed ready to go. In fact, he asked me in jest whether I spoke any Mandarin. What happens now? US Secretary of State John Kerry is in town to talk with DUC30, Yasay, and presumably FVR. He is the highest ranking US official to come after State Department Counselor Kristie Kenney, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Rep. Ted Deutch, 21s district Florida, Donna Edwards, 4th district Maryland, and John Garamendi, 3rd district California. Will DU30 be able to persuade Kerry it is in our best interest to be talking to Beijing?
Or would he rather fight the anti-drugs war?