WHILE protesters against the drug killings and the five-months’ extension of martial law in Mindanao milled a street away from the Batasan complex on Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte tried to win as much applause from the joint session of Congress at his second State of the Nation Address, which rambled on for two hours and entertained more than it instilled hope and confidence among his listeners.
What began as a scripted text, which tried to focus on a specific subject, went sideways after DU30 began to improvise and drift into alien territory, and left his audience amused by his ribald and sometimes incoherent jokes. Even the joint presiding officers, Senate President Koko Pimentel and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, could not avoid making distractive movements while DU30 spoke.
DU30 flitted from one topic to another, allowing himself no more than a casual pass at his important legislative proposals such as the comprehensive tax reform program and the National Land Use Act, which should have been discussed at greater length. It also led him to talk of certain issues which should have been completely avoided, such as the Supreme Court’s temporary restraining order on certain purchases under the Reproductive Health Law, and Jose Maria Sison’s alleged colon cancer, which the Utrecht-based founding chairman of the Communist Party of the Philippines has promptly denounced as “fake news.”
Some forgettable quotes
To be sure, the prepared text had some quotable quotes. But the SONA will probably be remembered for DU30’s ad lib remarks rather than for his prepared text.
On the war on drugs, DU30 said:
“I believed then, as I believe still, that progress and development will sputter if criminals, and illegal users of drugs, are allowed to roam the streets freely, victimizing with seeming impunity the innocent and the helpless…
“The fight will be unrelenting as it will be unrelenting… Despite international and local pressures, the fight will not stop until those who deal in it understand that they have to stop because the alternatives are either jail or hell.
“I do not intend to preside over the destruction of the Filipino youth by being timid and tentative in my decisions and actions…
“There’s a jungle out there. There are beasts and vultures preying on the helpless, the innocent and the unsuspecting. I will not allow the ruin of the youth, the disintegration of families and the retrogression of communities, forced by criminals whose greed for money is as insatiable as it is devoid of moral purpose. Neither will I be immobilized into inaction by the fear that I will commit an act that will expose me to public condemnation or legal prosecution. You have the children in whose hands the future of the Republic is entrusted, and I will hound you to the very gates of hell.”
Powerful words and powerful sentiments, indeed. So grave is the matter involved here that the President’s speechwriter did not hesitate to parody (I will not say plagiarize) Winston Churchill’s 1942 address in which he said, “I have not become the King’s First Minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” But any President who wants to save the children from illegal drugs should equally want to save them from getting addicted to foul language, immoral sexual behavior, and the routine killing of criminal suspects, without due process, which creates a far graver problem than the one it seeks to solve.
On mining and the protection of the environment, DU30 said:
“I am warning all mining operations and contractors to refrain from the unbridled and irresponsible destruction of our watersheds, forests and aquatic resources. You have gained much from mining. We only get about 70 billion (presumably pesos) a year, but you have considerably neglected your responsibility to protect and preserve the environment for posterity. (The tax you pay is only about 5 percent)…Declare your correct income and pay your correct taxes. Believe me, your failure to do so will be your undoing and eventual ruin…
“Hindi na ako makatakbo, matanda na ako—(I can no longer run, I am old already.) I don’t think I’ll even survive the five years. Pero pagka sinabi ko upakan kita, upakan talaga kita—(But if I say I’ll hit you, I will really hit you.)…Do not try to test my resolve. Absolutely I have nothing to lose except my life.”
To the poor who are sick but cannot afford the cost of hospital care, DU30 said, “just occupy the hospitals” and charge it to the government or Mayor DU30. Impressive. But unless they come in droves and take over a particular medical facility, as the “Occupy Wall Street” did when they occupied Wall Street, or when the Left-oriented Kadamay occupied the government housing facility for the military in Bulacan, no hospital is likely to allow any indigent to enter its facility without any prior arrangement.
And John Kennedy too
But apparently inspired by John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address in which he said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich,” DU30’s speechwriter wrote and DU30 read it, “If we cannot provide for the poor and the needy who are many, then we will not be able to keep from harm the rich who are few.” This is no longer simply parody, it comes closer to plagiary.
DU30 was humble and gracious enough to admit he was not in control of everything, and that peace in Mindanao, which he described as peace of the living rather than of the dead, continued to be elusive. “We are in trouble because we live in troubled times,” he said. “And I fear that things might get worse before they become better. But like I said we will cope, we hope and pray.” Said differently, “A multiple of problems confront us. No sooner is one problem solved than another surges forth in its place. But we will not be disheartened, we will not be cowed, we will not be overwhelmed.”
He ended his speech with an act of unexpected humility. “May God keep us sheltered in the hollow of His hand,” he prayed. This must have been music to the ears of priests and pastors in Mindanao and other parts of the country, who see DU30 as anti-clerical and anti-religious and who has routinely accused them of being as more sinful than he.
Silence instead of speech
But there were obvious gaps in the speech, and actual flies in the ointment.
He said, “The West Philippine Sea issue and federalism are matters that we have to take [up]sooner or later.” These two great issues were mentioned in this one sentence, without any discussion. It has been a year since the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled in favor of the Philippine sovereign rights over its maritime features in the Spratlys vis-à-vis China. DU30 decided not to invoke the ruling against China in order to construct a non-confrontational economic, cultural and political relationship between China and the Philippines.
We have already built the foundation of such a relationship, but we need to hear from the government what steps the two countries intend to take to build on that relationship without sacrificing our territorial claims. Reports persist that China’s island-building on the disputed areas continues, when all constructions should cease while the disputes remain unresolved. DU30 should have said something about this, but he did not. That was a real gap.
On federalism, we deserve to hear DU30’s and his allies’ understanding of this concept. There are many successful federal democracies, the United States, Canada and Germany among them. But these began as separate and independent states which decided to coalesce into one federal entity. This is not the situation of the Philippines. We are already one fully integrated unitary republic; there are no independent states or substates that need to be consolidated into one federal republic. The proposal to federalize could balkanize the unitary state, subdivide the archipelago into separate parts, so that we could put them back together again.
It is federalism in reverse. A most romantic idea, which its proponents would like to see implemented without much discussion, as though it were a mandate from heaven. Some people, I understand, are getting funds from some foreign foundations to fast-track this brainchild. At Monday’s opening of the Senate session, Senate President Pimentel mentioned it as one of the priorities of the Senate, purportedly to “empower the regions.”
There is no need for it, as there is no need for the Senate to act on 1,242 pending bills to allow it to discipline Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th for refusing to apologize for calling some of his colleagues “lapdogs”, without anyone feeling the need to apologize to the lapdogs.
A more imaginative fine-tuning and more decisive implementation of the local autonomy law, with particular attention to the sharing of resources between the regions and the central government, is all that’s needed to truly empower the regions. This law is not working as it should be, but it is not broken; all that we need to do is to upgrade it and make sure it works, and it will.
He also said Congress must reimpose the death penalty, without discussing it. He spoke of retribution, but failed to say if the country’s justice system could be entrusted to handle the death sentence.
Independent of the US
On DU30’s “independent foreign policy,” Filipinos support his move to cut off the apron strings that tie us to the US, but this cannot be done by replacing them with strings that tie us to China. DU30 singled out China for its support in reviving the Pasig river as a means of communication and transport, and in building more airports around the country, but he needlessly put the United States on the spot on three issues.
First, he recalled his spat with former President Obama on the drug killings, and the exact opposite position taken by his successor Donald Trump, who has invited him to visit the White House. Second, he accused Rappler, the online news platform, of being owned by Americans, in violation of the Constitution which provides that media should be 100 percent Filipino-owned. And third, instead of announcing that he would ask the US to return the Philippine bells that were taken by the US occupation forces from Balangiga, Samar, after the famous Balangiga massacre, where the natives overran an American detachment in 1901, DU30 made a direct call to the US government to return the bells.
“Give us back those Balangiga bells,” he said. “They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Return them. It is painful to us.” Although the US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim was among the invited guests at the gallery, the US government was, strictly speaking, not part of the SONA. Nonetheless, some people expected DU30 to acknowledge the help extended by the US Special Forces in trying to clear Marawi of the Islamic State-affiliated Maute and Abu Sayyaf terror groups. He failed to do so.
Obviously carried away by the reaction on the floor, DU30 asked that the Supreme Court lift its TRO on the distribution of abortifacients by the Department of Health. The RH Law allows the distribution of contraceptives, but not abortifacients. DU30 said that since the TRO had been in effect for the last two years, it should now be lifted, and the abortifacients distributed. He clearly missed the point.
DU30 went out of his way to announce he will no longer talk peace with the CPP/NPA/NDF. Brave words. But until he sacks the communist members of his Cabinet, we have no reason to believe him.