Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Tough balancing act on the part of the Duterte administration vis-à-vis the anti-drug war---combatting criminality while upholding human rights. Just how tough or how gentle should the campaign be? Whatever happens, it won’t be pretty

Hi folks, I’m back in my blog, engaged once again in the burning issues of the day. Since I disappeared from this space for about three weeks, friends have been texting, emailing and querying on FaceBook if I would ever return to my blog. It was difficult to do so. What happened was that Google had bought Yahoo out and adjustments had to be made the world over. But now I’m back and happy to do so, as there are so many burning issues here at home.


Headlines and articles from some of the most significant media outlets around the world in recent weeks, most notably Time Magazine, confirm gripping international attention on President Duterte’s brutal war on illegal drugs which has already taken the lives of more than 1,800 Filipinos as its bloody toll. First-World countries cannot seem to comprehend the urgency of Mr. Duterte’s declared war, which is understandable as the latter has run roughshod over human rights in some occasions. Our embassy in Washington, D.C. and consulates in New York City and San Francisco have been targeted by protesters, even as various UN agencies have hammered that ignoring human rights has not succeeded as a policy in the battle against illegal drugs in various countries.

The clash between the  authoritative will to combat this societal menace vs. the sanctity of human rights is reflected as well in debates among our leaders and in local media. Note the recent statement of CBCP President Socrates Villegas as well as the admonition of Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno last Thursday that adherence to the rule of law “will allow us to survive as a nation…keep the social fabric intact, address people’s cry for justice, and thereby prevent society’s descent to anarchy.”  

Japan Times echoed CJ Sereno's view in an opinion titled "Duterte's Threat to Democracy." Said the Times: "Duterte is only the most recent in a long line of autocrats who have been irritated by the inefficiencies of a democratically elected government...But the solution to that problem is rigid and neutral application of the law---not its disregard."


Every opinion writer is confronted with this problem and I try my best to see the dynamics of this issue clearly. On the one hand there is the need to protect human rights as ignoring them would, as CJ Sereno warns, lead to anarchy, which would be a far more serious problem.

On the other hand, the Filipino people have been lulled into complacency during the regime of ex-President Noynoy Aquino about the illegal drug problem. Our people were overly concerned about problems right under their noses---from the day-to-day battling of traffic and commuters’ struggle for rides, as well as such insanities as the tanim-bala and tax on OFWs' balikbayan boxes, that no one really realized how monstrous the drug menace has become, corrupting even a good number of the police force as well as some top civil officials. 

It took President Duterte to bring the realization to the Filipino people of the magnitude of this problem. 

If one talks to the ordinary Filipino, he or she remains very supportive of Duterte’s all-out war vs. drugs;  yet it also remains awfully frightening that so far 1,800 people have been acknowledged as collateral damage in this brutal war (exactly how many more is anyone's guess). I suspect that perhaps more than half are the results of clashes within the drug world itself---not of law-enforcers vs. drug addicts and peddlers, but of drug addicts killed by pushers who, in turn were killed by henchmen of the drug lords---as all of them seek to avoid being caught by the lawmen.


In the fight vs. the underworld, draconian measures are being invoked and interestingly, in the past few days, comparison has been made by various local commentators between Mr. Duterte and the late PM Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, notably Lito Banayo of Manila Standard and Wilson Lee Flores of Star. It will be recalled that the late tough-talking Oxford-trained LKY, who ruled over the Garden State with an iron hand from the time it was severed from the Malaysian Federation, clashed routinely with Western media from the very beginning, as he enforced his vision of his city-state.

Just how draconian the steps Mr. Duterte would be allowed to take by the people he leads remains to be seen. The business community would doubtless approve of his “LKY style,” as businessmen have historically been pragmatic and favoring strongman-rule. There is no question that the fight against illegal drugs would be difficult---a tough balancing act between following the 1987 Constitution---which was a reaction against the Marcos dictatorship---and its emphasis on respect for human rights on the one hand, and the need to suppress what appears to have run wild, the crime syndicates.


The drug war calls for a tough balancing act on the part of the Duterte administration---between what ought to be respected and what ought to be done urgently. There seems to be nothing gentle or pretty about it. This balancing act, however,  is complicated by several factors. There’s our flawed justice system where court decisions often can be bought and some judges and justices are perceived to be corrupt.

The recent photos of inhumanly congested jails in Metro Manila, reflected around the country, are grim reminders of this terrible flaw in our justice system, where people convicted of even petty crimes remain in jail for a good number of years. Then there was Mr. Duterte’s  recent  expose of a supposed “matrix” allegedly involving a high-ranking justice official of the past administration and some members of drug syndicates, some already behind bars but still said to be operating with impunity.


In the battle vs. illegal drugs and its resultant criminality, the citizenry and various institutions have to be involved. Local officials---mayors, vice-mayors and councilors---have to get into the fight, to motivate the youth. Many youths are listless and adrift because of poor education and lack of gainful opportunities for involvement. They could be motivated and guided back through activities that make them feel involved and needed, e.g., sports and arts competitions, meaningful skills-training workshops; etc. 

Experts in the anti-drug fight point out that the targets of drug syndicates are both the very poor and the very rich---the classes most alienated from society.
The very poor, as President Duterte points out, are victimized by shabu, which is most harmful to the brain, while the very rich go for cocaine and high-end stuff which are less damaging. 

The various  churches and civic organizations have to also get into the act, not just to preach against drugs and criminality, but also to help in the rehabilitation of the wayward. So do schools have a big role to play in keeping a keen eye on their students.

Just how gentle do the law-enforcers have to be vs. the victims of the drug war, with regard to their human rights? Or how tough so as to crack the syndicates open and bring errant manipulators of impoverished youths to justice? 

Mr. Duterte needs the wisdom of Solomon  and the grim determination of an Eliot Ness.  Above all, he needs our prayers.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Sending FVR to Beijing is too high-profile for the Chinese who have in past centuries been bullied by great powers. What would work better is to conduct a whispering campaign among friends, as we look for BFFs. In this task few can beat connections of former Speaker JDV.

Photo of ex-Pres. Gloria Arroyo w/ Atty Raul Lambino after learning the 11-4 vote of the Supreme Court - Photo from http://www.gmanetwork.com

I rejoice with the rest of the Filipino people over the Supreme Court’s decision yesterday to throw out the PCSO case vs. former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and ordered her immediate release. I cannot be happier, not only because she is my friend, but because a grave injustice has been corrected---albeit a bit too tardy.  The SC magistrates, voting 11-4 to set her free, took a good number of years to settle this issue and a question that strikes me as well as many other Filipinos is, why only now, in the new dispensation, did the magistrates find their voice? Were they intimidated by the Aquino administration in the past five years?  

No doubt the most terrible persecution of the late Chief Justice Renato Corona by the former administration had sown fear in the magistrates’ hearts.


To be sure, PGMA had her generous share of critics and to some of them, this was with good reason. But all Filipinos value the virtue of justice, especially speedy justice. It was obvious that the case against her was weak and did not prosper in the courts; but the problem was that Lady Justice was blindfolded too long, when the just course should have been to resolve it sooner rather than later, especially since this woman was quite ill and at one time looked like a walking skeleton, so that her former VP Noli de Castro and Imelda Marcos were moved to tears.

The heartlessness of the past administration of preventing her from seeking recourse to a foreign operation for her spinal problem, when local doctors have said they couldn’t do it with even a modicum of success, was just unbelievable.


I recall visiting her one Monday evening earlier this year at the Veterans Hospital. No visitors were allowed on that day of the week (I didn’t know it then, but the  guards allowed me in after one recognized me as an ex-military wife) and PGMA was alone except for a help. The silence of the hospital suite was deafening and I told myself how it could  drive a lesser person to despair; but she showed her true grit in trying to look cheerful as we chatted into the night about all kinds of things. Not once did she show visitors over the five years that she was despairing of her situation.

PGMA was convinced of her innocence in that PCSO case, so that when the new Duterte administration offered to pardon her, she politely and thankfully refused---arguing that she wished to go into trial in the hope that it would be speedy, so that she could prove her innocence. That PGMA’s case languished without resolution for over five years is the best argument for the court system to seek speedier delivery of justice for every Filipino---be he low in standing or the ex-President of the Philippines. 
Speedy justice should be true too for Benigno C. Aquino III when he faces trial.


Whenever I come across friends who are in President Duterte’s inner circle, such as Star columnist Carmen Pedrosa, I urge them not to leave him alone with his thoughts and beliefs too long, as it could prove disastrous. One such disaster I am referring to is the headline of today’s Inquirer, whereby Mr. Duterte said that he wouldn’t honor the Paris Climate Change Agreement forged in December 2015, whereby representatives of 195 nations, including the Philippines, agreed to keep the increase in world temperature at below 2 degrees Celsius---to help deter further inroads of global warming. This historic compact was followed four months later with the signing in New York City of the formal climate compact by more than 170 countries, including our own. There was much rejoicing at this hard-fought victory by individuals as well as countries.

Along comes Mr. Duterte, according to the news story today, who, apparently piqued by the reminder of an unnamed foreign ambassador of our country’s commitment to limit its carbon emissions.  He reportedly told the foreign envoy that we have not yet reached the level of industrialization and development, so that thus, he would not honor the signature on that  global climate agreement because it “was not mine…I will not follow.” The signature was Environment Secretary Ramon Paje’s, representing President Aquino.


The problem now, however, is that we’re pressing our big neighbor China to honor its commitment to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which became the basis for the decision of the UN-supported Permanent Arbitration Committee (PCA) in The Hague to throw out as invalid China’s claim to what it considers the South China Sea but which we consider the West Philippine Sea.  We are now banking on the UNCLOS to which our country was one of 200 or so nations that signed it, to pressure China to agree to the PCA’s decision.

China was a signatory to the UNCLOS but it refused to even argue its position on the maritime dispute with PH in The Hague. This despite the fact that as was pointed out in the excellent forum on “Upholding the Law of the Sea Convention and the Post-Arbitration Philippine Challenge,” held at the UP College of Law’s Malcolm Hall last Friday, July 15, Article 296 of the UNCLOS provides that judgment of the international court or tribunal would be legal and binding on the signatories.

If Mr. Duterte now insists that he would not honor our commitment under the Climate Change Agreement, what face would we show now to win support from UNCLOS members on our sea dispute with China?


The President has announced publicly that he would ask former President Fidel Ramos to conduct high-level talks with Beijing on the arbitral tribunal’s ruling, to perhaps persuade China to toe the line. But given many factors, such as the background of that country of having been bullied in past eras by various powers, especially the Western powers (as explained very well by our former Ambassador to Beijing Narciso Reyes, Jr. in his Inquirer Commentary of July 16, 2016, a high-profile counter by FVR, despite his prestige internationally, might not work well. FVR probably realizes this too, as he has not commented on Duterte’s “designation” at all.

In personal as well as international relations, the adage about “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a truism. But what about the friend of my friend? That would be my “best friend,” wouldn’t it?  I’d suggest that a whispering campaign for support among our BFFs would be more effective, and here no one can perhaps beat former Speaker Jose de Venecia.


JDV was not five-term speaker for nothing, and after he retired from local politics he shifted gears to international politics, working with both active and retired international parliamentarians. He is Founding Chair as well as Chair of the standing committee of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), composed of some 350 ruling and opposition political parties from 52 Asian countries, INCLUDING CHINA'S COMMUNIST PARTY. In fact the Vice-Minister of the International Department of China, its policy-making body, is a member of ICAPP's standing committee, together with JDV. 

JDV is also president of the Centrist Asian Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI) that counts prominent civil and political leaders such as Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, President Jose Ramos Horta of East Timor and incumbent Indonesian VP Yusuf Kalla. JDV, who co-founded Lakas-Kampi with FVR, was also one of the founders of the Asian Peace and Reconciliation Council (ARC). All of these organizations could be harnessed to support our claim to the West Philippine Sea.

As I argued, the friend of my friend is my BFF. We need friends to support our victory in the Hague arbitral tribunal. A whispering campaign among our friends is the better part of valor. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

Two "Promdis’ as our top leaders and the 'YMCA Dorm Mafia' in Duterte Cabinet


Greetings to all those who have followed this blog faithfully for some time now. I disappeared from this space for a little over a month as my friend Nena Cruz and I joined a quest in two European cities for a fine violin for our outstanding young Filipino classical violinist, Joaquin Maria “Chino” Gutierrez, and we two ladies then treated ourselves to two operas at the magnificent 2,015-year old Arena di Verona in Italy. With that search mission for Chino Gutierrez accomplished, thanks to the help of a support group that realized the critical importance of assisting our artists, I am ready to get into the “political boxing ring” again, where so many developments are taking place. 

Indeed, this new Duterte administration is like a Pacific cyclone spinning around the country!

This blog promises to dig into the crucial issues facing our nation, but before this, allow me to talk about the lighter issue---the story of the two “promdis” who now lead us, straight from Davao City and Naga City.

Believe me, I was laughing and laughing as I was putting this blog together. Enjoy the laughs while they last, as I’m sure there wouldn’t be too many laughs in future write-ups, for the issues facing our country, such as the war against the drug and criminality menace with its concomitant grave potential for human rights abuse, and the predictable struggle to shift to federalism---which many politicos won’t like but which I fully support---would be no picnic.


The turnover of the AFP leadership at the Camp Aguinaldo Grandstand from Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda to Lt. Gen. Ricardo Visaya last July 02 provided the first opportunity that President Digong Duterte and Vice-President Leni Gerona Robredo met eye-to-eye. It’s said that the new Veep was afraid that she’d be snubbed by the new President, as she ran under the opposing LP; but it turned out that he was quite warm toward her. “M'am, I would have wanted to sit beside you, but the Defense Secretary is sitting between us,” Duterte was heard saying, which sent the Veep giggling like a young girl in front of the cameras. Rumor says that her daughters later accosted their mom for giggling too much. Because the weather was so hot, an aide gave the President some buko juice which he yielded to the Veep---thus helping to further warm the friendship. 

These gestures are not surprising, for Duterte’s gallantry toward women is pretty well-known (save for that unfortunate remark during the heat of the campaign for which he got it in the neck from all his critics).  For some days, however, it was not known whether he would accommodate Robredo in the Cabinet, and I must confess that I was among those who were irked by this snob of her---I thought it was quite petty of him. 

But Duterte’s senses got the better of him and Leni Robredo was in Tawi-Tawi when she got a call from him a few days later---he was offering her the chairmanship of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council (HUDCC), a Cabinet position she readily agreed to take.


When the Veep paid a courtesy call on the President in Malacanang, her official driver parked the car assigned to her in the street outside the Palace walls.  Mr. Duterte took her on a tour of the Palace and because they both speak Cebuano they got along pretty well and quite easy---though he kept addressing the Veep as "M'am." When it was time to bid him goodbye on the second floor, she saw that Mr. Duterte was going to bring her down the Grand Staircase and she insisted that he should not do so. He dismissed her protestation, however, arguing that “M'am, they might think I am not a gentleman anymore!” 

Downstairs in the Palace's main entrance, while waiting for the Veep’s car that was negotiating entry to the grounds, Robredo began bowing  and he told her to stop doing so; but as an eyewitness narrated, pretty soon, however, they were bowing to each other repeatedly. Here I'm reminded of the way the Japanese do---one sees folks at phone booths, bowing incessantly to an imaginary someone.

As someone remarked to me, our two top leaders are “promdis” now thrust into the center stage, pero promding-promdi pa rin!


We folks by now are accustomed to the crazy mix-up in fashion exhibited by Mr. Duterte, such as wearing a barong with boots or maong jeans (now called the Maong Tagalog). Would his get-up for his first State of the Nation Address on July 25 at the House of Representatives would the Maong Tagalog?  I note with pleasure and approval, though, the Palace admonition to those who until last year would spend lavishly on ternos---be they members of Congress or the distaff side---to be more frugal in their outfits. Note how in the past era the ladies loved to disclose which couturier did their gowns---and by their dropping of names you’d know how much their gowns would cost. The admonition now is so refreshing! 

The President is also photographed riding commercial economy class to Davao, but those who work with him note his very informal manners too. In the afternoon following his noon-day swearing into office, he held his first Cabinet meeting in the Palace, and because of the workload it seems he failed to take even a bite of the merienda. At some point he saw the maruya (cooking banana wrapped in thin paper-like flour and fried crisp) uneaten on the plate of his Health Secretary, Dr. Paulynn Ubial, and asked her, Paulynn, hindi mo ba kakainin ang maruya mo? Akin na, ha, at gutom na gutom na ako!

The new President confesses to still use a mosquito net for sleeping and speculation is whether this habit would persist in the elegant Bahay Pangarap across the Pasig, which he has made his official residence in Manila.


Like most chief executives as well as us ordinary mortals, Digong Duterte relies on personal ties dating from way back. Note that a good number of those he appointed to his Cabinet are people he knew from his days living as an out-of-town student in the YMCA Youth Center Dorm in Arrocerros, near the foot of the Ayala Bridge in Manila, not too far from Malacanang. 

In that YMCA dorm, now DFA Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. was his roommate for two years, while they were both law students---Digong Duterte in San Beda College and Jun Yasay at the UP where he finished law in 1972.  Other guys at that dorm were Arthur Tugade, then studying at San Beda College where he graduated magna cum laude in 1971, who was former chair of the “Perry Group of Companies” and now the new Secretary of Trade and Industry, and Cesar “Billy” Dulay, the new BIR Commissioner. New Justice Secretary Silvestre “Bebot” Bello, an Ateneo law graduate, was also residing at YMCA at one point, while reviewing for the bar.

Now the 'YMCA Dorm Mafia' of yesteryears is dominant in the Duterte Cabinet. 


At the Malacanang reception for foreign and local dignitaries after the President's oath-taking, he and Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay were chatting at the top of the Grand Staircase while awaiting the guests. They recalled that back in 1972, they were only talking about the martial rule imposed by President Marcos and other critical issues then. This time, 44 years later, they were in Malacanang, awaiting the dignitaries.

The President then turned to his former YMCA roommate and exclaimed, “Everything is happening so fast, and I had not been programmed for this.”

But such is destiny---at times there is no such programming indeed, but it happens. I didn’t vote for Mr. Duterte----in fact I was quite critical of him due to certain pronouncements of his during the campaign period. But now I am praying for this leader like I’ve not prayed for any President before, as he wages all-out war vs. drugs and criminality.  Digong (accent on the second syllable, as former Sen. Nene Pimentel, leader of the federalism movement, stressed during our initial assembly last Saturday) Duterte needs a lot of prayers. 

May the Lord keep the new President safe from harm and imbue him with wisdom and more courage to effect real change in our hapless country.