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.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Challenge to Harry Roque: how to convince his boss to process thoughts and ideas first before articulating them in public. On CJ Sereno's impending impeachment in House, it's utterly reprehensible to deprive her of right to counsel---her inalienable right as Filipino under the Constitution

Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque in consultation with President Duterte 
Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Ma. Lourdes Sereno

Last Friday evening, Nov. 24, my longtime friend, business journalist Tony Lopez, founder of BizNews Asia, celebrated the 16th anniversary of his unsurpassed magazine as well as his 69th birthday at the EDSA Shangri-la Plaza Garden Ballroom. It drew many business and industry moguls, among them Ramon Ang of the flagship San Miguel Corporation, Tessie Sy-Coson of the SM/BDO empire, Helen Yuchengco-Dee of the RCBC Group and many others. Also attending the very successful event were a number of Cabinet members, among them controversial new presidential spokesman Harry Roque and Budget Secretary Ben Diokno.


Harry Roque was tapped to hand out the award trophies to the businessmen being honored, and he obliged folks’ requests for photos. I found Roque, a former human rights lawyer and UP law professor---quite affable despite his initial threat to throw hollow blocks at his boss’ critics and his seeming propensity to draw flak for his various moves.  While we were posing for photos, I managed to advise this controversial official to persuade his boss to subject his thoughts to some badly–needed processing first, before opening his mouth.

If Mr. Duterte's statements could thus be moderated, Roque’s difficulty would be considerably reduced, as it's the President's propensity to shoot off before processing his thoughts and pronouncements that invariably gets him into trouble---and his spokesperson in a furious bind. Unfortunately, judging from Harry Roque’s non-verbal comment on my observation (he just rolled his eyes upward), it seems impossible to even try to straight-jacket the President on his pronouncements.  

The problem with poorly processed presidential utterances is that foreign business prospects could be dampened, as the political picture here projects an unstable climate, to begin with. Mr. Duterte often does verbal political somersaulting---saying something outlandish and then reversing himself and with furious damage control afterwards.  Such impression of political instability is very harmful for business. 


Take the case of the situation in the metropolis and several recent developments. The MRT situation remains a mess, with a whole phalanx of officials from the Aquino administration charged by the Ombudsman for what seems clearly an anomalous situation there. As Buhay Party-list Rep. Joselito Atienza put it in our recent dzRH  “Radyo Balintataw,” it’s wrong trains for the existing tracks, or wrong tracks for the new trains. He follows this with a query: “Could you imagine a father buying a toy train for his son without even testing if the tracks fit?

That’s what happened to the MRT trains, except that that deal cost many billions now wasted. Meanwhile, these trains daily service around half a million people in Metro Manila who suffer daily Calvary because of periodic breakdowns. Passengers walking on the tracks to get back to the street is a frequent but pathetic sight. Once a compartment even disengaged and a female passenger even lost her arm.  So dangerous have those trains become.  

Their poor condition has become the butt of jokes---the Filipino way of coping indeed. At BizNews Asia’s Anniversary, guests at our table compared notes on how long it took them to EDSA Plaza. On my way there I saw incredibly long queues for trains at the Shaw Blvd. MRT station crossing. It is hard to see the silver lining here, as shutting down the MRT for repairs, as is being proposed, could bring even more monstrous problems. 


In the House of Representatives, the impeachment move against Chief Justice Lourdes Sereno appears to gain enough momentum. Should SC Associate Justice Teresita de Castro and reportedly also Justice Francis Jardaleza appear before the House to testify on the complaint against the CJ, this could clinch the move to impeach her. The trial in the Senate, however, would result in a big telenovela that would grip the nation anew and divide the people.  

There has been a move brewing for some time now to also impeach Ombudsman Conchita Morales, although this does not seem to gain as much support as the move vs. CJ Sereno. Some House members, however, are AGAINST impeaching the two women, and among them is Buhay Party-list Rep. Joselito Atienza. He maintains that the emotional costs to the nation of impeaching such high officials would be so great that it could be a “pyrrhic victory for either side.” No winners.  I agree.


CJ Lourdes Sereno is being accused of a number of impeachable offenses, which would be left to the impeachment  court---the Senate---to determine, should the House impeach move prevail. In this connection, court insiders note that there seems to be a big difference between the attitude of Supreme Court officers and personnel toward the late CJ Renato Corona, who was impeached and convicted in 2011, and toward CJ Sereno now. 

They point out that in the process of obtaining records and documents pertaining to supposed charges against the high magistrate on the carpet, it was far more difficult to obtain such records in the case of Corona, than it is now in the case of CJ Sereno.


This would seem to point out that the late CJ Corona was more popular with court personnel than the current chief. Be that as it may, I personally find it condemnable that CJ Sereno is being deprived by the House leadership of her constitutional right to counsel, in the prospect of an impeachment. 

The Constitution guarantees the right of every Filipino to counsel, and Lourdes Sereno should be no exception. With Justices de Castro and Jardeleza being bruited about as possibly appearing in the House to testify against Sereno, it would obviously be outright demeaning to the Chief Justice's office for her to directly cross-examine either or both of her colleagues on their testimonies against her, as her accusers are demanding.

LIke every Filipino, CJ Sereno should be given her constitutional right to be represented by counsel. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Photos of "Haggle" at ASEAN@50 both amusing and ominous. EJK issue avoided by all the conferees, except that "crush ng bayan," Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who was as brave as he's handsome. Digong was for the most part statesmanlike, except for verbal jab at Obama, his murder-at-age 16 spin and now his tirade vs.Trudeau.

US President Donald Trump at first couldn't handle the famous "Haggle", as he tried to grab the hand of Vietnamese Prime Nguyen Xuan Phuc, thus leaving President Duterte's hang hanging in the air. 

Finally, voila, Donald Trump caught the hang of it, grabs President Digong's right hand, to the great amusement of the Vietnamese PM at his right. It was apparently too complicated a maneuver for the US' Big Guy.

The 50th Anniversary of ASEAN, with President Duterte hosting this mega-milestone back to back with the 31st ASEAN Summit of Leaders that he chaired, is now history. Regional and world leaders who attended these twin events have all flown home with their happy memories of camaraderie and banquets, dazzling shows put up by our host people and conferences among political and business leaders, tea among the state leaders' spouses, etc.  

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, and among the most amusing shots of ASEAN@50 was that of US President Trump trying to master the complications of the "Haggle."  First he grabbed the left hand of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc with both his hands, looking awfully confused---thereby leaving the right hand of Mr. Duterte hanging in the air. That was a fantastic shot of Trump in confusion, and to my mind, highly symbolic of the disconnect between the two presidents---despite media hyping about how famously they got along. 


But after the conferees get home and report to their constituents, what's there to remember? What are the summit issues that left strong impressions on the leaders and their aides?  What do the Filipino people remember of those historic back-to-back events, aside from the dazzling entertainment program for state dignitaries at the SMX they saw on TV?  No school the whole week, restricted ASEAN lanes and "locked-down" areas. Would that the metropolis would be that orderly forever!  

The most significant development within the back-to-back events is the way certain issues that have tremendous bearing on the life of nations and peoples have been skirted around---the biggest of them all the state of human rights in ASEAN. 


Before President Trump left for Asia, Republican Rep.Randy Hultgren of Illinois and Democrat Rep. James McGovern of Massachussetts wrote him to stress the need to take up the human rights issue with President Duterte. In addition, various rights groups,

Canadian PM invades a Jollibee outlet in Tondo to grab a hamburger, and is instantly rewarded by this photo op

Justin Trudeau takes a selfie with the Jollibee folks at lunch, showing that he really was the "Crush ng Bayan"

most notably Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, exerted pressure for concrete results. As he put it, "...surely someone from among the 20 world leaders at these summits can confront President (Rodrigo) Duterte about his horrific and unprecedented 'drug war killings." 

Because of the hyping, all eyes seemed focused on the one-on-one session between Messrs. Trump and Duterte, but unfortunately nothing like that was taken up between them.  Mr. Duterte relished with media the one sentence from the US President that to his mind referred to the rights issue in a rather oblique but approving manner. He quoted Trump's reported verdict:  "You are doing well." 


Mr. Duterte appears not to have elicited more specifics beyond this one-liner,  but this should not surprise anyone---for the US President is facing his own enormous problems back home and has even less moral authority to lecture to Mr. Duterte. Recall that very senior officials of the US intelligence agencies had testified before the US Congress and in media about the supposed manipulative role of Russia in the November 2016 US elections---which allegedly ensured the victory of Trump over Hillary Clinton. 

In addition, the less than a year old Trump administration has seen eleven very senior officials either fired or resigned--- including his chief strategist and communications director. Moreover, as Manila Times columnist Marlen Ronquillo pointed out in his "Sunday Stories," Mr. Trump's approval rating has plunged to an all-time low in the US of only 37%; in fact, only 40% of US voters say they will vote for him in a reelection. 

Deprived thus of any moral authority, the US President couldn't very well lecture Mr. Duterte on human rights or anything else. 


The other pressing issue expected to be raised at the ASEAN Summit is the crisis in Myanmar involving the minority Rohingya Muslims---more than 600,000 of whom have been reportedly forced to flee from Buddhist Myanmar to Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis, dubbed Myanmar's "ethnic cleansing," where army elements are reported to have brutally cracked down and slain thousands, has been labelled by Human Rights Watch as "among the worst human rights catastrophes in Asia in years and demands concerted global action." 

Reports of brutal slayings of this tribal group by Myanmar's military have resulted in international pressure on the country's leader and foreign minister, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Au San Suu Kyi (she with the perpetual flower in her hair). The Rohingya crisis has threatened her rule, not to mention her celebrated peace prize.

All that seems possible at the moment from ASEAN, however, is a pledge from Suu Kyi's fellow leaders that they would prod the Myanmar military to help this ethnic group find its rightful place in the sun---a response that sounds so weak, and typically Asian.  


To the credit of Mr. Duterte, he behaved quite statesmanlike at the Summit and coped well with all the rigorous demands on his office and person by such this  huge PR milestone event---except in one or two occasions which, unfortunately, went viral. One was when he started pouncing on the absent Barack Obama for calling down Mr. Duterte's checkered record on human rights. The Philippine leader certainly dished it back to Obama, never mind if he is already ancien regime. 

The other instance was when Mr. Duterte admitted before foreign media that he had already killed someone by the time he was 16 years old---stabbing his protagonist to death. That remark was truly a sorry one which merely reinforced perceived notions about our leader.  


If there was a vote for "Crush ng Bayan" Canada's youthful, handsome and absolutely charming PM Justin Trudeau would win hands down. Son of the former Canadian PM Pierre Trudeau, he has a big constituency of Filipino immigrants in Canada.  This fact is important to note, as young Trudeau acted so much like he was campaigning in his backyard---pumping hands, kissing and holding up babies; then feeling suddenly hungry, he drops in at the first Jollibee he comes across. 

That sudden visit by the Canadian PM caused pandemonium among the resto staff and they all came out for a selfie with rock-star politico from across the seas. But being handsome and personable aren't Justin Trudeau's only attributes: of all the leaders who gathered in Manila for ASEAN@50 and the 31st ASEAN Summit, Trudeau was the only foreign leader who had the nerve and the verve to directly address Mr. Duterte on the EJK killings by the PNP. 

In return, the youthful Canadian PM reaped a mouthful of verbal attacks from Mr. Duterte at the close of the Summit. He told media that Trudeau's raising the human rights issue with him was "a personal and official insult" to him, stressing, as the Manila Standard reported, that he would only answer to a Filipino and not "any bullshit foreigner." 

From across the seas came Trudeau's posit: 

"As I mentioned to President Duterte, we are concerned with human rights, with the extrajudicial killings, and we impressed upon him the need for respect for the rule of law and as always, we offered Canada's support and help as a friend---to help move forward on what is the real challenge. This is the way we engage with the world. This is the way we always will."


Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The “Field Marshal” of the ASEAN@50 celebration is a seasoned diplomat, but an even more seasoned events organizer and military-trained strategist---Ambassador Marciano “Jun” Paynor of PMA Class '71. Since the time of FVR he has walked Philippine presidents through their state visits abroad.

Ambassador Marciano "Jun" Paynor

In two or three days’ time will begin the “lock down” of areas of  the metropolis where 21 heads of state from three continents will converge for the 31st ASEAN SUMMIT in Manila---that also celebrates the 50th anniversary of the birth of the regional grouping in our part of the world.  

At 50 ASEAN is middle-aged and has all the agony and the ecstasy of glorious mid-life.  On hand to prevent this mid-life stage of the regional bloc from becoming a MIDLIFE CRISIS are the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the Philippine National Police which will doubtless enforce the tightest security ever in the history of this country.

Consider, for instance, that Manila Bay would be a “No sail zone” and that the expressways will enforce a truck ban as all the foreign dignitaries will be flying in through Clark Airport. Consider too, that a lock-down of the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex would mean that personnel of all the establishments within it would also be locked in from Nov. 12-15.  For instance, personnel of station dzRH in the Manila Broadcasting Company beside the CCP will be sequestered in the building for three days---sleeping in portable bunk beds with food already brought inside. 

This blogger joins the entire Filipino people in wishing the ASEAN Summit in Manila huge success, and let us all pray that everything would work out smooth as silk and that all the leaders from all over the world would be safe here.


Fifty years ago Asian unity was just an ambitious glimmer in the eyes of five Asian foreign ministers with remarkable foresight and determination.  These were Narciso Ramos of the Philippines, Adam Malik of Indonesia, Thanat Khoman of Thailand, Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia and S. Rajaratnam of Singapore. On Aug. 9, 1967, the Asean Declaration was signed in Bangkok by the heads of state of those five countries .

Today ASEAN has become a formidable regional bloc of ten countries that includes Brunei, former war-torn Cambodia and Vietnam, and Myanmar and Laos---with a combined population exceeding 650 million. ASEAN has turned out to be a real economic and political powerhouse regional bloc,  with a combined gross domestic product in 2015 of $2.5 trillion---making it the sixth largest economy in the world and the third largest in Asia. By now, 2017, that growth doubtless has leaped even more.  


Indication of its economic significance as a region is the fact that eleven leaders from East and South Asia (China, Japan and South Korea, as well as India), Europe (Russia) and North America (the US' Donald Trump and Canada's PM Justin Trudeau) are attending as dialogue partners. The Summit will also see world leaders Donald Tusk, President of the European Council and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterrez in attendance. .

Regional blocs demonstrate the old adage about strength in unity. In another part of the world, the EU bloc is demonstrating its strength in the current imbroglio between the monarchic faction in Spain and the separatist bloc in Cataluña in the northern part of that country. What appears to have thwarted the separatists’ move---at least for the moment---is the fact that the biggest nations in the EU---France, Italy and Germany, threw their collective support for Spain and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, not with the rebel leader Carlos Puigdemont who has since sought refuge in Belgium. 

The major EU members threw their support for Spain's monarchic government after the disastrous exit of Britain (Brexit) a year ago. A new region-wide Catalan referendum toward the end of this month could be the make or break for the region. 


In the ASEAN@50 Summit, confronting the ten members and their dialogue partners is the erraticism of young North Korean Premier Kim-Jong-Un who likes to tell the world that his itchy fingers are on his nuclear bombs that can obliterate New York City. Then there is the continuing dispute between China and ASEAN countries, led by the Philippines, about their claims to the vast seas all around us, which China calls the South China Sea, but which we insist on calling the West Philippine Sea. 

Then there are the pesky human rights issues bedeviling so many ASEAN countries, including our own, that are related to the drug problem in the region, as well as the Rohingya ethnic minority in Myanmar that refuses to get off Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's back. . 


The host to this gigantic undertaking of ASEAN@50 is President Duterte, but behind the success of its mid-century celebration is its field marshal, no other than Ambassador Marciano “Jun” Paynor, who is calling the shots behind the scenes. Even generals and admirals as well as politicians and diplomats defer to Jun Paynor's judgment in handling the top events for the country in the next week.

Last August 2016, newly installed President Duterte appointed  Jun Paynor ambassador to the US, where he had served as Consul-General in San Francisco a few years back. But Paynor’s assumption of the ambassadorship to Washington had to be put on hold because of the ASEAN Summit---which is President Digong’s debut in international politics.  And with reason:  Paynor has been walking Philippine Presidents through their various state visits abroad since Fidel Ramos’ time, and through the presidencies of  Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Benigno Aquino III and now Rodrigo Duterte. IN 2015, he was head organizer of the APEC event in Manila.


The Baguio-born mild-mannered military officer-turned-diplomat was a member of the Philippine Military Academy’s Class of 1971, and for a while he was managing director of external and government relations for Ayala Corporation.  From the private sector he catapulted to the diplomatic world and became ambassador to Israel and Cyprus, with his wife Teresita and their three daughters joining him. 

It was in Jerusalem during Holy Year 2000 where he saw me and my husband off at the airport as our pilgrim group was leaving for Rome to continue our pilgrimage. I entrusted my two teenage sons to his care, as they awaited their separate flight to Rome. As we were leaving Israel that time the political situation was deteriorating with the “Intifada,” but Ambassador Paynor was  securely in charge of the Filipino community.

In this most significant event for the Philippines of ASEAN 50 we pray that everything would go well and it truly helps that someone various presidents have trusted is on top of the preparations: Marciano Paynor, Jr.---ambassador par excellence. God bless you, Jun Paynor, and God bless our country and nation.