OP ED COLUMN: OPINION ON PAGE ONE – Can DU30 help us help himself?



UNCONFIRMED but persistent reports about alleged coughing spells on the part of President Duterte continue to be monitored by close Palace observers, raising serious concerns among many of our people. I hope these are nothing but fake news, but we cannot simply pretend we are not hearing anything.

According to sources close to the President, he suffered such a spell when he was in Malaysia to watch the last boxing match of his friend Sen. Manny Pacquiao, and then again before his State of the Nation Address on July 23, which prompted him to report to Cardinal Santos Medical Center for a quick checkup immediately after his speech, and then most recently two days ago, on Monday afternoon.

Risky business
It is not easy to write about this; it is in fact risky, given the extreme delicacy of the subject, and the President’s extremely sensitive nature, which one must fully appreciate. But I wish him the very best of health and I will not take it against him if he responds in his usual fashion by calling me names. As a writer my duty is to speak the truth, even when it is unpleasant, and my readers have a right and duty to expect it. They have to be informed of the President’s state of health at all times because he is their president. In some countries, a medical bulletin is mandatorily issued whenever the President comes down with a simple cold.

This is not the first time I am exposed to this. After serving as Marcos’ press secretary, spokesman and information minister for 10 long years (1969-1980), as Batasan member until 1984, and as senator until 2001, I returned to journalism again and again, and faced anew the hazards of the trade. Marcos underwent a kidney surgery, which the Palace tried to keep secret, but as a journalist, who had learned of the procedure, I had to write about it.

This involved no betrayal of friendship or personal trust, and Marcos knew there was no malice. Of course, Malacañang denied my stories, and the nation had to wait for some years before the whole truth could be fully acknowledged. But because of this controversy, it became necessary for the 1987 Constitution to carry the following provision, in Article VII, Sec. 12:

Constitutional remedy
“Sec. 12. In case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health. The members of the Cabinet in charge of national security and foreign relations and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines shall not be denied access to the President during such illness.”

In case the President is no longer able to perform his duties because of illness, he may transmit to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House of Representatives a written declaration that he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, and until he transmits to them a written declaration to the contrary, such powers and duties shall be discharged by the Vice President as Acting President.

Alternatively, a majority of all the members of the Cabinet may transmit to the Senate President and the Speaker of the House a written declaration that the President is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office, whereupon the Vice President shall discharge those powers and duties as Acting President until the President is able to resume the normal conduct of his office.

No one has suggested that DU30 is suffering from any life-threatening disease. In fact, he has spoken casually about his Barrett esophagus, Buerger’s disease, migraine and his habitual use of the pain killer Fentanyl. But a periodic medical bulletin should be helpful in keeping the public fully informed about his health, and preventing the spread of false or exaggerated information that could create unnecessary anxieties and tension among his co-workers and the nation at large.

Transparency indispensable
DU30 needs to be totally transparent. Transparency is his best ally in building popular faith and confidence in his ability to carry out his duties. A medical bulletin is no big deal. It is something the Malacañang medical officer or somebody like Special Assistant Christopher “Bong” Go can easily churn out with minimum effort. Aside from the matter of his personal health, Filipinos expect DU30 to demonstrate full transparency in everything else, beginning with his expanded relations with certain foreign governments, especially on matters involving security and national defense.

A specific issue is DU30’s proposed purchase of 750 RPG-7 B rocket-propelled grenade launchers, costing $7.48 million (P400 million), from Russia’s state-owned Rosoboronexport. The firm is reportedly blacklisted by the United States as part of its sanctions against Russia for its “annexation” of the Crimea, its support of the Syrian government of Basher al Assad, and its alleged meddling in the last US elections in favor of President Donald Trump. A news story by Reuters has suggested that the Philippines could incur US sanctions if the proposed sale went through.

Russian Ambassador to the Philippines Igor Khovaev has reacted strongly to a Reuters story, pointing out that the deal is between two independent countries, where the US has absolutely no say whatsoever. Khovaev’s position is understandable, since he has to speak for his own government. But what is needed here is an official statement not from the Russian ambassador but from the DU30 government, either from the President himself or at least from Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Defense Secetary Delfin Lorenzana or the leaders of Congress. Only the DU30 government can explain the evolution of its security and defense policy vis-a-vis non-traditional allies.

Military sources
Until recently, no Philippine military equipment and supplies may, by official agreement, be sourced from any supplier outside the United States. The interoperability of the two countries’ armed forces, developed through their long military alliance and partnership, dictated this exclusive relationship. Pursuant to DU30’s so-called “independent foreign policy,” military supplies may now be outsourced from outside the US. This, however, has yet to be sufficiently clarified to the men and women of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and to the nation at large, both of whom have their own deeply entrenched biases.

The same problem confronts DU30’s effort to reach out to China for military equipment and supplies. China has donated at least 3,000 assault rifles to DU30, but the military appears hesitant to make them part of their official inventory. The Chinese arms seem to be more acceptable to the Philippine National Police, which has assigned them to the Special Action Force. Greater transparency is needed to clarify DU30’s expanded military cooperation with the People’s Liberation Army.

DU30’s proud boast that President Xi Jinping will not allow him to be ousted by any hostile force does not help assure Filipinos that the overflow of Chinese nationals, now numbering under a million in Metro Manila and the nearby regions, in apparent anticipation of the Chinese infrastructure projects they are supposed to work on, is in their own interest. It is easy to fan the flames of “Sinophobia” and to depict the overflow of Chinese “residents” as a prelude to a possible Chinese “occupation” of the Philippines. The suggestion is of course dismissed outright by the Chinese embassy in Manila, but the construction of large high-rise buildings filled with small cubicles in Paranaque and adjacent areas is perceived by many locals who have seen them in progress suggests the construction of military barracks rather than hotels or call centers.

This may or may not be paranoia. The trouble is, we are not hearing anything official and authoritative from the government.

IN MEMORIAM. Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, grande dame of Philippine letters, died on Monday at 96. She left a legacy of books, each one a treasure house of excellence. In her own way, she died “an immortal,” as Hugo said of Voltaire. She will not be forgotten. She will be buried at the Loyola Memorial Park in Marikina today. Please offer a prayer for the repose of her soul. Thank you.

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