The enemy within

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By revealing that it was Solicitor General Jose Calida who “did the research” on which he based his proclamation that Senator Antonio Trillanes IV’s 2011 amnesty is void ab initio, President Rodrigo Duterte demonstrated once again how successfully his regime has been undermining itself. Calida had earlier denied having anything to do with the proclamation. But Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Calida had asked for his help, and that he directed him to the office that had custody of Trillanes’ amnesty papers.

The latter has accused the “bright” (Mr. Duterte’s description) Calida of graft and conflict of interest in connection with his family-owned security firm’s over P300 million worth of contracts with several government agencies. The Senate’s Civil Service and Government Reorganization Committee Trillanes chairs is in fact holding hearings on it.

Because of the context in which Duterte’s Proclamation 572 voiding Trillanes’ amnesty was issued, the inevitable conclusion is that Calida singled out Trillanes to stop the hearings, and that Mr. Duterte, whose son Paolo and son-in-law Manases Carpio Trillanes accused of corruption and extortion in 2017, issued his proclamation to silence one of his most vocal critics.

Both attempts to stop Trillanes have backfired, however. Reminded that he doesn’t have the power to arrest anyone, the country not yet being under martial law, Mr. Duterte withdrew his arrest order and instead told the military to arrest Trillanes only when a court has ordered it.

In addition to that order’s being as flawed — the military can’t arrest a civilian, which Trillanes has been since 2007 — Mr. Duterte’s latest attempt to silence a government critic with a military background has provoked rumors of disaffection in the armed services, to prevent which he’s been showering the soldiery with various inducements to assure its loyalty. Neither the “bright” Calida nor Mr. Duterte himself considered the consequences on the military the proclamation could have, among them its closing ranks to protect its former brother-in-arms.

There is also the boost in Trillanes’ standing as an opposition leader. By issuing his proclamation, Mr. Duterte transformed Trillanes from a former coup plotter elected to the Senate on the strength of perceptions that he’s a reformist underdog into an overnight media sensation — a development the regime’s clueless communication cohort could not have possibly anticipated. Like detained Senator Leila de Lima, Trillanes has also attracted the attention of international media, one of the powers of which is to endow anyone it pleases with status and legitimacy.

Trillanes has for days been so much on radio, TV, print and online that name-recall, which in this benighted country practically guarantees an election victory, isn’t likely to ever be his problem should he decide to run for any government office including the presidency in 2022, when he could frustrate Mr. Duterte’s wishes and Sara Duterte’s own ambitions for her father’s post. While covering him the media have also provided Trillanes a forum in which he has dwelt at length on Mr. Duterte’s various flaws, among them his alleged incompetence and corruption.

Apparently, however, Mr. Duterte bought into Calida’s recommendation to once again use his “void ab initio” ploy because it succeeded so well in ousting former Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno. That of course wasn’t so much the result of anyone’s being “bright” as it was due to a combination of factors, among them Mr. Duterte’s declaring Sereno his enemy, and the willingness of certain Supreme Court associate justices to throw to the four winds the Constitution and whatever claims to honor they had in the hope that Mr. Duterte would name one of them Chief Justice.

There’s a clandestine band of staff and advisers in US President Donald Trump’s administration who have made it their business to check Trump’s tendency to speak and act without thinking, to use the powers of the presidency for his personal and familial ends, and to venture into those policy areas he has neither the patience, the background nor the wisdom to ever really understand. Mr. Duterte isn’t as lucky.

With only a few exceptions, what Mr. Duterte has around him are Cabinet secretaries and advisers focused only on their self-interests, who’re only too eager to feed his worst instincts, and who have the bad habit of opening their mouths and acting without taking so much as a second to think things through.

No Philippine president has ever been perfect in his or her choice of friends, advisers and accomplices. All of them have been guilty of surrounding themselves with incompetents, sycophants and yes-men. Ferdinand Marcos had his circle of flunkies. Joseph Estrada had his midnight cabinet of drunks and gamblers to remind him of his salad days as an actor and ladies’ man. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had various scoundrels in tow whenever she traveled. Bachelor Benigno Aquino III had his gang mates and fellow night crawlers.

But only Mr. Duterte has a veritable legion of yes-men, and they’re in some of the most critical areas of governance, among them Agriculture, Justice, Foreign Relations, Communication, and the Office of the Solicitor General.

There is also the special case of SAP (Special Assistant to the President) Christopher “Bong” Go, whose early campaigning for the Senate so clearly demonstrates the regime’s contempt for common decency, it has become a major scandal. Neither has SAP Go’s father’s and half-brother’s cornering billions of pesos in contracts in the government’s “Build, Build, Build” program in Davao, and the projects’ allegedly remaining unfinished, helped convince anyone of Mr. Duterte’s sincerity when he declares himself committed to the eradication of corruption.

Also in a class by herself is PCOO (Presidential Communications Operations Office) Assistant Secretary Margaux “Mocha” Uson, whose vast capacity for gaffes, hate speech and disinformation is matched only by her talent for so trivializing the most serious issues, including the Duterte regime’s campaign to adopt the federal form of government via Constitutional amendments, that both have since become unlikely.

In his remarks upon his arrival from Israel and Jordan last Saturday, Mr. Duterte accused Trillanes, the Liberal Party, and the Communist Party of conspiring to remove him from power. It was in addition to his repeated claims that the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is plotting to oust or kill him.

But none of these groups have to do anything except wait for his regime to self-destruct as a consequence of the rot within it. Its worst enemy is itself — in the person first of all of the very power responsible for bringing together in government and appointing to its highest posts a menagerie of bungling and self-aggrandizing bureaucrats.

It explains why this regime of unreason can’t even begin to cope with the problems — runaway inflation; the rice crisis; the precipitous fall in the exchange rate of the peso; the rise in the unemployment rate; and the resulting surge in the numbers of the poor and hungry — that urgently demand solution. Like the other dime-a-dozen tyrannies that infest the planet, it instead masks its inadequacies with clumsy, self-defeating attempts at silencing its critics. Ruled by the most irresponsible oligarchy in Southeast Asia, the country has been going to hell since 1946. But only one other regime has been as enthusiastic as the present one in making sure it gets there.

First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go.

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