Theater of the absurd

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A television comedy director was supposed to direct it, and did hold at least one rehearsal over the weekend. But the directorial prowess of Joyce Bernal wasn’t in much evidence except in President Rodrigo Duterte’s subdued though less than forthright State of the Nation Address (SONA) this year.

Together with the protest outside the House of Representatives by some 40,000 men and women of various political persuasions united in their opposition to his regime’s policies as well as to Mr. Duterte’s own misogyny, attacks on the Church and profanities and insults against journalists, the leaders of other countries and even God Himself, what went on inside the House before he delivered his SONA and the fantasy world of the actual address itself did more to accurately describe the true state of the nation.

Mr. Duterte’s address was delivered over an hour late this year because of the overthrow, timed for his appearance before the joint session of both Houses of Congress, by the House of Representatives majority of “no-el” (no elections) proponent Pantaleon Alvarez. The honorable gentlemen of the aptly named lower house replaced him with former President, now Pampanga Representative Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo as Speaker.

The culprits responsible advanced a number of seemingly sound reasons for it, but it basically meant nothing except to themselves. A petty tyrant and consummate guardian of his imagined entitlements, wealth and power was replaced, for God knows what considerations, by just another Duterte ally accused of plunder, corruption, election fraud and gross human rights violations during her problematic, nearly decade-long occupation of Malacanang. Tweedle-dum had merely been replaced by tweedle-dee. But Arroyo, it is widely assumed, is likely to occupy some exalted post like the Presidency once a federal form of government is rammed down the people’s throats, hence her sudden rise in the esteem of her fellow conspirators.

If the split among Mr. Duterte’s allies was of no significance to the long suffering Filipino millions, so was his address as meaningless. The only bright spot in his speech was the absence of the rants, the rambling and the profanities that have characterized his other public appearances.

Mr. Duterte didn’t depart from his prepared speech either, thus sparing the nation another display of bad manners. But he nevertheless began his 48-minute SONA with a threat to continue the “war” on illegal drugs that he began when he assumed the Presidency in 2016 — and which has so far cost the lives of some 20,000 men, women and even children suspected of being either petty drug dealers or users, and widowed and orphaned thousands more in its bloody wake.

He vowed to make that “war” even more “chilling,” meaning even more murderous than ever, but in almost the same breath claimed to be concerned with human lives, unlike, he said, the critics of his anti-poor campaign against the illegal drug trade who’re concerned “only” with human rights.

That expression of “concern” for life earned him the first of the surprisingly tentative rounds of applause that he got five times in the course of his third SONA. But what both he and his partisans missed was that human rights are precisely about human lives, the right to life being a fundamental human right. He nevertheless again justified the killings for which he’s likely to be indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) by echoing police claims that those killed “violently resist(ed) arrest.”

Mr. Duterte dwelt on the drug issue at length, and claimed that the critics of the way it was being addressed with a number of extrajudicial killings unprecedented in the history of the Republic were merely concerned with the present while he was himself worried over “the present and the future.” Again, however, he was obviously unaware that the killing of children, minors and young men is itself an assault on hope and the future, the young being, in the words of Rizal, “the hopes of the Fatherland.”

He went on to say that neither human rights advocates nor Church leaders have protested drug-dealing and “druglordism” as loudly as they have protested the well-established misdeeds of “errant law enforcers.” Although a lawyer, Mr. Duterte can’t appreciate the fact that it is State actors such as the police, rather than human rights groups and the Church, that are charged with law enforcement, and are also required to do so in compliance with the law of which they’re supposed to be the guardians.

Mr. Duterte also defended the misleadingly named Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) act despite protests that it is mostly responsible for the surge in the inflation that’s adding to the already vast miseries of the Filipino poor. He claimed that the revenues, mostly from the excise taxes on fuel that have led to increases in the cost of various commodities, are necessary for sustained growth. He did not mention that despite his claims that he’s for the poor, whatever economic growth TRAIN has generated has mostly benefited only the already wealthy.

But what about China’s occupation and militarization of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone? In his other public declarations, Mr. Duterte had limited Philippine options to either capitulation to imperialist China or war with it. This time he pledged to “defend” the West Philippine Sea, which is indisputably Philippine waters, but did not specify how he intends to do so. In the meantime, China not only controls the area; it also bars Filipino fisherfolk from their traditional fishing grounds, and its coast guard even steals the catch of those who manage to elude its vessels.

He did talk about the need to end corruption and crowed about his firing and forced resignations of officials whom he admitted were mostly his friends and supporters, but failed to address the fact that many of them have been reappointed to other, even higher posts. What’s even worse is how, over the last two years, billions of pesos of the people’s taxes have been squandered by, among other offices, the Department of Tourism (DOT) and the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

With nary a word did he mention his regime’s rush to federalism and a new Constitution despite most Filipinos’ ignorance of what federalism is, and their opposition to amending, much more changing, the 1987 Constitution. Neither did he say anything about his scuttling of the government’s peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) right at the point when both peace panels were about to discuss the social and economic reforms that if implemented could have led to the end of the 49-year civil war.

Conclusion: Mr. Duterte’s address was long in words but short in truth and reality, and was distinguished more by what it failed to say than for what it said.

If “Theater of the Absurd” playwright Samuel Beckett were alive today, what happened last Monday, July 23, 2018 — the ludicrous jockeying for power among the alleged representatives of the people, and the SONA that might as well have been describing another dimension — would have qualified as one of his more engaging productions for the light it threw on the real state of this oh-so-unfortunate nation. Instead of Beckett, however, only Joyce Bernal, a stranger to the theater, was available. And the most she could do was keep Mr. Duterte relatively sober and almost, though not quite, presidential.

First published in Businessworld. Photo from PCOO.

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