Fidel Ramos and Rodrigo Duterte
President Rodrigo Roa Duterte meets with former President Fidel Valdez Ramos at the Orchid Room of Malacañan Palace on November 14, 2016. (Simeon Celi Jr/Presidential Photo)

FORMER President Fidel V. Ramos has been credited with — or blamed for — convincing Rodrigo Duterte to run for the Presidency and supporting his candidacy. Duterte has so acknowledged Ramos’ role in making the former city mayor president — the first politician in history to hold that post without any previous experience in a national office. (Duterte has been mayor of Davao for two decades and in between terms represented Davao ‘s first district as a member of the House of Representatives.)

In apparent recognition of his responsibility in inflicting the Duterte administration on the country, Ramos has made it his business to call it to task for what he sees as its many failings. But it’s not so much what he has so far been critical of but what he has so far failed to call attention to that provokes questions on what Ramos’ agenda could be.

What Ramos has so far focused on are Duterte’s declarations on foreign policy and the country’s relations with the United States. Conspicuously missing from the Ramos repertoire of criticism are his views on the spate of killings in the course of the Duterte administration’s “war on drugs,” its oft repeated threat to suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus, and its allowing — and the military’s collaborating in — the furtive burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani (literally, Heroes’ Cemetery).

Ramos correctly pointed out in his column in one of the Manila broadsheets that implementing the “independent foreign policy” to which Duterte claims to be committed does not mean isolation from the community of nations, or cutting ties with the United States and ignoring the international agreements to which the Philippines is a signatory. Ramos has also gone out of his way to correctly argue that the country needs to make more friends rather than enemies.

Ramos did mention the anti-illegal drug campaign killings in the same op-ed, but only as unnecessarily diverting government from its more important tasks of developing the country and earning the respect of the international community. And yet, if how the country is regarded internationally should be a common concern, the killings do have a bearing on how the country is perceived across the globe.

The killings have not stopped and have even increased in number, with the death toll now running in the thousands. In some instances, the police have practically broken into the homes of suspected drug users and pushers and shot them supposedly for resisting arrest or fighting back.

Internationally, the Philippines, as a consequence of the killings, is rapidly being perceived as a country with only a paper commitment to respect for human rights and due process, thus undermining its standing as a member of the global community of nations. Of even more relevance is the fact that the United States as well as European countries — regardless of how it is often used as an excuse to further each country’s interests — premise both political support as well as international aid on compliance with human rights protocols.

Of equally serious concern is how Duterte, despite his spokespersons’ downplaying it by claiming that he was merely “floating” the idea, seems obsessed with the option of suspending the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus supposedly to make the campaign against illegal drugs successful. The privilege of the writ of habeas corpus enables individuals detained without charges to challenge their arrest and detention in court. Presumably, with the privilege suspended, the government could detain drug users and pushers indefinitely without charges.

However, the Constitution allows the suspension of the privilege only in cases of rebellion and invasion, which raises the question of whether the coterie of lawyers in the Duterte administration know their law — or if the administration is planning to characterize such law and order problems as the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute gang as rebel groups, which they certainly are not — or, in case the peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) fail, to declare a state of rebellion to justify a wave of arrests of NDFP personalities as well as other dissenters and oppositionists.

Fears that the frequent “floating” (communications secretary Martin Andanar’s word) of the possible suspension of the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus could lead to its actually being suspended, and worse, are not as paranoid as Andanar and company would have us believe: the Marcos administration after all suspended the privilege of the writ nation-wide in 1971 and arrested and detained hundreds of individuals without charges as a prelude to the declaration of martial law in 1972.

Despite these legitimate concerns, Ramos has not said so much as a word of caution against the administration’s irresponsible fear-mongering and the enhanced opportunities for the further abuse of human rights the suspension of the privilege would create for state security forces, whether in connection with the “war on drugs” or any other excuse.

Duterte’s support for the furtive burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani has similarly escaped Ramos’ critical attention. And yet both issues should be of special relevance to Ramos, who has many times declared that his main concern is to make the Philippines an ideal place to invest in and to visit in the collective minds of the countries of the globe as a necessary condition for the country’s development.

Like the anti-illegal drug campaign-related killings, the impression that a critical element in assuring due process can be suspended on what amounts to a mere whim doesn’t make the Philippines any more respectable than, say, a failed African state. In the meantime, the Marcos burial in the Libingan has made the country look like a place whose people have neither the knowledge nor the memory of the past to prevent some cartoon politician from restoring authoritarian rule.

When after much media prodding Ramos coyly admitted supporting Duterte as the campaign for the May 2016 elections began, his decision then struck many as premised on his perception that Duterte would run the country as he would had he been elected to the second term that in the latter part of his presidency he seemed to have wanted.

In the furtherance of that intent, Ramos even encouraged attempts to amend the Constitution to allow the reelection of Philippine presidents. Although he eventually abandoned that idea, Ramos continued to be active in politics as some kind of elder statesman by, among other roles, involvement in the ouster of Joseph Estrada in 2001, and opposition to the demand for Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to step down in the wake of the many scandals that haunted her troubled and troubling watch.

Ramos has declared that People Power could be too much of a good thing by giving the world the impression that the Philippines is politically unstable. He apparently thinks that Duterte’s unpredictability, liberal use of profanity, and his more outrageous claims are doing the same thing. Ramos’ concern over his chosen one is understandable, given his identification with the regime. But one wishes that in addition to defending the supposedly mutually beneficial Philippine-US relations, he would be even more passionately committed to the defense of due process and human rights and to the prevention of the return of authoritarian rule. It would be to his greater credit and would better serve the country and the Filipino people in these perilous times.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from of PCOO.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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