Crossroads (Toward Philippine economic and social progress)
Philippine Star, 18 October 2017


I was present at the opening of Buglasan 2017 in Negros Oriental last Friday (Oct. 13) where President Rodrigo Duterte was the guest of honor.

He delivered a speech to open the province-wide festival. “Buglasan” is a local word that invokes festivities of the people to promote the arts and the cooperation of the towns of the province.

The kickoff was held at the the large Lamberto Macias Sports Center within the provincial capitol area in Dumaguete, the capital of Negros Oriental.

As I reside in Greater Manila, the opportunity to witness an occasion such as this, in a provincial city from the front row of the audience, was a rare occasion for me. It was a chance to provide a picture, not an edited view, of the President in action.

(I happened to have my seat of honor because my wife’s father was one of two honorees, in his case posthumously, and she was to receive the award for the family.)

Strong and noticeable persona. President Duterte has now been in office for more than a year. He has been the most conspicuous of Philippine leaders in decades.

His persona is vividly etched in his impact on crowds whenever he speaks and on the reaction that it invites. It is either very charming to the receptive listener or despicable to the hostile and already opposed.

Every public speech before large crowds is an occasion for a political high wire event designed to yield favorable impact. Thus, one could learn from watching the Negros Oriental speech.

The address to the provincial crowd. Within 10 minutes of the arrival of the President on the stage, he was already in front of the microphone to deliver his address.

In quick time, the governor of the province introduced the significance of the occasion briefly, the two major honorees for the year’s Buglasan received their awards from the President with a handshake and good wishes, and finally, a musical interlude – a vocal duet by two outstanding young singers – had just ended.

This was how precise the march of time progressed toward the climax of the ceremony, the address of the guest of honor.

(Actually, no stone was left unturned to get to this point. Staff from Malacañang had seen to it that the ceremony worked like clockwork. They had sent an advance parties a few days before, examining the prospective venues, and working out the scenario for the program to assure that it went well according to script.)

Extemporaneous.  President Duterte extemporaneously spoke for the next 30 minutes. The whole program would be over in 45 minutes, though it took several careful hours to set up.

He apologized for his late arrival. He said he had to pay his respects at the burial of soldiers who had died from the Marawi fighting. This was the entry point of his explanation for the imposition of martial law in Mindanao.

He explained that the Marawi crisis was an effort of ISIS to establish its connection to our Muslim problem. This was alien to our Muslim issues.

He detailed intelligence expectations of where the attack would be and were surprised that it happened only in Marawi when they also believed it could involve Cotabato. He linked the drug problem to the finance of the rebellion.

The crisis in Marawi has now reached the fourth month. He conveyed the impatience and frustrations of the military that the campaign was taking too long.

Explaining why it was taking time, he wanted to save the lives of hostages who were being used as protective shields by the rebels. He also did not want to damage religious sites and mosques.

As president, he said, he had to keep away from harm around 2.5 million Filipinos who work and live abroad, many of them in Muslim countries.

He was very much concerned about building a stronger police and military force at home to keep the nation prepared to deal with its enemies. He wants to look for more permanent ways to support the modernization of the military.

Sensitive to references to human rights violations in his government, the President felt it had been abused by those who use it as an excuse.

He referred to the agreement with Archbishop Villegas that the drug campaign would be turned over from the police to the PDEA (Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency), but he also expressed apprehension about the consequences.

Irritated by criticisms that the government’s drug war could lead to the expulsion of the country from the United Nations, he pointed out that no country could really expel a member without a vote of the Security Council where he was sure there would be allies to veto such a move.

He was ready to carry the war against the communists, if they make unreasonable demands.

A whole litany of all these points have been repeated and made known in speeches and declarations made by him in Manila and elsewhere in the country.

Light-hearted jokes. In this speech, President Duterte spoke mostly in Cebuano, the dominant dialect of the province, when he was not speaking in English.

Toward the end, he began to leaf through his two page write up that he said represented his prepared remarks. To give it more credence, he read a short passage on a general message of hope and development in the region.

He also read out that he had previously signed an executive order which reversed the order of his predecessor unifying Negros Island (Oriental and Occidental) into one administrative region. This received applause, but it was not as warm. It reversed a popular move to integrate the large island by restoring the original administrative arrangement, for budgetary reasons.

A series of sincere gestures and lighthearted jokes followed. First, he invited (to great applause) the two young singers in the musical interlude to come to Malacañang for the Christmas party to show the Tagalogs how good they are.

Then he recounted a number of funny jokes to the delight of the audience. One of them was about a driver who was caught over-speeding. This driver complained that he could not have over-sped, insisting that it was the ticketing officer who had over-sped, for how come the latter had caught up with him.

As the program ended and President Duterte was about to leave, he was swamped by admirers who kept his pace exceedingly slow, tight, and much like a heavy crowd pressing and milling around a pop star, to touch and to see him face to face.