Q&A with Manolo Quezon III on drug killings

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

I recently wrote a column on the ongoing war in the Philippines against drug pushers and users. The escalating body count has alarmed human rights groups and the United Nations, who have called on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to reign in the violent campaign, speak out against extrajudicial killings and to respect the rule of law.

So far, Duterte has shown no signs of reigning in the killings.

For more perspective on this issue, I interviewed Manolo L. Quezon III, who was undersecretary of presidential communications under President Nonoy Aquino, and is a well-known political analyst and columnist. Here is the entire text of the interview:

Rasheed’s World: What are your general thoughts on this campaign? Do you support it, or think that it has gone too far with nearly 2,000 already dead?

Manolo L. Quezon III: The number of dead is an indication of what is problematic. An official distinction has been made between “legitimate” killings and those attributed to either preemptive internal purges within drug syndicates, or by vigilantes. The problem is that the mechanisms and manpower of the government seem hard-pressed (and sometimes simply disinclined) to clearly determine by means of inquests which fatality can be attributed to which of the supposed simultaneous trends going on. Responsibility, either by negligence or design, is also diffused; the entire police apparatus has been mobilized, and like any big organization the level of competence of various detachments varies widely. The result is all the public has to go on is confidence in both the president and his principal lieutenants in the police and other organs of the government.

The campaign itself seems to be modeled after that of Thaksin in Thailand –again problematic, because it was generally deemed a failure. Its domestic characteristics date to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (former president and one of the big players in the Duterte coalition) and some of her former people who had attempted saturation drives during her term, and whose political allies first tried to raise narco-politics as an issue in the 2010 campaign (narco-politics as an issue of public concern had emerged in 2001, the period of transition from the Estrada administration which was ousted from office and replaced with Arroyo). Both Thaksin and Arroyo (or their officials) in the face of their anti-drug efforts also found it convenient to use narco-politics as a political issue; this is risky because, as the present administration is also doing, any carelessness in accusations diminishes the long-term effectivity of the argument.

This much is clear. It is a campaign that is very specific –not a war on drugs per se, but a war on crystal meth. It is a war focused on the liquidation of pushers and the principal lieutenants of the drug kingpins, who have been officially announced to be generally overseas and thus beyond the reach of the government. It is one of indeterminate duration, which raises the problem of how –or by what measure– victory can be achieved.

Most worrying of all is that the state has a monopoly on the use of force grounded on the expectation that it is used sparingly, responsibly, and with accountability. A very human factor is thus being ignored in the ongoing debate on the war on drugs. We have a police –and possibly, in the future– a military that has been institutionally-expected to be responsible and judicious in its use of force. Individual policemen, long circumscribed in their actions by strict rules on the acquisition, and legal scrutiny, of evidence, and who had clearly defined rules of engagement in terms of the use of force on suspects and the public at large, are discovering that the institutions that used to limit their actions are now neutralized. This feeling of power, this sense of immunity and impunity, this thrill from obtaining instant results, can be a kind of narcotic, too. Once experienced, it can become increasingly difficult to limit it to just the war on drugs, particularly when that war takes on the attributes of a larger war, whether to “reform,” or “rebuild,” or “reengineer” or “defend” the state against its “enemies” –as defined by the commanders.

Every society that has experienced political instability knows these are developments that can have an effect on institutions and society lasting generations –it took the Philippines a generation to wean its military and police from a similar experience during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos (1972-1986).

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

Manolo L. Quezon III giving a press briefing at Malacanang Palace in Manila.

RW: Why do you think that President Duterte has so much popular support? Do you think this support will diminish in a few years? If so, why?

MLQ: Every president who wins an election –even as a plurality victor– obtains a subsequent overwhelming level of public support in their initial months in office. The public, which previously supported different candidates, rallies around the victor and gives the winner a chance to fulfill the mandate given at the polls.

This is an observable trend in public opinion surveys. In June 2010, Benigno S. Aquino III who won with 42% of the votes, obtained an 88% trust rating. In June 2016, Rodrigo Roa Duterte who won with 39% of the votes, obtained a 91% trust rating. Both surveys (By Social Weather Stations) having a plus or minus 3% margin of error, the results can be said to be quite similar, if not identical.

The question is what the next survey in October and every quarter thereafter, will reveal. No one knows. If public trust remains high, it will further embolden the administration; if it plunges, it can embolden the administration to even more vigorously pursue current policies, knowing time is running out in terms of public support. However, whatever the results, it also suggests the administration knows it can count on a committed constituency of 39% to sustain itself –even now, despite every indication of public support being high, efforts to mobilize this constituency to mount demonstrations against the Senate (which conducted an inquiry into the drug war) are being made, which suggests some in the ruling coalition may have noticed a dip in public enthusiasm.

RW: Many people, among them officials, judges, journalists and politicians, seem reluctant to publically criticize this anti-drug push. Why do you think this is so?

MLQ: The answer is simple: fear. Fear of public opinion and more importantly, fear of the president. The president’s supporters are vocal, aggressive, plentiful and in some instances, organized. They swarm social media, and media sites both local and foreign. The President himself has a gift for targeting specific personalities who to his mind, represent challenges to his authority. This combination is formidable and considering the enthusiasm for the use of force, requires every individual venturing on expressing an opinion to consider the consequences.

RW: Vice President Leni Robredo has called for the rule of law to be applied in the hunt for drug pushers, but has not really come out to criticize the president’s anti-drug campaign. Do you think she could do more in terms of speaking out, or is that too politically risky?

MLQ: In the Philippines we elect our presidents and vice presidents separately, a practice that dates from the foundation of our modern institutions in 1935. It was felt important at the time that the potential successor of a president should have a clear, personal, mandate, too. However, this means every vice-president is viewed with suspicion by the sitting president, especially if they do not come from the same party. This suspicion is particularly intense not only because Vice-President Robredo defeated one of the paramount allies of the president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., but also, she was the candidate of the very administration the president’s ruling coalition (composed of the factions of former presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, the united front parties of the Communists, and the political apparatus of the Marcos family) was meant to not only defeat, but permanently discredit as an ex-post-facto rehabilitation of themselves (the whole 1986-2016 era, with its periodic outbreaks of People Power, its anti-dictatorship constitution, and relative media independence and civil society participation, was a perpetual thorn in the side of those wanting a Marcos restoration, an Arroyo political rehabilitation, and a Ramos-proposed parliamentary system modeled on the one-party dominance of UMNO in Malaysia).

The other factor is that so long as the Vice-President is in office, an alternative leadership is available, and could potentially provide a rallying figure for those disaffected for whatever reason, with the present administration. However, the Vice-President herself seems to sense a long-standing rule in Philippine politics. No Vice-President has ever benefited from challenging the sitting president: the public expects the Vice-President, of whatever party, to cooperate with and serve, the sitting president, of whatever party. At the same time the civil society background of the Vice-President suggests she probably views it as a matter of civic conscience to have a seat at the table, in order to give voice to the constituency that elected her. A very delicate balancing act is therefore required, meaning she cannot be as vocal or critical as some of her supporters might want, but also, however cooperative she is, supporters of the president will always view her with suspicion. The wider public, on the other hand, will probably be more understanding in this regard.

She has from time to time issued gentle reminders about human rights, against the dictatorship of Marcos, and this includes the drug war. It would be fair to say however she is still finding her own voice in the midst of fast-moving events.

OFW votes could give Marcos a win

Bongbong Marcos

Bongbong Marcos

This column appeared in Arab News on May 15, 2016:

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

National elections in the Philippines, which took place on May 9, are producing surprising results. In the presidential race Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City, and a politician with a mouth like Donald Trump, has won the race with 15,709,136 votes, against the 9,663,869 votes of administration candidate Sen. Mar Roxas.

But it is in the race for the vice presidency where things are tight. With 95 percent of the votes already counted, Sen. Bongbong Marcos, son of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was initially leading, but then on the 10th was surprised by the overtaking of Rep. Leni Robredo. At the time of this writing, Robredo leads with 14,012,780 votes against 13,797,137 votes for Marcos, a difference of only 215,643 votes. The more than 400,000 votes of Overseas Filipino Workers are just being tallied now, and Marcos is leading in that part of the poll.

As of Saturday morning, Marcos had garnered 156,123 votes from OFWs, against only 84,144 votes for Robredo. This gives Marcos an edge of 71,979 among the OFW votes. If the trend continues, this would give Marcos a comfortable margin in beating Robredo.
To a casual observer from outside the country, it may seem that the Marcos family is only now returning to power, but in reality this has been going on for many years. Bongbong’s father, Ferdinand, was an intelligent and charismatic lawyer from the north, who was elected congressman in 1949, and then re-elected three times. In 1959 he was elected to the Senate, and in 1965 was elected president of the Philippines. In 1954 he married Imelda Romualdez, a beauty queen and singer from Tacloban, who won Marcos with her beauty and lovely voice. It was she, with her relentless ambition, who encouraged and pushed her husband to steal billions from the country during their 21 years of conjugal dictatorship.

Leni Robredo

Leni Robredo










In September 1972, Ferdinand Marcos decreed martial law, suspending the constitution, closing Congress, jailing political enemies and seizing profitable businesses for himself and his cronies. Philippine Airlines, ABS-CBN television network, the Manila Electric Company and the PLDT phone company were all snatched by Marcos and his close friends. To hide this wholesale robbery, Marcos put many of these companies in the name of his allies.

Just as in the military dictatorship of 1964-1985 in Brazil, more than 300,000 Filipinos were arrested, tortured and many of them killed for opposing the dictatorship. The People Power Revolution in 1986 ended the dictatorship of the Marcoses, with the whole family fleeing to Hawaii.

But Bongbong was the first in his family to return to the Philippines in 1991 and was elected congressman. He had been deputy governor and governor of Ilocos Norte province during the dictatorship, so his return to politics was relatively easy. His mother, Imelda, soon also returned to the country and was also elected to Congress. Bongbong was elected to the Senate in 2010.

Through the massive corruption of the Marcos couple, it is estimated that a total of $10 billion was looted from the country, and the following democratic governments were able to recover only a small fraction of this stolen wealth. Nevertheless, there has always been a very solid base of Marcos supporters in the electorate. These people believe that the Marcoses did many good things for the country and its people, claiming that they built much of the modern infrastructure that the country has today.

Yet despite these hardcore Marcos supporters, there is a larger portion of the population that was and still is against the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses. But they have found the forgetfulness and willingness to forgive easily of many voters as their biggest obstacles to stopping the nation from forgetting the violent excesses committed from 1972 until 1986.

To add to the horror of the critics of the Marcoses has been the new generation of voters, those born after the end of the dictatorship. Most of these voters do not have a negative view of the Marcoses, believing that Ferdinand did much good for the country by leading it with an iron hand. Therefore a group called the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacañang recently produced a dramatic video in which young voters were filmed talking about what they thought of the dictatorship years in front of people who were tortured and raped by the regime. When these victims reveal what happened to them, the young voters are stunned and amazed, and some even break down and cry, asking for forgiveness for their mistaken ideas.

But should we hold a son responsible for the sins of his parents? The Philippine electorate will have to decide that. But from the votes coming in, it seems they are ready to forget and forgive, placing Bongbong that much closer to the presidency.


Verger book of Philippine photos launched

THE much awaited book of Philippine photographs taken by the French photographer Pierre Verger in the 1930s was finally launched last night here in Brasilia at the residence of the Philippine Ambassador to Brazil Teresita Barsana.

The 187-page book showcases the black and white photographs taken by Verger on two trips to the Philippines in 1934 and then 1937-38, during which he traveled from the northernmost tip to the Muslim south. Many of the photos included have never been published before. Verger was a prolific picture-taker, a true photojournalist who wanted to document day-to-day life wherever he went. This explains the mountains of negatives that he left behind at the foundation named after himself in Salvador, Bahia. Barsana told me that after she had the idea of producing a book just of his Philippine pictures, she spent days at the foundation pouring over his photographs to choose the best ones out of nearly 2,000 alone on the Philippines.
“Many of the negatives were in very bad condition, ravaged by heat and humidity,” said Brazilian photographer Alexandre Magno, who was in charge of designing the book. “We had to use Photoshop to improve the quality of many of them.”
Ambassador Barsana told me that the Pierre Verger Foundation was initially hesitant in producing the book. “‘How many people will be interested in photos of the Philippines?’, they asked me, and I said I would make people interested!” she told me as she happily autographed copies of the book for guests at the launch.
This career diplomat is very happy that she was able to produce this book before she leaves soon to set up the first ever Philippine embassy in Lisbon, Portugal.
The book was being sold for R$65 ($37.70 or P1,795) at the reception, and was printed in a limited-edition run of around 1,000 copies. Hopefully, the book will give Brazilians an intriguing look into what the Philippines and Filipinos looked like in the 1930s, just before World War II and their subsequent independence from the United States.

The book launch that didn’t quite happen

Philippine Ambassador to Brazil Teresita Barsana speaking at the swearing-in of the Brazil-Philippines Parliamentary Committee on Wednesday in Brasilia.

YESTERDAY afternoon my friend Ana Claudia and I eagerly arrived at the Brazilian Congress to attend the supposed launch of a book of photographs of the Philippines taken by Pierre Verger, a French photographer who ended up living and dying in Brazil, entitled Pierre Verger-1934-1937-1938: Filipinas.

Making our way to the Salão Nobre of the House of Deputies, I marveled at how easy it was to enter Congress, especially if one were dressed up the way we were. We went through one metal detector and that was it. We were in.

Since all of Brasilia was built in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the inside of the Congress building is modern in that 1950s sort of way. Just next door they have completely gutted the Palacio do Planalto, the presidential palace, in a much-needed reforma that is being overseen by the original architect of Brasilia Oscar Niemeyer, who at 101 years of age is still working despite recent health problems. This visionary capital is celebrating its 50th anniversary next April, and everyone is hoping that Niemeyer will make it.

But back to the supposed book launch. When we were finally seated in the rather smallish Salão Nobre, which is like the lobby of a slightly faded luxury hotel, Philippine Ambassador to Brazil Teresita Barsana announced that the actual launching of the Verger book would be on Nov. 4 at her official residence. Instead, we all witnessed the swearing in of the new members of the Brazil-Philippines Parliamentary Group. Deputy Nelson Marquezelli (PTB-Sao Paulo) is the head of this group, and he said that a group of Brazilian deputies are scheduled to visit the Philippines early next year.

From the huge floor-to-ceiling glass wall we had a lovely view of the grassy slopes in front of the Congress, where a large group of protesters had gathered and whom we heard screaming during our event.

After the swearing-in, Ana Claudia decided to take me on a walking tour of both houses of Congress. We saw a huge tiled wall in the lobby of the Senate made by the famous Athos Bulcão. There we saw a rather tall man in sunglasses wearing a jacket with a huge plastic sunflower stuck on it, smiling and posing for photographs with the public. He was obviously some celebrity, but I didn’t recognize him.

“Oh my God! That’s the singer Falcão,” blurted Ana Claudia. “He’s a singer from the Northeast of Brazil who always sings about cuckold men.”

We watched him for a few minutes. “Do you want your picture taken with him?” she asked me.

“No, that’s okay,” I replied.

The Brazilian Congress is famous for its various underground tunnels that link various parts of this large complex. Ana Claudia and I were looking for the especially futuristic looking one that has recessed lighting, that gives the completely carpeted tunnel an outer space sort of vibe.

When we finally found it in the House of Deputies, Ana Claudia told me it had always reminded her of something out of an episode of the TV series “Time Tunnel”. To mark our visit to Congress and the famous tunnel we took pictures of each other in the spooky glow of the underground passage that has moving sidewalks just like in airports. It was a suitably modernist end to our frustrating expedition in search of that book of photographs.

My friend Ana Claudia posing in the futuristic tunnel under
the House of Deputies.

Book of 1930s photos of the Philippines to be launched in Brasilia

A street scene in Manila. (Photo courtesy of the Pierre Verger Foundation)

A BOOK containing 150 photographs taken by French photographer Pierre Edouard Leopold Verger in the Philippines in 1937-38, is being launched by the Philippine Ambassador to Brazil Teresita Barsana in Brasilia on October 28.

A contemporary of fellow photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, Verger was born in Paris in 1902 and traveled the world in the 1930s at the age of 30 with his camera taking photographs of local peoples and their towns and villages throughout Africa and Asia. He eventually settled in Bahia, Salvador, after he became fascinated with the African religion of Candomble. He became a self-taught ethnographer on the influence of Yorouba culture on Brazil, which slaves had brought here in the 1800s, writing many articles on this subject. He eventually became a professor at the Federal University of Bahia in 1973, and also set up a foundation in his name to take care of his more than 63,000 photos and negatives.
He died at the age of 93 in 1996 in Salvador.
1,000 copies of the book are being printed, which has been designed by Brasilia-based photographer Alexandre Magno. During his travels in the Philippines, Verger photographed from Baguio in the north to Zamboanga and Mindanao in the south.
Below: A nipa house on stilts in Zamboanga. (Photo courtesy of Pierre Verger Foundation)

Arroyo’s lavish NYC dinner is obscene

THE $20,000 dinner that Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, her husband and entourage reportedly recently had at New York City’s celebrated Le Cirque restaurant is truly obscene.

It does not matter that no taxpayers money was used to pay for it. According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer the dinner was hosted by Leyte Rep. Martin Romualdez as a blowout for the wedding anniversary of the presidential couple. But even so, nearly P1 million for one dinner for only 50 people?! They allegedly drank 11 bottles of Krug champagne at $550 a pop (!), and had several servings of caviar ($1,400).
The tabloid paper New York Post broke the story in its gossip column on Friday. Arroyo’s press secretary Cerge Remonde tried to belittle the progressive group Bayan, for its statements of outrage over such a costly dinner when so many Filipinos are hungry, by attacking the group and claiming it was a front for communist forces bent on overthrowing the Philippine government.
According to one estimate the $20,000 spent on the lavish dinner could have fed three-square meals to 3,000 poor families.
Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez, who took part in the dinner, downplayed the costs by saying that a $20,000 tab was high for Manila but not for New York City, where everything is more expensive. “I don’t know why they’re making such a big deal,” he told the Inquirer in an interview. “It’s New York where everything is more expensive than Manila. We were more than 50 in our group, the president’s security and the Secret Service joined us.”
Still, that comes out to $400 a head, which seems steep to me, even for New York.
Even staunch Arroyo ally Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who was with the president on this trip but did not attend the dinner because she was tired, lambasted the event for being so lavish during a worldwide economic recession. “I can sympathize with critics because it sounds so outrageous and outlandish that people from a developing country should rack up a bill of P1 million,” she told the Inquirer.
We came to expect such lavish spending from the Marcoses, but not from a president and her allies who were originally swept into office after Edsa II on a popular wave of repugnance at former President Joseph Estrada’s corruption. How times have changed!

ABS-CBN tries to eat its cake with Cory funeral

WILLIE Revillame, the host of the wildly popular noontime variety show Wowowee on ABS-CBN Television, is no stranger to controversy. His latest venture into hot water occurred on Monday when he objected on the air to having the “live” windows on television screens showing the procession of the body of the late President Corazon Aquino from La Salle Green Hills Gym to Manila Cathedral.

“It’s not right that we’re having fun here on Wowowee and then viewers also watching the funeral procession of Cory Aquino. Please take away the small windows,” said Willie in Tagalog, apologizing to his bosses at the network.
The technicians in the control room followed his instructions and took away the two live boxes that had been showing Cory Aquino’s funeral procession.
According to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper, bloggers and viewers were outraged at Willie’s remarks, saying they were insensitive and should not have been said on the air.
I must admit to agreeing with Willie this time, even though I have criticized him harshly in the past for other sexist and sleazy remarks he has made on the show in the past. He says that he told the ABS-CBN that he was ready to give way to live broadcast of Cory’s funeral procession, but that the network had forced him to go on with his live show.
I call this a case of greedy ABS-CBN trying to have its cake and eat it too! They should have chosen one or the other, and certainly not try to mix the sad and emotional pictures of the former president’s body being taken to the Manila Cathedral, while skimpily clad women gyrated and laughed on Wowowee. That was truly grotesque and revealing in a horrifying way of how ABS-CBN felt the money-making vulgarity of Wowowee had to continue no matter what, even if Cory Aquino were being mourned and buried.
Willie shouldn’t have apologized. ABS-CBN should apologize for mixing the two events together. What they did was unforgivable and in terrible taste. Shame on them!
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