The outsider

The price you pay for being in the public eye, I remember telling my old friend Ronald Llamas after he took the high-profile job of Presidential adviser on political affairs, is that you must avoid doing what every other person takes for granted as normal. Like buying pirated DVDs, or rummaging through fake branded goods and donated second-hand clothes at tiangges and ukay-ukays. Don’t smoke in public places, I told him. Observe speed limits. Never Xerox entire books; they’re protected by copyright. Don’t cheat on your taxes. Declare your assets faithfully, no matter how meager they are. Be careful about your personal life. You’re no longer an ordinary mortal: you’re now a government official.

But the news must really be slow these days despite the ongoing impeachment trial at the Senate. For almost a week now, the media have found Llamas’ act of buying pirated DVDs at a neighborhood mall grievous enough to place it among their top stories. Thus projected, it is made to share the same gravity as the offenses for which Chief Justice Renato Corona is being tried, or the kidnapping charges that former National Bureau of Investigation Director Magtanggol Gatdula faces. Opposition politicians and sanctimonious columnists have called for his resignation.

The irony is that, while selling pirated DVDs is illegal, buying them for personal consumption is not. The Optical Media Board, a small agency of government, conducts highly publicized raids on the DVD stalls that sell these products, but not often enough to deter them from re-opening. Unlike the campaign against illegal drugs, the drive against pirated DVDs and fake and smuggled goods is a fragmented one. It is not, as far as I know, an integral function of the police or even of local governments.  That is why pirated DVDs continue to be sold and bought openly and publicly.

Needless to say, Ronald should have known better. As a public official, he is expected to support the government’s fight against all forms of illicit activity, including the poorly understood campaign against copyright infringement. He has rightly apologized for this lapse, even if, deep in his heart, he may not be inclined to defend the interests of the big multinational corporations that assert their intellectual property rights over the copied material. Knowing him well, I am sure that the DVDs he bought did not include a single Filipino movie made by local producers.

One nasty columnist went so far as to speculate that pornographic movies could have been among Ronald’s quasi-licit loot. This line of thought is consistent with the seeming need to infer his moral career from this minor incident.  Not surprisingly, the matter of the high-powered rifle found in his service vehicle last year is being revisited. Never mind that the gun turned out to be licensed, and that he was attending a conference abroad when the gun was found in his car. Still, the media went after him as the owner of the gun. The image that is projected by all this inordinate publicity is that of a coarse man lucky enough to land a sensitive job in government because he happens to share with the President a penchant for guns.

Ronald and I have worked for many years in various political movements, including Bisig, the socialist group founded by former UP President Francisco Nemenzo. We have marched together in countless rallies. One of these took place on Feb. 24, 2006, the 20th anniversary of the Edsa I uprising. It was the day Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declared a state of national emergency. I was arrested on Edsa while talking to the police general who was in charge of keeping order. For trying to rescue me from the plainclothes men who had led me away, Ronald was also arrested and charged with sedition. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court later declared our arrest illegal.

This I can say about Ronald Llamas, and I don’t mind sounding as if I am giving a character testimony. There are very few like him, who are uncorrupted by political power or dazzled by its perks. Llamas clearly has the ear and confidence of the nation’s highest official. This role is as diffused as one can imagine it—a trouble-shooter, a “back-channel” worker, an emissary on sensitive matters, a strategist, an ideologue, a problem-solver—rolled into one.

Our national record abundantly shows what someone in this position can do to monetize the influence that comes with it. He can quietly push for the appointment of people to coveted posts in government, and secure a regular cut from their rackets. He can lobby for corporations awaiting approval of a government contract or franchise, and charge a fee. Ronald has engaged in none of these. He could easily have asked dealers of pirated goods to send him a list of their newly arrived DVDs. But no, he chose to go to the mall himself, accompanied by his two daughters, and pay for his purchases—like everyone else.

Ronald is poor—which is why he buys from tiangges rather than from Amazon—but his taste is cerebral. His reading ranges from politics to philosophy, and from history to literature. His library consists of books he patiently dug up from the dusty piles of bargain booksellers. His idea of a good time consists of spending hours searching for old junk and little-known titles at flea markets.  He becomes totally oblivious of the time and his surroundings when he does this. And that’s exactly how the sneak photograph taken of him at the mall in Quezon City captured him. This outsider to an entrenched culture of concealed criminality will probably not stay long in government, but he will always remain instinctively a socialist.