When two punishers meet

When President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte met Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo at the recent Asean Summit in Laos, they evidently took an instant liking for one another. Sharing a reputation for decisiveness, both basked in the same populist adulation that has become the hallmark of weak democracies. But, more than this, they projected the same tough and uncompromising stance toward drug users and traffickers.

Mr. Widodo has consistently turned a deaf ear to international pleas to stop executing drug convicts in his country, including non-Indonesians. He has ignored pleas from foreign governments to suspend scheduled executions pending further review of the cases involving their nationals. Mr. Duterte, on the other hand, has attracted global attention for waging a relentless campaign to kill suspected drug offenders who resist arrest or put up a fight. He has repeatedly pledged to protect police officers who could be criminally charged for carrying out his orders. Both leaders have earned the ire of human rights organizations and advocates.

When the two punishers met in Jakarta again last Sept. 9 on the occasion of Mr. Duterte’s one-day working visit to Indonesia, they could not ignore the elephant in the room that loomed before them. This was Mary Jane Veloso, the

32-year-old Filipino woman who was charged with and convicted of carrying 2.6 kilograms of heroin concealed in her luggage when she arrived at the Yogyakarta Airport in April 2010.  Pleading innocence, she said she had come to Indonesia to work as a domestic helper, and had nothing but clothes and personal belongings inside her suitcase which, she claimed, a friend in Malaysia had lent her. Sentenced to die before a firing squad, she has languished in an Indonesian jail for the last six years.

The Aquino administration succeeded in delaying Mary Jane’s execution, convinced that she had been used as an unwitting drug mule.  After arresting her alleged recruiters in the Philippines, the government invoked the Asean Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (MLAT) that obligates signatory nations to accommodate each other’s legal processes. A court in the Philippines conveyed its need to hear the testimony of Mary Jane in the case filed against her recruiters. Acceding to the request, the Indonesian government indefinitely suspended Mary Jane’s execution while the case against her alleged recruiters, Ma. Cristina Sergio and Julius Lacanilao, was being heard in the Philippines.

On this basis, Mary Jane’s name has been excluded from at least three scheduled executions. Her family fervently hangs on to the hope that enough evidence proving her innocence will emerge from the ongoing hearing of the case against her traffickers.

President Duterte said he thought twice about bringing up the topic in his one-on-one conversation with President Widodo. Apparently, it stuck to his mind, lurking behind every pause, waiting to be expressed in words.

We can believe Mr. Duterte’s claim that he did not explicitly mention Mary Jane in his talk with his Indonesian counterpart. But that does not mean they did not somehow talk about her. Mr. Widodo could not have been lying when he said, “President Duterte said ‘go ahead’ if [Mary Jane] were to be executed.” When asked the following day to clarify his statement, Mr. Widodo emphatically said: “President Duterte said to go ahead and process according to the laws of Indonesia. So that means what I said yesterday is already clear.”  Indeed, there are ways of conveying meaning without reference to explicit speech.

Having expressed his admiration for Indonesia’s tough death penalty law, Mr. Duterte admitted that it would have left “a bad taste in the mouth to be talking about having a strong posture against drugs and here you are begging for something.” However it may have been expressed in their conversation, that sentiment was clearly not lost on Mr. Widodo.  Feeling affirmed, the latter told the press:

“I see consistency from Duterte in the battle against drug trafficking. Zero tolerance [for drug dealers], so he said that he respects the Indonesian legal process. It is obvious.”

Did he take Mr. Duterte’s silence about the MLAT to mean that Indonesia was now free to proceed with its own processes? Probably.

But, we don’t know.

When a head of state visits another, it is usual for them to face the media together after their meeting. They take turns stating what they talked about, and what valuable insights they were taking away from their discussion. It’s fascinating to watch these diplomatic rituals, and observe the way in which language is carefully deployed to communicate sensitive views. Seizing upon what is unsaid in these statements, the media might sometimes ask provocative but necessary questions. There was no such joint summing up after the Indonesia visit.

In the remarkable science fiction short story titled “Story of Your Life,” author Ted Chiang tells of the amazing linguist Dr. Louise Banks who is recruited by the US military to decipher the strange language of aliens who have made contact with the earth. With great patience,

Dr. Banks manages to grasp the intricacies of a language that “sounded vaguely like that of a wet dog shaking the water out of its fur,” and whose written version yielded “no correspondence between its components and any particular sounds.” She realizes that their writing system is completely independent of their speech.

Hearing the President speak and reading his spokesmen’s reports of what he meant, one wonders if human communication is any different.

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