President Duterte’s third Sona

President Duterte’s third State of the Nation Address (Sona) succeeded in making him look and sound presidential. For the second time since his brief inaugural address two years ago, he behaved in accordance with what is expected of someone occupying the nation’s highest office. The special “diva lighting” that must have been used on him softened Mr. Duterte’s facial features, giving his eyes a somber glow.

Still, he managed to say a couple of outrageous things—like that false dichotomy between “human rights” and “human lives.” But even that came out merely as a clever play on words, instead of the profoundly erroneous and dangerous idea that it really was.

That he was struggling to stay on script, however, was visible throughout his 48-minute speech. He paused quite a few times, as if wanting to unload a barrage of expletives, but he restrained himself in time, and proceeded to mumble portions of his speech with the enthusiasm of a speed reader. Indeed, Mr. Duterte has proven that he is capable of sober speech. Let us hope he is able to maintain it, aided by better speechwriters who can give him not only catchy lines but also sound ideas.

That said, it would have been perfectly understandable if he had prefaced his Sona with an impromptu remark about why his appearance at the podium was delayed for more than an hour. It wasn’t his fault, after all. But, maybe, even he found the ugly scene mounted by his closest allies inside the session hall a bit too much.

Unfolding like a silent movie in full view of the assembled guests (the sound system had been abruptly switched off), the coup against Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez was too surreal and too embarrassing for a principal guest to comment on without insulting the hosts. Realizing that he had been upstaged by the untimely maneuvering of his hosts, the President, at that point, probably just wanted to get on with the task at hand, and to get out of that chamber of political treachery and opportunism as quickly as possible.

There was nothing in his prepared speech that could have equaled the impact of the barefaced takeover that his partners in the congressional supermajority crudely staged on national television. The nation finally got a glimpse of the cast of politicians that had congealed around the Duterte presidency.

This was the state of the nation in the truest sense of the phrase—the return of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her cabal of political operators, the recuperation of the Marcoses, the primacy of personal ambition over the national agenda, the worthlessness of political parties, the venal continuity of the successor political generation, and the pathetic inability of the President to serve as a fulcrum of national solidarity.

For all the rhetoric of change that spices his speeches, Mr. Duterte could offer no new ideas to ensure the success of the three centerpiece programs by which he has sought to differentiate his administration from all the previous ones. These are: the antidrug war, the campaign against crime and the battle against corruption. The fiery words that
Mr. Duterte is used to uttering in unbridled anger against these three scourges have not been matched by thoughtful planning, periodic assessment and rational calibration.

Take the so-called war on drugs. The principal targets are the same—the defenseless drug users and the neighborhood drug pushers that roam the urban slums. The big-time syndicates that manufacture and import the drugs have remained free, undeterred by Mr. Duterte’s signature fury.

“The war against illegal drugs is far from over,” he declared in his third Sona. “This is why the illegal drugs war will not be sidelined. Instead, it will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began.” One could almost imagine the hapless speechwriter behind these insipid words groping for something stronger and more evocative. Instead, he comes up with the words that describe the impact he wants to create—“relentless and chilling.”

The truth is that it’s not possible to describe in any lawful or morally acceptable way this administration’s preferred method for dealing with drug suspects. The number of people being killed in the streets in broad daylight has not at all diminished, but only a few of these deaths are now attributed to the police. Death squads, especially recruited and trained to kill in cold blood, now roam the streets in search of their prey.

Clad in black and working in pairs, they used to be called “bonnet gangs” because of the ski masks they wore. But, these days, they no longer bother to conceal their faces. Armed with lists of target individuals they don’t personally know, they rely on local informers to point to them their intended victims. The local police are alerted to the presence of these gunmen in their areas just to make sure they are not anywhere near when the actual killings take place. Forewarned, they dutifully take their time going to the site of the incident. And so, quite often, the undertaker from the nearby funeral parlor is already waiting to collect the body of the victim by the time the police arrive.

It is this absolute disregard for the lives of other human beings that makes this administration’s approach to the drug problem particularly chilling. To the extent that it entails treating a class of persons as no longer human, I had thought it was impossible to dress it up as a policy statement fit for delivery in a presidential speech. But there it was in Mr. Duterte’s last Sona—as relentless and as chilling as a politely enunciated cussword.