Many described it as “insensitive,” which is just another word for callous, inconsiderate, indifferent, uncaring, thoughtless, and even heartless.
But Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s “life is good; let’s do this all the time (Sarap ng buhay. Ganito na lang tayo palagi, ha)” remark to his fellow senators on May 26 wasn’t referring to life during the COVID-19 crisis, only to his relief over the Senate’s concluding its hybrid sessions within two hours while he was online.
However, it was one more sign of much of officialdom’s alienation from those they claim to represent and serve. And as he himself implied in his own defense, the remark was also indicative of Dela Rosa’s antipathy to the kind of sustained, time consuming, and thoughtful work that being a senator of the Republic entails.
Not so long ago when senators took lawmaking seriously and were not indifferent to the needs of their constituents, they would spend hours poring over documents, doing research, holding hearings with experts and various stakeholders to get a sense of the pros and cons of the bills filed for their consideration, and delivering well-researched and meaningful privilege speeches on critical issues, among others.
This was true not only of the 1960s era of the Claro M. Rectos, Lorenzo Tanadas, and Jose W. Dioknos, but also of the post-EDSA 1986 likes of Joker Arroyo and Wigberto Tanada, whose speeches, statements, and other issuances were landmarks in the debate and discussions on such issues as the national debt, US military bases, land tenancy, industrial development, and foreign policy.
In addition to their intellectual depth and work ethic, they were also keenly aware of the plight of the poor and the concerns of women, indigenous people, professionals, students, farmers, workers and other folk. Because they had a sense of history, they were also defenders of human rights, protective of Philippine sovereignty and independence, and concerned for the country’s future.
Their time was hardly a few decades ago, but has since passed into history. Today even former President and previously senator Benigno Aquino III, whom his own political ally Joker Arroyo once described as “a lightweight,” looks and sounds like a college professor when compared to most of the current Senate occupants.
Among them are the real estate mogul who dismisses the need for agricultural research and is more focused on the conversion of rice lands into subdivisions; the fact-challenged spawn of the country’s first and unfortunately not its last brazenly fascist dictator; and the publicity hound and photo bomber who seems to think that speaking for the President, and reporting what he had for dinner and in which carinderia he ate it, is his primary task as senator.
Although in the company of such human rights defenders as Francisco Pangilinan, these senators of the Republic and their cohorts are indifferent to that issue, or, for that matter, to the critical question of what the future holds for a country in the clutches of bureaucrat capitalists whose first and last loyalty is to themselves, their families, their class, and their foreign overlords. And no one certainly expects any of that, least of all sensitivity to human rights issues, of former Philippine National Police (PNP) Director General dela Rosa either.
Despite being out of it, the agency Dela Rosa once headed has remained true to the heartless legacy of the Duterte regime’s so-called “war” on drugs. But it is not only his chosen senators and other lesser officials, but President Rodrigo Duterte himself who, through his words and deeds, is the source of the indifference to Filipino lives and fortunes, and the impunity that now drive much of the civilian and military bureaucracy.
If the high officials of the land are insensitive to the suffering of the millions who have lost their jobs and incomes, who do not know where the next meal is coming from, and who are even punished for complaining about their lot, it should not be difficult to understand why those other agents of government who interact daily with the people have internalized their and their fellow bureaucrats’ example.
It is thus not surprising for the police and military to be so insensitive to the pains and uncertainties of Filipino life during the COVID-19 crisis that they have not hesitated to add to them, and on often flimsy grounds.
Already widely criticized for its cold-blooded indifference to the travails of the people they are mandated to serve, in the middle of the pandemic the PNP has had the time and energy to continue restricting free expression by, among other acts, arresting — in some cases without a warrant and in violation of the right to due process — and filing charges against those who dare criticize the government and Mr. Duterte.
The latter has remained indifferent to the abuses that have further devastated the lives of his constituencies because of the immense problems the COVID-19 contagion has unleashed. What purpose other than to instill fear and mindless obedience to authority does arresting someone for a Facebook post serve? His silence in the face of these abuses suggests that Mr. Duterte knows and approves of the use of State coercion as a means of social control.
Rather than console his long suffering constituency, the President of the Republic has been indifferent to the suffering of those who have lost not only livelihoods but also husbands, sons, daughters, wives, and other loved ones to the COVID-19 contagion. On at least one occasion he has even threatened to declare martial law, and ordered the police to “shoot dead” protesters desperately asking for government assistance.
One of the tasks of a United States President, notes the British newspaper The Guardian, is to be “Consoler-in-Chief” in difficult times such as war and other threats to life and limb so as to assure his constituencies that he understands and shares their grief and fears for the future, and that something is being done to address their concerns. The same is demanded of the President of the Philippines — and more.
As the current President of this unhappy land, it is not too late for Mr. Duterte to abandon his habitual belligerence towards critics and dissenters and to forgive even those who, in their frustration, mistakenly think that invitations to violence are protected by the right to free expression. He can still assure the Filipino people that he truly cares for them by commiserating with them in their hour of need, and by reminding the entire bureaucracy and not only the police and military that there has never been any justification for the oppression, lawlessness, and State terrorism that over the last four years their insensitivity has inflicted on ordinary folk as well as critics, dissenters, reformers and political and social activists. More than Commander-in-Chief, he could thus begin his transformation into the true father of the nation his followers claim him to be, whose words of assurance and adoption of a policy of unity and reconciliation instead of division and ill will can help the Filipino people cope with and survive the adversities of life in these COVID-19-challenged times.
The skeptical may be forgiven for believing that to expect Mr. Duterte to make this grand gesture, or to even show the littlest sign of sensitivity to human suffering, is to expect the impossible. If they are right, Mr. Duterte will miss the opportunity to reinvent himself for the good of the citizenry and his claim to a place in this country’s troubled history.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).