“You know, I cannot go there even to bring the Coast Guard to drive them away. China also claims the property and he is in possession. ’Yan ang problema. Sila ’yung (That is the problem. They are the ones) in possession and claiming all the resources there as an owner.” — President Rodrigo R. Duterte said that quite clearly in his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 22, at the opening of the 18th Congress.
The context of Mr. Duterte saying that is the recent “little maritime accident,” as he prefers to call the allision and sinking of a small Filipino fishing vessel by a big Chinese boat on June 9 in the Reed Bank, within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Twenty-two Filipino fishermen floundering in the sea were ignored by the Chinese hit-and-run vessel and rescued by a Vietnamese boat.
Why did the Chinese not even help the drowning Filipino fishermen? Why was the Chinese ship even in our EEZ? What are you, Mr. Duterte, going to do about this? And so Mr. Duterte had no choice but to explain himself in his SONA.
The declaration that “China is in possession,” this time including within our EEZ, sounded wrong from the start. The statement went viral in media and even in common discussions. In a June 27-30 Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll, 87% of respondents said it is “important” for the Philippines to assert its sovereign rights on islands in the West Philippine Sea that China occupied. Senior Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Antonio Carpio, foremost advocate for the implementation of the UNCLOS-awarded claims in the West Philippine Sea, publicly asked that President Duterte withdraw his statement that China is “in possession” of the China Sea lest it be construed as an acquiescence to trespassing in the EEZ and a surrender of Philippine claims including those settled by arbitral rulings. Furthermore, Mr. Carpio, talking in the ANC show Headstart on July 23, said that it is grossly inaccurate to say that China is “in possession” of the China Sea because it actually has only about 7%.
“It doesn’t need that you have to own the entire 10,000 hectares to call it your own. There is such a thing as legal possession. As far as they (China) are concerned, they own it. They are in possession because they can enforce it. That’s the point,” Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo was quoted as insisting in a SunStar story that same day.
But if the spokesman could be dismissed as impresario of just another gaudy stage show, the ex-generals who seriously spoke for the President have insulted the intelligence of the Filipino people.
“I think the President did not say that they (China) are in possession, but that they are in position,” National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon said in a press briefing. “They are positioned in their islands, but they are not in possession or own the West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana added.
“Secretaries Lorenzana and Esperon are doing damage control — issuing clarification about the President’s explanation. They are now blaming the President’s pronunciation of the word ‘position.’ They said it’s not ‘possession’ as everybody heard the President say last Monday,” investigative journalist Ellen Tordesillas opined on her ABS-CBN.com blog on July 24. Regional paper SunStar Cebu’s “Bzzzzz” column, said, “The President mispronounced, Lorenzana and Esperon said, the word ‘position’: instead it came out as ‘possession.’ Though they didn’t say [so], they in effect blamed Duterte’s Bisaya tongue. Visayan-speaking character are staple subject for sitcoms on TV and radio, with their ‘hard tongue’ as butt of jokes. It seems that the Cabinet officials are using it for damage control.” For “damage control” Visayans have been inflicted with the unfeeling bigoted slur, and all Filipinos are degraded some more displayed capability for such cheap insults.
President Duterte has repeatedly admitted that he was “fond of military men since they get the job done fast and without corruption,” according to ABS-CBN News on Oct 15, 2018. “It’s difficult with the civilians… When you give them instructions, they take a long time to do it,” he said according to Interaksyon on April 20, 2018. Some government employees’ groups have protested Duterte’s statement that he preferred former military personnel because civilians are “lazy,” noted ABS-CBN News on April 25, 2017.
In June 2017, the Philippine Daily Inquirer listed 59 retired military generals, police directors, admirals, and colonels appointed to the Cabinet and other agencies, including government-owned corporations since Duterte assumed power. By 2018-19 that would be around 63, with the appointment of Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda to the Bases Conversion and Development Authority Board; Lt. Gen. Eduardo Año as Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government; and former Senator Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, retired Philippine Army colonel, as Secretary of the Department of Information and Communications Technology.
Political analyst Dennis Coronacion of the University of Santo Tomas told Philstar.com that Duterte’s appointment of military officers to top posts is to ensure that no “disenchanted soul” will rebel against him, as he believes the president’s gestures favoring the military is a way to consolidate power. An Interaksyon story quoted a Vox interview with retired US Army Gen. Daniel Bolger saying that a “country would likely slide into authoritarian rule if there’s no clear separation between military and civilians,” observing US President Donald Trump who has also been noted for hiring (retired) military generals.
Ay! That’s the problem. A military officer will be loyal to the constitution and will protect the people first and foremost while he is in active service. But a retired military officer hired by a political leader will be “loyal to the person” who hired him before being loyal to the nebulous common good. “You set aside institutions in favor of an instinctive, implicit trust in somebody whom you like, who you think is good for the country, whatever he says, whatever he does,” Mr. Coronacion said.
But why would a military officer want to be in extended government service? He already has his military pension which is about 85% (maximum) of his last monthly basic plus longevity pay — computed roughly between P86,000 and P60,000 among the generals’ ranks, and below P60,000 per month pension for colonels — all tax free according to philstar.com on Jan. 9, 2018. But of course, compared to a Cabinet Secretary’s annual pay of P1.5 to P2.5 million or P125,000 to about P200,000 per month (as noted by philstar.com on June 9, 2017), there would be much to be enticed with, aside from the other “temptations” on the job. It would also help the ego to still be in the limelight of power and influence, instead of fading into oblivion at the still-young, compulsory military retirement age of 47 to 52, when, at that vulnerable mid-life, the insecurities of hormonal andropause (male menopause) can drag the spirit down.
To the ex-military personnel now in civilian governance, a passionate reminder: Do not sully the reputation, damage the integrity, and lower the principles of 300,000 military men and women (125,000 are estimated to be in active duty) who have pledged their loyalty to the country and the people, upon the sacred Constitution. Do not ever forget the thousands of military men and women killed in action to defend our rights under democracy.
Amelia H. C. Ylagan is a Doctor of Business Administration from the University of the Philippines.