Just as he had promised to change the system established by the elitist leaders of the past during his campaign for the presidency, President Rodrigo Duterte has remained the same man that he was when he was the mayor of Davao City. He has kept the simple lifestyle that he lived for 22 years as Mayor Digong.
He has done away with the traditional formalities in Malacañang, bringing in his bourgeoisie behavior, crude language, and pedestrian sartorial style to the presidential palace. As he had said many times, “I am not a son of the privileged class.” The Filipino people, the great majority of whom belong to the Socio-economic Classes D and E, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, see him as their kind, as one of their own. That is why he enjoys the a high trust rating in surveys in spite of the fact that he has by his own admission failed to fulfill many of his campaign promises.
But President Duterte has carried his “burgis” persona abroad, to summits of world leaders at that. At the opening ceremonies of the 32nd ASEAN summit in Singapore he was the only head of state or head of delegation who had no tie, a breach of the dress code at such meetings. He also came to the gala dinner of the APEC Summit in Port Moresby without a tie. He skipped six top-level meetings in the ASEAN forum to take “power” naps.
Such disregard for protocol by the President of the Philippines must have caused the leaders of other nations to look down on him and ignore him. In fact, a photo of the APEC gala dinner, an event he had planned to skip, showed the other heads of state unmindful of his presence. President Joko Widodo of Indonesia had his back turned on him and the Vietnam head of delegation across the table was looking away.
The Cabinet members with him at those international conferences should know better than the former “promdi” mayor. Most of them had pursued higher education in the most prestigious universities of the Western World and who as high-ranking public officials have attended international meetings. They should have advised the President that those summits were occasions for formal attire and mandatory attendance. Obviously they didn’t have the guts to tell the President that he was wrong in maintaining his “common tao” persona in meetings with leaders of other countries.
The Cabinet members might say that such matters are trivial and they are not inclined to bother the President with such trivialities. But President Duterte had dishonored hallowed practices among nations that should not have taken place if only those well-versed in international protocol had the gumption to tell him to follow sacrosanct rules in international relations.
During the state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping, President Duterte did not only conduct himself as a humble “common tao” as he is wont to do to gain the goodwill of the masa, he acted as a vassal to the ruler of China.
During the welcome rites in Malacañang, President Duterte walked behind President Xi Jinping as they inspected the troops, with only the Chinese national flag carried behind him. During the visits of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indonesian President Joko Widodo, the honor guard carried the official flag of the President of the Philippines as protocol prescribed.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was among several Cabinet members who witnessed the ceremony at the Palace grounds that day. He should know that the host head of state walking behind the visiting head of state and with the visitor’s national flag carried as they inspected the troops was a monumental gaffe.
Sec. Lorenzana is a graduate of the Philippine Military Academy. He was at one time with the Presidential Security Group and was Defense and Armed Forces Attaché in Washington DC from 2002 to 2004. He attended a seminar for Senior International Leaders at Harvard University and a crisis management course at the US Department of State. He was not only schooled in international protocol but he was a participant and witness to strict compliance with military and diplomatic protocols.
When asked about the breach in protocol during the welcome rites for President Xi Jinping, Sec. Lorenzana said, “There is no mistake. They are in our land, this is our country. Maybe, it was a gesture of respect for him.” He grumbled, “Do not torture our minds about giving meaning to these very trivial things.” When asked about the protocol issue, Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr., another Cabinet member who should be very knowledgeable about protocol, having been the Philippine representative to the United Nations, tweeted, “Trivia.”
Even when the Philippines was a colony and subsequently a commonwealth of the United States, the Philippine flag was flown alongside the American flag. During the Japanese occupation of the country, the Philippine flag continued to fly. When Japan surrendered to the Allied Nations in August 1945, the Commonwealth of the Philippines was restored and the Philippine flag was flown again alongside the Stars and Stripes. Upon recognition finally by the United States of Philippine independence, US High Commissioner to the Philippines Paul V. McNutt and Philippine President Manuel Roxas lowered the American flag for the last time on July 4, 1946 and in its stead rose the Philippine flag to henceforth fly alone on Philippine soil.
Pres. Duterte walking behind Pres. Xi Jinping in the Palace grounds and with only the Chinese flag being carried behind them is not only a monumental protocol mistake, it is an act symbolical of submission to a foreign power. For Pres. Duterte’s men to stand by and make nothing of it can only mean the country’s Cabinet is composed of meek, docile, and intimidated people not worthy of the citizens’ respect.
Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a member of Manindigan! a cause-oriented group of businessmen, professionals, and academics.