Saturday, March 28, 2015

Keep talking, Mr. President

Those are the words many critics and opponents of President Benigno Aquino 3rd are quietly thinking or saying these days. Now that most Filipinos either don’t trust or aren’t sure about Aquino, anything he says can and often will be used against him in the court of public opinion. The more he talks, the more he adds to the number of doubters and detractors.
The recent Pulse Asia survey finding that eight out of ten respondents think the government, particularly the President, has not explained enough the Mamasapano operation, is really saying that Filipinos don’t believe Aquino’s statements on it, nor those of his apologists. And more of the same won’t convince them that he is not to blame for the deaths of 44 Philippine National Police Special Action Force troopers.
In his latest missive, Aquino repeated last Saturday his claim that his trusted friend, then-suspended and now resigned PNP Chief Alan Purisima, and relieved SAF commander Getulio Napeñas misled him about complying with his purported order to coordinate with PNP Officer-in-Charge Leonardo Espina and Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief Gregorio Catapang.
Days before, the President summoned Board of Inquiry head Benjamin Magalong to take issue with the finding in the 128-page BOI report on Mamasapano that “The Chain of Command in the PNP was violated,” noting the failure by the President, Purisima and Napeñas to tell PNP OIC Espina and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas about the Mamasapano mission.
Ask family members, work or schoolmates, drinking buddies, and other people you regularly see if they buy these Aquino contentions. Ask them too if such statements help rebuild or further erode his credibility. And if one knows police or military officers and troopers, get their answers too.
Better still, Pulse Asia or Social Weather Stations should survey if their usual representative sample of 1,200 respondents believe Aquino was fooled about Mamasapano, should not be blamed, and, most important, never held back reinforcements from aiding the beleaguered SAF.
Then one could see if Aquino and his supporters’ protestations are convincing people or turning more of them into disbelievers.
The need for presidential silence
The last time a sitting president faced serious credibility problems, Gloria Arroyo wisely kept public statements to a minimum, always speaking on governance matters and totally avoiding comment on controversies. Instead, she let her spokespersons and Cabinet members answer critics. Rather than nationwide broadcasts to defend herself, she confined public appearances to her work, including the State of the Nation Addresses, and, occasionally, her prayers.
That’s not Aquino’s style, of course. He takes on all comers, and openly disputes with opponents and even ordinary folk, like the Tacloban businessman warning of gun-toting looters during Yolanda (“You’re still alive, aren’t you?”), or even the bereaved families of the Fallen 44 (“We’re the same now. I too have lost a father.”). And presidential retorts catapult even nobodies from nowhere to front page and prime time.
What further makes presidential and administration silence difficult is the unbreakable link between Mamasapano and the Bangsamoro Basic Law needed to implement Aquino’s peace pact with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
Because he wants the BBL passed by June or at least this year, to keep the peace process on track and the MILF keeping the ceasefire, the President and his officials feel they need to keep projecting their widely disbelieved view of Mamasapano.
The widespread and growing perception that the Commander-in-Chief held back the army from aiding the SAF to safeguard the MILF accord, has turned the public against the BBL. Fully 44 percent oppose its passage, according to the same Pulse Asia poll cited at the start of this article.
Also feeding distrust of the peace process is the public defense of the MILF and the BBL mounted by peace adviser Secretary Teresita Deles and chief negotiator Professor Miriam Coronel-Ferrer. Meanwhile, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima has insisted that no chain of command exists in the police, in her vain effort to absolve Aquino of blame.
Last week, Commission on Human Rights Chairperson Etta Rosales joined the chorus, parroting MILF negotiator Hadji Abdullah Camlian’s missive that the killing of SAF commandos was not a massacre, since they were armed. Both disregard the fact that the Fallen 44 were out of ammo and defenseless when many were shot point blank.
Again, ask around if these outspoken ladies are winning support for Aquino and his Bangsamoro deal and law, or undercutting it even more with their repeated assertions. But assert their views they and Aquino must, despite the damage to public trust in him, for the same reason cited by one army general for failing to reinforce the SAF: the peace process.
No fooling the troops
Ironically, it is the military’s fatal inaction and Malacañang’s vain explanations that may have doomed the Bangsamoro accord and legislation. And they may be undermining Aquino’s regime as well.
If the President and other top officials persist in defending him, sacrificing even a loyal friend like Purisima, guess what message that sends to crucial entities whose support is indispensable for Aquino’s continued rule, especially the security forces?
In Purisima’s installation as PNP Chief two years ago, the President extolled his former bodyguard’s bravery in protecting him, especially during the 1987 coup attempt when Aquino was wounded: “Our bonds have been tried and tested; we know that we stand by each other on the straight path, in service to our countrymen.” Not anymore.
Most ironic of all, even as Purisima and Napeñas are sacrificed to exonerate Aquino, no amount of misinformation would deceive the troops. They know what really happened during the massacre from colleagues who witnessed it and told others. The cover-up only makes our soldiers and police distrust even more those concealing the truth.
And those who keep talking might just be mouthing famous last words.

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