By FRANCISCO TATAD
the Manila Times
FOR the first few days of the year, the Malacañang press and the public lost all contact with President Rodrigo Duterte. They heard some of his pre-taped TV statements, but missed his unrepeatable presence. A front-page story in the Philippine Star, written by Malacañang reporters Edith Regalado and Christina Mendez on January 5, 2017, noted that he was last seen at the December 30 celebration of Rizal Day, and when he visited the victims of an explosion in Hilongos, Leyte. Then he dropped out of sight.
“Where’s Rody?” asked the Star. “On ‘extended’ private time,” responded presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella and an unnamed “source” said to be close to DU30. Abella, who tries to be as honest and transparent as the next Protestant pastor, could not say with whom the President had spent his New Year holiday. Pressed by incredulous reporters, he finally said, “with family and friends.” But he could not say whether DU30 had spent the New Year in Malacañang or in Davao City.
“I am not entirely sure,” he said, “but I think he spent the latter part of the holidays here in Manila.”
Had the spokesman been asked what the President did during the holidays, he could have legitimately and honestly said he did not know. But since he was only asked where the President spent the holidays, he should have been able to answer that authoritatively, even if he did not join the President on his holiday. It is unforgivable for him to answer that simple question with, “I think–in Davao or in Manila.”
The spokesman and the ‘source’
Where the spokesman needed to be candid, he held back and was seen as doing so. That wasn’t fair to DU30. Then the news story quoted an unnamed “source” trying to elaborate on what Abella tried to say in a few sound bites. He or she tried to reinforce the official line about DU30 having spent an extended private time to get some rest, but it is hard to understand why he or she chose to be anonymous.
“It was really nothing,” the “source” said. “No appointments or anything. He just took time off. He did not travel outside of Davao City. He just stayed home and did not meet anyone. Not any government official or anyone. It was a pure ’me time’ for the President, which he rightly deserves.”
No one will disagree that the President has earned a well-deserved rest from his punishing schedule since July 1. He has stayed up almost every night, holding court at some appointed place, while the rest of the nation slept. Some will even add that the nation has earned a well-deserved rest from his usual profanities. But since there was nothing incriminating, derogatory or even embarrassing in his taking a well-deserved break and allowing the nation to take its own well-deserved break, why should any “source” close to him ask not to be named as the origin of those quotes?
Neither in Davao nor in Manila?
Was it because DU30 wasn’t after all in Manila or in Davao, but somewhere else? Indeed, those who could not locate him in Davao assumed he was in Manila, while those who could not locate him in Manila assumed he was in Davao. The spokesman and the “source” were somehow out of sync when Abella said DU30 perhaps spent the latter part of the holidays in Manila while the “source” said he never left Davao. And while the “source” said DU30 never met anyone—“not any government official or anyone”—Abella said he was “with family and friends.”
It just didn’t add up.
Keeping the President on sight
Under the Constitution, “in case of serious illness of the President, the public shall be informed of the state of his health. The Members of the Cabinet in charge of national security and foreign relations and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines shall not be denied access to the President during such illness.” Although DU30 has admitted suffering from a number of ailments, no one has suggested he is seriously ill. Not even for a moment therefore may he disappear from public view without sufficient justification. Indeed, he might for a moment lose sight of the Republic, but the Republic must never for a moment lose sight of the President.
And yet this is what happened in the past several days. The nation did not know his exact physical condition or where he was. This raises a serious national security question, which DU30 must now address. Because of the conflicting statements from Abella and the unnamed “source,” there is the risk of giving credence to a report, coming from a chain of usually reliable sources, that DU30 did, in fact, leave Davao on board a private executive plane that flew him to China for a meeting with doctors at the world-famous Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), Guangdong Province.
The Fuda Cancer Hospital
I am not prepared to endorse the complete veracity of this report. But it seems to be acquiring a life of its own and growing very fast. I tried checking the story with some people who, I thought, would know the truth, and instead of laughing off my query as absurd and ridiculous, they said they were shocked that I was able to get my hands on the report. This involves a question of the highest national interest, and the President must act quickly and decisively on it. He must confront the issue with courage. If there is any truth to the rumor, he should put it out in the open rather than suppress it.
DU30 should learn from the experience of Marcos. I played a role in that historical episode in the 1980s. Following my resignation from the Marcos Cabinet in 1980, after 10 long years of faithful service, I returned to journalism while keeping my seat at the interim Batasang Pambansa until 1984. My resignation put me in the parliamentary opposition, together with several other assemblymen from Central Visayas, but it did not make me a personal or political enemy of Marcos. Then, as now, I always thought one had no right to make an enemy of anyone, except the devil and the damned.
Still, as a journalist, I came into possession of certain data about Marcos’s kidney transplants. Malacañang did everything to make it appear the President was in perfect health and was performing his duties as before. I knew this wasn’t so, and I felt it my duty to share with the public what I knew, without personal offense to the President. This drew the strongest denial. But the truth could not be suppressed. Today the basic facts on the Marcos transplants—-the first failed, the other successful—-may be viewed online.
In DU30’s case, he has tried not to hide his ailments and the medications he is getting. He has admitted suffering from constant severe migraine, Barrett’s esophagus, Buerger’s disease, and using a synthetic opioid called fentanyl, which is mainly coming from China, said to be at least 50 times stronger than heroin and used by cancer patients to treat pain. He says he does not have cancer. But the obvious gaps and inconsistencies in the story about his “seven-day hiatus” in his recent schedule have given rise to speculations about his actual physical condition.
The attempt to hype his “return flight” to Manila from Davao on the front page of last Saturday’s Star tends to add more fuel to the rumor. “Rody ends vacation, flies coach to Manila,” said the front-page headline. To the attentive eye, this only invites more skepticism and suspicion. Since DU30 started travelling after the ASEAN summit in Vientiane last September, he has flown to all the ASEAN countries and to China and Japan in the space of only a few months. But never before have any of his trips been so elaborately described as his local short flight last Thursday to Manila from Davao.
Hyping his ‘low profile’
As reported by the Star, the President and his party took five seats in the rear of the economy section. The paper tried to make a big thing of it, as though it were unimaginable and earth-shaking. Not so at all. PAL owner Lucio Tan used to do the same thing, and there is one famous story about former President Erap Estrada, which qualifies as one of his “Eraptions”—-i.e., funny stories Erap loved to tell at his own expense.
According to the story, Erap boarded a PAL flight for San Francisco, and took a seat at the rear. As soon as the plane was airborne, the flight attendant asked if she could show the President to his first class cabin. Erap said he would like to be with the poor passengers. No amount of persuading could make him change his mind. The attendant had to run to the captain. “It’s all right, I’ll talk to the President,” the captain said. So he spoke to Erap, and immediately he moved to the first class cabin. “How did you do it, sir?” the attendant asked. “Easy,” the captain said. “All I said was, if you go first class, you’ll be the first to arrive at destination, ahead of the others.”
Apparently, the captain on DU30’s flight did not have the skill of Erap’s captain to persuade his most important passenger to move to the Mabuhay section. Besides, DU30’s party wanted to be reported in the media as travelling like ordinary travelers. The only favor they asked, said the report, was that DU30’s special assistant Christopher “Bong” Co, presidential security chief Brig. Gen. Rolando Joselito Bautista and two other security men be allowed to embark and disembark through the plane’s back door.
The main point of the story, however, was to say that this flight marked DU30’s emergence from “his seven-day hiatus after celebrating the New Year with family and friends.” Obviously, DU30’s people seemed to believe that just by travelling economy, they would be able to divert attention from the report that’s already making the rounds, namely that the President had made a secret trip to Guangzhou during the time he was supposed to be holidaying with family and friends in Davao.
That seems entirely wishful. The genie is already out of the bottle. DU30 has to put himself a few steps ahead of the political rumor mill by getting all the facts out about his suspected medical condition and sharing them with the nation and the world to regain the public’s confidence. In this, he could imitate the example of the Singaporean leaders. Both Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, 64, and Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, 74, have had recent successful bouts with cancer, but they submitted themselves to medical treatment openly, without any attempt to fudge or hide their medical condition from the people of Singapore.
Despite DU30’s oft-spoken fear of not living long enough to finish his term, I sincerely wish him well. I pray for him. If there is any possibility that he may be afflicted with cancer and that Fuda Cancer Hospital in Guangzhou could provide the possible cure, then I urge him to procure the proper medical care. I have no doubt the entire nation will be praying for his physical recovery and his spiritual conversion.