POSTSCRIPT / April 11, 2021 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Duterte’s absence raises speculations

ABSENCE did not make the heart grow fonder in the case of President Duterte whose whereabouts remained a mystery for almost a week while Chinese interlopers continued to harass Filipinos in their own maritime areas and the COVID-19 pandemic raged on.

Instead of evoking concern over the unexplained absence of the President, the lack of transparency has begun to arouse suspicion. The information vacuum coming in the midst of the pandemic has started to suck in ugly rumors and sick jokes.

Social media was sizzling with questions on the whereabouts and state of health of Duterte, who had just marked his 76th birthday on March 28. “Tulog man o gising, dead or alive, nasaan siya? Where. is. the. President?” demanded one tweeter, me.

When a rumor spread that Duterte had been flown to Singapore for emergency treatment, it was unfortunate that his daughter Sara, the Davao City mayor, was reported to have been spotted at the Manila airport Tuesday taking a plane for Singapore.

Instead of saying outright where Duterte was (such as at home in Davao or in his Malago resthouse across the Pasig River), his aide sought to assure the public by messaging “nandito lang si Tatay Digong” (he’s just here) and showed pictures of the two of them in an office setting.

But a mere “nandito” (he’s here) was not good enough. It did not answer the nagging question of WHERE the President was. It did not help any that the pictures he supplied were dismissed by some sectors as photoshopped and lacked date & time imprints.

Yesterday, the aide again gave out photos and videos of Duterte trying to jog and riding a motorbike, but the images again did not have date & time imprints. Maybe next time?

When the President reports again on Tuesday on COVID-19 and other urgent matters, we hope to see him looking fit enough for the man-killing demands of the top job in a country in crisis.

As we often say, the public mind abhors an Information vacuum. Seeking answers to cascading questions, the public is liable to fill the void with its own speculations.

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SPOKESPERSONS and information officers at the Palace had been caught retailing fake news too often that their denials or assertions have been prone to challenge.

In a recent online dialogue with the Chinese Filipino community, for instance, presidential spokesman Harry Roque said: “If the President did not come to power, our only BFF will be the Americans. Have we gotten a single vial of vaccine from the Americans? The answer is No!”

That was a false statement. The US is a top funder and donor of the international vaccine facility COVAX, co-led by the World Health Organization. More than 400,000 doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from COVAX were among the first to arrive in the Philippines.

On Friday, President Duterte sent many people wondering why he was absent from the commemoration of Araw ng Kagitingan (Day of Valor) honoring the 75,000 sick and starving Filipino-American defenders of Bataan who, after surrendering to Japanese invaders on April 9, 1942, were herded for the 105-kilometer “Death March” to San Fernando, Pampanga, where those who survived were trucked or hauled on rail cars to concentration camps in Capas, Tarlac.

The day before, a boatload of Filipino fishermen and a TV news crew of ABS-CBN led by Chiara Zambrano was challenged and chased before they could reach Ayungin Shoal, where the Navy’s old BRP Sierra Madre had been grounded to serve as an outpost in the country’s EEZ.

Upon returning to Manila, Zambrano made a graphic report of their experience – of Filipinos being driven away from their own EEZ by missile-packing Chinese patrols. That drew angry reactions from all over, except for a few pro-China elements and President Duterte who had been missing in inaction.

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THE ARMED forces through its spokesman said it could seek the help of the United States under the Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951 in beating back any foreign attack on the Philippines, its forces or public vessels.

Before going into quarantine after testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana demanded that China stop its intrusions and withdraw its militia vessels harassing Filipino fishermen and swarming islets in the country’s EEZ.

His call was supported by his fellow alumni in the Philippine Military Academy, from where comes the bulk of the officer corps in the AFP and the Philippine National Police.

The PMAers said Chinese “illegal encroachment” into the country’s EEZ and their “persistent unlawful acts” had harmed the marine ecosystem and showed “the hypocrisy by which the Chinese have conducted themselves.”

They noted that Julian Felipe Reef is close to Panganiban (Mischief) Reef where China has built an artificial island that it turned into a military base in the Philippine maritime area.

In his recent introductory call to Lorenzana, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III said the US was committed to the 70-year-old MDT and the bilateral Visiting Forces Agreement that Duterte had threatened to terminate unless the US accedes to his demands.

The state department also reaffirmed US readiness to help defend the Philippines if attacked. Its spokesman said: “An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the treaty.xxx We share the concerns of our Philippine allies regarding the continued reported massing of PRC maritime militia near the Whitsun (Julian Felipe) Reef.”

The fishers’ group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) said, however, that efforts to drive away Chinese vessels from Julian Felipe would be “totally wasted if President Duterte himself remains mum and subservient to Beijing.”

“Key government officials have already reproached the continuing Chinese presence in Philippine waters, yet the Commander-in-Chief has yet to manifest an unequivocal stand against a crystal-clear maritime aggression,” the group said.

Article II of the Constitution says: “Section 3. xxx The Armed Forces of the Philippines is the protector of the people and the State. Its goal is to secure the sovereignty of the State and the integrity of the national territory.”

(First published in a shorter version in the Philippine STAR of April 11, 2021)

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