It was “pure showbiz,” meant to entertain the crowd of Filipino expatriates who had been gathered to meet him in Seoul after his arrival there last Sunday, on an official visit to South Korea.
That’s how President Duterte initially explained why he had called to the stage (where he was speaking) two women in the audience to gift each one with a book, then coaxed one of them to kiss him on the lips.
But what riled so many people everywhere was his nonchalant claim that there was no malice in what he did, bragging that in electoral campaigns during his 23 years as mayor of Davao City he had kissed “every woman there, lips to lips.” “That’s my style,” he said. “It’s not just a smack… some women really like romance,” he further said. “There is nothing wrong in a simple kiss, you cause an uproar.”
He’s probably enjoying the uproar. Worldwide, videos and photos on social and mainstream media showed him kissing the Filipina (who’s married to a Korean and has two kids) while grasping her arms which she had raised over her chest. There followed a cascade of reactions mostly disapproving and even condemning the president’s action. The strongest reactions came from women.
Consider the reactions of two young women – not just to the kissing but to a lot more about Duterte’s public misdemeanor and his state of mind. One is a former scholar of the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) who’s in her final year in Seoul working for a PhD degree on a Korean government scholarship. The other is a 22-year-old journalist in Manila.
Cil Borlaza, the scholar, wrote in her Facebook post that “it has always been in my heart to give back service to my country in any way I can.” Last Sunday she volunteered to assist in organizing the event where Duterte met with the Filipino community, “even if I’m not exactly a fan of the current administration.” She ended up “utterly disappointed and disgusted, really.” She wrote:
“In his speech, our president used foul words so many times that I’ve lost count. He pulled perverted jokes several times (even used the word ‘libog’). He made remarks about pretty ladies who performed and are in the crowd as if bragging about his womanizing skills. He even kissed someone on the lips.”
“This was extremely difficult to watch,��� she wrote on. “But it was heartbreaking to see my fellow countrymen cheering for it. Every curse, every perverted joke, every ‘papatayin ko talaga sila’ (I’ll really kill them) remark was received with applause and cheering.” She had just heard and witnessed what Filipinos back home have become used to hearing and seeing of their president who had promised “Change is coming.”
Anguished by the crowd’s behavior, Cil Borlaza lamented, “Mga kababayan, this is how far we have gone. This is how terrible our judgment has become!” Still she vented more disappointment and disgust toward Duterte’s coarse language and clumsy actions. “It’s painful to be represented by him,” she wrote. “I wish Filipinos would have some amount of self-worth. This is not the kind of representation we deserve.”
For her part, young journalist Krixia Subingsubing, wrote a piece in the op-ed page of another daily. She began by saying that even before Duterte became president, “it was already clear that there were few lines he was not willing to cross when it came to women.” Referring to his Seoul speech, she noted:
“The worst part is that Mr. Duterte doesn’t seem to care about the chilling effect of his behavior and how it would resonate with his citizens. We saw it in the howling audience, who collectively hooted and goaded the kiss in exquisite mindless rapture.”
Then she dug into what might have motivated Duterte to do what he did. “Never mind that this conduct feeds into the vicious cycle of misogyny victimizing our women,” she pointed out, “so long as he distracts attention away from the headlines with his ham-handed theatrics (emphasis mine).”
“Lest we forget those headlines,” Krixia pointed to the government’s “continued inaction in the face of China’s militarization in the West Philippine Sea, the International Criminal Court’s probe into his alleged crimes against humanity, the growing unrest over rising prices under his tax reform program, etc.”
I’ve come across other persons who, like Krixia, interpreted the President’s ribald “entertainment” for his Filipino audiences as either a conscious or subconscious means to distract the public’s attention from the mounting problems his government has thus far failed to resolve – or, not the least, to momentarily relieve his beleaguered mind of these problems he’s hard put confronting.
At the core of the problem are two contrasting tendencies Duterte has repeatedly manifested:
One, resorting to drastic means (“radical changes” is the term he used lately), usually involving high-handedness and excessive armed military/police force, such as in the campaigns against criminality, illegal drugs, “insurgency” and “terrorism.”
The other, rationalizing his inaction by claiming “Wala akong magagawa (I cannot do anything),” such as, among others, vis-a-vis China’s aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea, the problems of labor “contractualization” and raising the minimum wage, and the release of political prisoners who have been unjustly arrested, detained, charged, or convicted.
Besides the issues Krixia cited, there are persistent doubts that peace in Mindanao would be achieved even after the impending approval by Congress of the watered-down version of a Bangsamoro Basic Law or BBL. (It’s expected to be passed before Duterte delivers his third state-of-the-nation address next month.)
Then there’s the big question: How serious is Duterte in working toward forging final peace agreements – both with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), and with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP)? How earnest is he about truly addressing the roots of these two protracted armed conflicts, as he has vowed to do, through palpable means of redressing historical injustices?
On several occasions Duterte has told the Moro people that should the BBL fail to resolve the “Bangsamoro question” he would look for other ways, which he hasn’t spelled out.
As regards the GRP-NDFP peace talks, he has allowed his militarist advisers to disrupt/sabotage the progress of the formal negotiations (a year has been wasted, thus far), putting into question the government’s resolve – in cooperation with the NDFP – to pursue genuine agrarian reform and rural development, along with national industrialization and economic development.
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