NEWSMAKERS OF 2016: (Clockwise from top) A woman cradles her husband, among the 6,000 people killed in the government’s drug war; Rodrigo Duterte takes his oath as the 16th president of the republic after winning the May 9 polls by a landslide; Sen. Leila de Lima, who made herself a thorn in the side of President Duterte, faced numerous charges after being linked to the drug trade; and weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz became the first Filipina to win a medal in the Olympics, taking silver in the 53-kilogram weightlifting competition at the Rio Games.
The year that was: Duterte, drug deaths and De Lima
Juaniyo Arcellana (The Philippine Star) - December 31, 2016 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - The longtime Davao City mayor dominated the headlines for the better part of this year, getting elected 16th president of the republic in May after a bitterly fought campaign.

Rodrigo Roa Duterte then launched a war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives, while insulting the pope as well as leaders of the last superpower and community of nations, and making a rape remark that betrayed a coarseness of character and quality of a late night raconteur.

Yet Duterte is quick to clarify that as he understood it, he ran for president and not for statesman. You want him ousted through coup or impeachment? Be his guest. You wish his plane to crash or sickness to claim him? Not to worry, there’s always the vice president.

He wants to make peace with every Filipino, yet the police have a quota to meet in accounting for the country’s drug addicts which, as of last hyperbolic count, reached four million.

Full of sound bites, including the graphic one of slicing the throat, the favorite of his overseas Filipino audiences, which the Chief Executive promises to be the end of every drug pusher. For all the shock and awe and golpe de gulat of the latest leadership style, including a shame campaign of naming so-called drug personalities ranging from generals to governors and mayors whose days are numbered if they so much as resisted arrest (nanlaban), there were still quite a few highlights in the roller coaster Year of the Monkey.

For one, the Philippines won its first Olympic medal in 20 years, courtesy of the weightlifter Hidilyn Diaz, notching for the country only its third silver after Onyok Velasco in Atlanta 1996 and the late Anthony Villanueva in Tokyo 1964, both boxers. It was a long road for the Zamboanga City lass, who once trained with makeshift barbells in her hometown, to finally end the medal draught in the Rio de Janeiro games. A blessing too was the disqualification of a Chinese rival who failed to lift a heavier weight although already assured of a spot on the podium, which moved up the airwoman second class and indicated that this may really be the year of Mindanao.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in July that the nine-dash line claim of China in the South China Sea was excessive, in effect validating the Philippines’ own exclusive economic zone and continental shelf in the West Philippine Sea, a development which then newly appointed Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. announced with tact and which he said the nation should not gloat over.

The Chinese, of course, continued to fortify their embankments and assorted construction in contested reefs and atolls, and even allowed poor Filipinos back into their traditional fishing ground in Panatag Shoal to earn a livelihood, thanks to episodes of realpolitik.

Was it just press release but the current administration does seem serious in reaching peace agreements with various rebel groups, ranging from the National Democratic Front to the Moro separatists. Talks with the NDF were progressing at a steady clip in Oslo, Norway, even as release of remaining political prisoners might encounter a hitch, except for those long in tooth. Nur Misuari of the Moro National Liberation Front resurfaced after years as a fugitive for the Zamboanga siege of 2013, this time to give advice on the intricacies of the peace process from the palace podium.

The Bangsamoro Basic Law of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, despite intermittent meetings in Kuala Lumpur, might however be placed on the back burner as the push for federalism gains ground.

Further proof of the winds of change is the Supreme Court ruling last November, with a vote of 9-5, to allow the burial of the long embalmed corpse of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani in Taguig, granting the petition of the family to accord their dead his last wish to be buried among soldiers, heroes, as well as a scoundrel or two. Reaction of the populace was extreme from opposing camps, with one saying it desecrated the memory of the victims of martial law, and the other that it was time to move on and let true healing begin. While everyone was debating on the pros and cons of a potential national poltergeist, the strongman was buried in stealth at high noon 10 days after the SC ruling. Maybe it was one way of declaring the dictator was dead, long live his wax figure. 

No one knows the trouble Sen. Leila de Lima has seen as the President’s pet peeve and poster girl of the embattled. The former justice secretary has been thrown everything including the kitchen sink and all its moldings and screws, which alas did not stop her detractors from saying that she was a virtual herald for narco-politics.

Congressional hearings on the drug trade in the New Bilibid Prison during de Lima’s time as justice chief had elements of the absurd if not comic, with convicts testifying that this senator was elected with the help of drug money. The feud with Duterte appears to have stemmed from her stint as human rights commissioner, when she first investigated the mayor for the Davao death squad.

A familiar face in the hearings was a lawyer of the convicts, also a lawyer of a former president prevented by de Lima from leaving for medical treatment abroad during the previous administration.

Speaking of which, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo finally walked free after years in hospital detention after being cleared of various charges. After spending four years at the Veterans Memorial Medical Center, occasionally being granted holiday and birthday leaves, the veteran politician has been elected to a third and last term as Pampanga representative and now also serves as House deputy speaker. The ombudsman has also lately cleared her of the Malampaya Fund anomaly, her third legal victory since July when the Supreme Court absolved her of alleged plunder of sweepstakes funds, and the Sandiganbayan ruling in September that she was not liable for graft in the aborted national broadband network deal with a Chinese telecommunications firm.

The bombing of the night market in Davao City in early September that claimed 15 lives signaled that terror was very much present in a potential strongman setting. The incident reminded the public that the war on drugs can be waged on a different front, as a terror cum extortion group that was said to be dealing in narcotics, the Maute, was identified as prime suspect.

The bombing of the presidential hometown near a Jesuit university and massage stalls triggered the declaration of a state of lawless violence. Police did not discount the possibility that this was a diversionary tactic as state forces chased down rebels in sustained counter-terror efforts.

The war on terror appeared to be the next great battle as the Abu Sayyaf continued to rear its ugly head and beheaded a pair of Canadian hostages taken last year from an island resort off Davao, the deaths of John Ridsdell and Robert Hall prompting their government as well as other western countries to issue travel advisories against going to the southern Philippines. Their fellow captives Filipina Marites Flor and Norwegian Kjartan Sekkingstad were more fortunate to have been freed after an unverified ransom was paid. The bandits still hold several hostages including foreigners, and have also put to grisly death other lower profile victims, including a destitute teenager, in their stronghold of Jolo and Sulu.

Even as the President has advised kind hearted souls to adopt an addict, and government is doing its best to build rehab centers through donations of philanthropists in the face of limited budget, there is no sign of letup in the bloody drug war with deaths now breaching 6,000, or a thousand per month since the new administration took over, less than half from legitimate police operations.

The UN special rapporteur on summary executions is still negotiating the conditions for her fact-finding mission to the country, including a debate with Duterte who is sure to dust off photos of past western atrocities.

And as police work double time on the deaths under inquiry, Congress is moving just as fast to restore the death penalty.

The peso is seen to linger in the 50 to a dollar range for most of 2017, its lowest level in years and which could spike inflation and lead economic managers scrambling to secure investments and aid and arms deals, if not with traditional allies certainly with fresh partners following the declared pivot to an independent foreign and trade policy.

The monkey 2016 about to end was also a banner year for Philippine cinema, winning major awards in the most prestigious European film festivals, even as the nation bade goodbye to a political giant, Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who died at age 71 after a long battle with cancer and a last run at the presidency.

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