One NSC meeting, five presidents

(An analysis of the National Security Council meeting held on July 27, 2016)

by Jose Rizal M. Reyes / poet-philosopher, Philippines / July 28, 2016

I have to commend Pres. Rodrigo Duterte for inviting all his living predecessors to the National Security Council (NSC) meeting held yesterday, July 27, in Malakanyang. The four ex-presidents who attended are Fidel V. Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Benigno S. Aquino III. All accounted for unlike during the president’s State of the Nation Address delivered two days earlier which former president Aquino did not attend.

This is unprecedented as far as my memory can recall. None of this happened post-Marcos and most likely none also during and before the long rule of the Ilocano strongman. (Part of the reason is that there were not so many ex-presidents before, although major political and non-political figures may well be invited if there are no ex-presidents.) In any case, this is the way it should be when grave matters of State are to be discussed and decided upon — that is, call all the top leaders of the Archipelago so that various views can be heard, a broad consensus can be forged, and a united stand can be taken in behalf of the Nation.

Facing Pres. Rodrigo Duterte (foreground, his back to the camera) are my erstwhile classmate and now senate president Aquilino Pimentel III; former presidents Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Fidel V. Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Benigno S. Aquino III; and newly installed House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. (Photo from GMA News)

Inviting the four former presidents to the NSC meeting is in sharp contrast to the practice of previous administrations who hardly called an NSC meeting. When matters of high national importance were discussed — particularly those pertaining to national defense and national security — previous administrations preferred to do it through the tayo-tayo system of meeting only key political allies and they excluded pet political opponents even if the latter were supposed to be part of the consultation process.

That could be easily done by not labeling a meeting as NSC meeting or — as happened during the presidency of Aquino the son — by calling it a “modified” NSC meeting.

The National Security Council was created in 1950 by Pres. Elpidio Quirino through Executive Order No. 330. It stated that “the Council shall advise the President on matters of national defense and shall make recommendations on such other subjects as the President may from time to time submit for study and consideration.”

Executive Order 330 (series of 1950) mandated that the NSC “shall be composed of the President, the Vice-President, the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Head of each Executive Department, the Chairman of the Committee on the Army, Navy and Military Pensions of the Senate, the Chairman of the National Defense Committee of the House of Representatives, Senator Eulogio Rodriguez, Congressman Arturo Tolentino, the Commanding General of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the Chairman of the Philippine Veterans Board.” It also stipulated that “Lt. Colonel Alfonzo Arellano shall serve as Secretary of the Council.”

The composition of the National Security Council underwent amendments even during the time of Pres. Quirino.

LEFT PHOTO: Elpidio Quirino, president of the Philippines (1948–53). RIGHT PHOTO: Pres. Corazon C. Aquino (1986–92) with her defense secretary Fidel V. Ramos who later succeeded her in the presidency (1992–98).

In 1986, the NSC was revived and reorganized by Pres. Corazon C. Aquino through Executive Order No. 115. The said executive order stated that “the formulation and adoption of integrated and rationalized national, foreign, military, political, economic, social and educational policies, programs, and procedures are vital to the security of the state. It further stated that “it is, therefore, in the national interest that an agency exist purposely to formulate and adopt policies, programs, and procedures on all matters pertaining to or affecting the national security so that judgments and actions thereon by the President may rest on sound advice and accurate information”.

Under Executive Order 115 (series of 1986), the NSC membership was to be composed of “the President, the Vice-President and Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Executive Secretary, Minister of National Defense, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Labor and Employment, the Minister of Local Government, the National Security Director, the Chief of Staff of the New Armed Forces of the Philippines, and such other government officials and private citizens as the President may designate from time to time”.

A Rappler video on the NSC meeting.

Now, after the initial pleasantries, let’s buckle down to serious business and do a little in-depth analysis. The NSC meeting just held was ostensibly called to discuss the ruling handed down last July 12 by the Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration concerning the case filed by the Philippines against China. The Hague ruling is widely regarded as a huge legal and moral victory for the Philippines. But based on reliable inside information, the chief purpose of the NSC meeting was to help prepare for the Ramos mission to China. Even before the Hague ruling, for some reason of his own, Duterte had been repeatedly muttering about his plan to talk to China, saying that “war is not an option”.

That is why it was never in the agenda of the NSC meeting to discuss whether the proposed bilateral talks should be held or not. It appears that Duterte had decided upon that prior to the high-powered or star-studded gathering; and most probably, even prior to his official assumption of office. The four ex-presidents were summoned not to seek their wisdom and help in making a decision of huge national importance but to add the luster of their names to a decision already made.

As was public knowledge, Pres. Duterte had tapped ex-president Ramos to be the special envoy to China for the bilateral talks, an assignment that the West Point graduate had accepted. But many Filipinos do not think that bilateral talks is the right way to go and have little confidence in Ramos. There are several reasons being cited for this lack of confidence — from the corruption scandals during his presidency to his political misadventures after his term was over. But the most often cited reason is that effective control of Mischief Reef was lost to China in 1995 during the Ramos presidency. Maybe this loser’s record is the reason why he is acceptable to the Chinese.

Due to the international character and significance of the Hague ruling and the proposed bilateral talks, other countries are intimately involved or are keenly watching developments. U.S. secretary of state John Kerry is reported to have held a working lunch with Duterte on July 27 shortly before the NSC meeting. And Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi is reported to have asked Kerry to support the resumption of bilateral talks between Manila and Beijing when they met in Laos last July 25.

ABS CBN reports that President Rodrigo Duterte and US Secretary of State John Kerry had a working lunch on July 27 on Wednesday where they affirmed the long-standing” relationship between the two countries and discussed a wide range of common concerns such as terrorism, crime, drugs, religious fanaticism and maritime security.

Participation in an NSC meeting presupposes that all attendees are loyal to the State and the Republic. Sad to say, I cannot vouch for the loyalty of all the people attending the meeting held yesterday. Maybe most of them are, but the loyalty to country of some attendees are highly questionable. And that is not because I am a suspicious person; rather, it’s because they behaved suspiciously in the past.

What is the use of inclusiveness if one or more of those included are not trustworthy? This question must be answered and addressed. Nevertheless, inclusiveness for all those who should be included remains the ideal — provided the ideal of loyalty is also observed and satisfied.

It shouldn’t be surprising nor hard to understand that what is discussed during an NSC meeting is supposed to be secret. Anything that comes out should follow certain rules and guidelines. But can we be sure that the meeting participants in subsequent conversations with their Chinese friends, for example, will not divulge information that will put the Philippines at a disadvantage? And will they not make suggestions to their Chinese friends that would directly or indirectly harm our national interests as well as those of our allies?

Manila is long known in the intelligence community as a place where no secret is kept. I guess that is due largely to the long-existing culture of the socio-political elite who cannot seem to distinguish between national interest and personal convenience, who put self above the nation, who would sell the country without regret nor compunction if that could give them a big advantage, or maybe even a slight benefit if they are too desperate in life.

VP Leni Robredo and Pres. Rodrigo Duterte during the NSC meeting held last July 29, 2016. (Photo from InterAksyon)

More to the point, what do the meeting participants know about national interest? What do they know about statesmanship and statecraft? Given the corruption, selfishness, cowardice, spinelessness and irresponsibility for which our politicians and public officials are known for — more so with regards to the West Philippine Sea issue which almost all of them evaded since the Scarborough Shoal standoff in 2012, an issue some of them even tried to take advantage of by pandering to China — is there anything in their past behavior and in their public record that can make us confident that they will do right to our country?

None! None whatsoever! None that I know of! None unless Justice Antonio Carpio or former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario was in attendance. There are really only very few public officials whom we can trust nowadays. Though I am not her fan, we may include former justice secretary and now senator Leila de Lima for our kindest consideration in the list of those whose patriotism we can trust inasmuch as she helped save Itu Aba for our country against the mysterious moves by then acting solicitor general Florin Hilbay and his predecessor Francis Jardeleza who allegedly sought the exclusion of Itu Aba in our suit against China.

When we draw the scanty list of those whose patriotism we can trust or consider trusting, I do not mean we are endorsing them for appointment by the president for anything. Rather, it is meant as an endorsement for a place of affection in the heart or, if that is not appropriate, for the approbation by the mind.

Let’s proceed in examining what the NSC can really do. In case the NSC meeting participants happen to hold a view that is different or contrary to what the president wants, would they fight for it? Would they even express it? Or would they acquiesce to the presidential desire so as to keep themselves in his good side, in his good graces, so as to protect themselves — more so because there is a real danger that they might be the next target of prosecutions by those in power as what happened in previous administrations?

And we have not yet factored in the known ease by which the present dispensation can deal death to suspected citizens, something that can really intimidate and alter thinking, behavior and speech even of top politicians and the most prominent private citizens. After declaring Martial Law in 1972, the military of Pres. Ferdinand Marcos executed one Chinese drug lord by the name of Lim Seng. That was enough to cow the rest of the Philippine populace into silence and submission. That was just one man. Imagine what fear can be inspired by hundreds of dead bodies turning up in the streets within one month a new president comes into office as what is happening nowadays!

A news clipping on the execution of Chinese drug lord Lim Seng. (Photo via Google)

Drug-related dead bodies began appearing in the streets after Duterte was declared the winner in the presidential election but before he officially took the reins of power. The Human Rights Commission estimates that an average of 10 drug suspects are killed daily since Duterte’s term of office started last July 1st. This jibes with the records of the Philippine National Police as well as the computation made by various media firms both local and foreign. The Daily Mail, for instance, estimates that about 300 people have been killed during this month alone by police officers or by suspected vigilantes.

The iconic “Pieta” photo depicting one of the casualties of the war against drugs and mentioned in Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s State of the Nation Address (SONA) last July 25. (Photo from Rappler)

Is there a possibility that the said NSC meeting might be used as a stamping pad for the plan of the Duterte administration to hold bilateral talks with China? Are the ex-presidents (whose joint attendance is said to be a Ramos idea) being used for public show so as to create the impression that there was extensive consultation done and that the decision taken has widespread multi-partisan support? Are the four former chief executives of the land being used as deodorant for a move that is perceived to be obsequiousness to China and inimical to the national interest? Would the meeting attendees end up as scapegoats or co-bearers of accountability if something goes wrong or unpopular? These are some of the harder and deeper questions that should be asked.

As for the president himself, I have yet to see to which direction he is leading our country. To be candid about it, I have deep reservations, for reasons shared by many other concerned Filipinos. Chief among these concerns are the holding of the said bilateral talks with China which patriotic circles regard as unnecessary and harmful to our national interest, the presence of communist-oriented National Democratic Front nominees in the Duterte cabinet, and extrajudicial killings of suspected drug pushers and users.

Concerning the planned bilateral talk, there is of course the suspicion that it is being pushed — despite our grand and glorious victory at the Hague court — as payment for the big support extended by China during the last presidential elections. This is just a suspicion, unproven and unsubstantiated, although magnificently inspired by the vision of the dancing ambassador. If this suspicion turns into theory and the theory turns into established truth, then this is nothing less than treason and a unforgivable betrayal of the Filipino nation, the proper penalty for which is well known in history books.

Posing for posterity: Joseph Estrada, Gloria M. Arroyo, Rodrigo Duterte, Fidel V. Ramos and Benigno S. Aquino III.

Personally, as a co-sovereign of the Republic, I am firmly opposed to any bilateral talk with China, more so if the chief purpose is to mollify it or to show gratitude for something. We are the aggrieved party here, Mr. President and ex-president FVR, sirs! It is our territory that they are trying to steal! It is the Filipino people that they are trying to bully and intimidate! It is our fishermen that they deprive of livelihood! We owe China no apology; it is China that should apologize to us! We cannot set aside the Hague ruling and expect the world to respect us! Any bilateral talk must be based on the Hague ruling and should not result to the diminution of our territory and our sovereignty! Anything less is treason or cowardice or both.

Besides, it is unfair to our allies who have supported us throughout our legal ordeal and who have shown increasing resolve not to allow the imposition of Chinese tyranny in this region and in our common planetary home. Have we consulted them at all after our smashing victory at the Hague court? Why are we more eager to talk with China than to confer with our allies? We cannot abandon them now. We cannot turn our back on them. We must drive back the red dragon together. We must stand shoulder to shoulder with them until the danger emanating from the salami warlords of Beijing has passed.

Ghosts of departed presidents suddenly appeared behind the five living presidents! From left to right: Ramon Magsaysay, Emilio Aguinaldo, Ferdinand Marcos, Carlos Garcia, Diosdado Macapagal, Elpidio Quirino, Manuel Quezon, Jose Laurel, Sergio Osmeña and Manuel Roxas. This is actually a composite of photos joined together by an imaginative netizen. (Via Mayo G. Lopez)

Still and all, despite my misgivings, I have to respect the will of the people as expressed during the last presidential election. That means recognizing the legitimacy of the new administration. But legitimacy doesn’t mean they can do everything they want because the last time I checked, aside from being a democracy and having a republican form of government, we are still a nation ruled by law and not by men. Furthermore, there is still the principle of accountability; and treason is more highlighted when the wrongdoer is invested with greater trust and power.

The tireless social commentator Manuel C. Diaz pointed out that the five presidents who attended the NSC meeting were all elected by a minority vote, none by a majority vote. Nevertheless, under our current electoral system, whoever gets the highest number of votes in a presidential election is by right the next president of the Philippines.

Two more presidential ghosts appeared — KKK founder Andres Bonifacio and revolutionary general Miguel Malvar — summoned by avid netizen-cum-historian Eufemio Agbayani III. Said Mr. Agbayani, alluding to a vital debate in some dimly-lit corner of Philippine history: “This modern version of ‘Filipinos Ilustres’ (if I may so call it) was not my work. I simply added Bonifacio and Malvar because arguably they also served as presidents.”

I hope Pres. Duterte will prove me wrong in my misgivings and reservations. I wouldn’t mind that. I would rather be proven wrong but our country put right than to be proven right and our country put in peril. And yet, there is an X-factor in all these things. You know, nothing is predetermined, including the actions and decisions of Pres. Duterte, the four ex-presidents and everybody else. As the saying goes: “There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.” The trick is, we should all exert patriotic efforts and pressures so that our country goes to the right direction.