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Alarming intolerance to criticism

When an old man [or woman] dies, a library burns to the ground.”

That African proverb came to mind when I learned of the death of former senator Leticia Ramos Shahani last week. Shahani spent more than two decades in the Philippine foreign service, where she served as our country’s ambassador to Australia, Romania, Hungary and West Germany. She also held top-level positions in the United Nations, and served as a senator of the Republic for more than a decade.

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Shahani’s combined wealth of knowledge in foreign affairs, familiarity with the workings of the United Nations, and understanding of the dynamics in the Senate metaphorically constitute a library that was burned to the ground at her passing.

The absence of an elder statesperson with Shahani’s knowledge and experience in diplomacy is felt immensely when we consider the bungling pronouncements of President Duterte in connection with China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea and, more recently, its perceived intrusion in Benham Rise. The President received much flak when he said that “[w]e cannot stop China from doing its thing” in the context of reports that China is poised to build a permanent structure on Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.

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The absence of a senior leader with Shahani’s diplomatic finesse is also missed when we consider the appalling rhetoric of leaders who hold the reins of power today.

There is Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez, who has no inhibition in his use of irreverent language. He called members of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines “shameless hypocrites” following its release last month of a pastoral letter denouncing the killing of suspected drug users and pushers.

There is Solicitor General Jose Calida who takes liberties in issuing crass statements on politically charged issues. Previous solicitors general acted with statesmanship and dispassionately commented on the merits of the then incumbent administrations’ positions, and never laced their declarations with unnecessary vilification.

To cite an example, after Vice President Leni Robredo sent to the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs a video of herself criticizing the conduct of the administration’s war on drugs, Calida made these excessive remarks: “VP Robredo debased her office and herself by betraying the trust of our people. Worse, she shamelessly pandered to the desperate desire of the Yellow Cult to depose President Duterte which, if successful, will immensely benefit her. Obviously, the carping VP Robredo has joined the ranks of the destabilizers.”

And there is President Duterte himself, who has sworn at, ridiculed, and even threatened just about everyone who criticizes his administration. He has called bishops and Pope Francis a “son of a whore,” then US President Barack Obama a “son of a bitch,” and the Catholic Church “full of sh*t.” He has threatened to kill human rights activists critical of his take-no-prisoners tactic against illegal drugs, and has ridiculed European Union lawyers by saying that “their brain is just like a pea.”

The Duterte administration’s display of belligerent intolerance to criticism is seriously alarming. The ferocious efforts to silence dissent is even more disturbing when viewed in conjunction with the President’s repeated threats to declare martial law.

To counter the threatened curtailment of our freedom to criticize government—and the telegraphed intention to do away with our bill of rights through a reimposition of martial law—our people cannot rely on the political parties who, by default, should have assumed the role of opposition, but have chosen to climb into bed with the administration.

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In the past, we relied on our collective strength as a people to oust a repressive government. We may again be called to demonstrate that we can prevent another repressive government from taking over our lives. We have done it before. We can do it again.

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TAGS: Commentary, Diplomacy, foreign policy, Leticia Ramos Shahani, opinion, Pantaleon Alvarez, Shahani, South China Sea
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