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Editorial

Chilling rhetoric

/ 05:08 AM January 31, 2020

To add to the general mayhem in this unhappy archipelago, a call to violence against “rich people in the Philippines who are crazy” has been aired by no less than President Duterte. That the public at large was not sufficiently disturbed to raise a squeak of protest provides an idea of what the nation has become under the aegis of an administration that claims “change” and “best and brightest” as its avatars: punch-drunk, twitchy, reduced to nervous laughter.

The message of murder was not lost in translation in the speech delivered in Cebuano by the President last week to an audience that included former dissidents. The operative word was “kill”—startling but perhaps only to those who have yet to lose the capacity to be shocked (and their numbers are swiftly dwindling). He had been haranguing the water concessionaires, Manila Water Co. Inc. and Maynilad Water Services Inc., for the past few months by way of saying that their 1997 agreement with the government was a rip-off and that they should agree to a new one, or else. He amplified his message in the course of speeches delivered here and there in his distinct rambling style, each more combative than the preceding.

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It should be obvious to even the halfway attentive observer: There’s something in a mic that stirs the tiger in his tank.

This was what Mr. Duterte was reported to have said in his speech in San Isidro, Leyte: “The Philippines has been gravely fooled by the rich people in the Philippines. Just like Ayala and Pangilinan who own Globe and Smart. They are all thieves, those sons of bitches. That’s the whole truth. There are rich people in the Philippines who are crazy. They’re the ones whom we should kill.”

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And more: “They are listening now because this is being broadcast nationwide. Well, it’s good for them to hear this. They have violated the rights of people. They are just distributors of water yet they have become millionaires because they overpowered the Filipino. That’s why I’m angry at them.

“Just wait for my go-signal. Behind a killing is a leader, especially if his followers are stupid and would just fire whenever they are told to.”

Populist leaders are known to use the rich vs poor card in an effort to convince the natives that they are in the company of a champion with their best interest at heart. Joseph Estrada occasionally flashed this card during his abbreviated presidency—a tactic hardly new to him, being just an extension of his role as poor-boy hero in his movies (and which he passed on to his son, who unblushingly used “anak ng masa”—son of the masses—as campaign tag in a last, unsuccessful, senatorial run). The dictator Ferdinand Marcos famously waged war on “oligarchs,” all the while nurturing his own oligarchy.

Deepening the populist undertone is a rhetoric of violence, such as what is employed now. (Although that rhetoric is not new: It wasn’t too long ago that the President trained his sights on the bishops; he is on record as urging the public to rob these men of the cloth, and—chillingly—if they resist, to kill them.)

Earlier last month at a gathering of the Fraternal Order of Eagles in Davao City, Mr. Duterte did not mention names but warned the “billionaires” against going to court to stop him from pushing a new water concession agreement. He said he wanted “to see these billionaires inside prison.”

He went on to channel the dictator Marcos, for whom he has professed admiration, and who, at the onset of martial law in September 1972, rounded up activists, journalists and members of the political opposition in the dead of night.

“One night I will arrest them all,” Mr. Duterte announced. “And you will just stay there. When will I release you? When I want to.”

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Was that a bit much even for him? Perhaps, because Malacañang mouthpiece Salvador Panelo subsequently said his boss was merely exhibiting political will. And the President’s finance people took pains to explain that the concession agreement would be in effect until its scheduled expiry in 2022, and that it was only the extension of the contract until 2037—incidentally approved by then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Mr. Duterte’s friend and ally—that was cancelled.

“These guys, they own it all. All the businesses in the Philippines. The greed in you is insatiable,” Mr. Duterte said of the billionaires.

Not that the man who thinks nothing of eating in a lowly carinderia doesn’t hang out with rich people who own it all. Among the President’s recent socials was the birthday party in Bacolod City of Olivia V. Yanson, head honcho of Vallacar Transit Inc., the largest bus company in the Philippines. He was heard acknowledging a debt of gratitude to the billionaire widow and the (warring) Yanson clan for backing his election campaign and his administration.

Among his retinue at the party of big shots were Senators Bong Go, Imee Marcos and Cynthia Villar, billionaires all.

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TAGS: Ferdinand Marcos, Manila Water Co. Inc., Maynilad Water Services Inc., oligarchs, President Duterte
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