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More than words: open letter to the Prez

12:08 AM September 12, 2016

HOW DOES a son reason to his father?

Mr. President, this is the dilemma I face because I regard you very highly and consider you, as our head of state, the father of our nation. Amid growing doubts, I continue to believe that the unprecedented support you have now holds so much promise in solving our deep-rooted problems and healing our longstanding divisions.

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I cheered for you when you said that we needed to protect our natural resources, and when you announced that you were going after mining firms that were destroying our land.

I cheered for you when you spoke of the need for an efficient and kind government, especially when you referenced, in your first State of the Nation Address, the people sleeping on the pavement just to be early in line to get a passport. “Ah,” I thought, “this is a man who cares for the predicaments of his people.”

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And I cheered for you when you took the bold initiative of seeking peace with the communists and the Moros. Who else has opened the doors of Malacañang to activists, and even invited them inside?

But I am deeply worried that some of your pronouncements are souring the fruits of your labors. Yes, we appreciate you for your candor—in fact, it is this very quality that endeared you to many people. Yes, we acknowledge that sometimes tough words are necessary, to give clarity to your mission and purpose. But there are times when you have gone too far, and have hurt your own people.

When you promised not to curse if you win the presidency, we gave you the benefit of the doubt, especially when you explained your strong language as borne of your anger at the enemies of our state. But now that you are president, now that you embody the dignity of the nation, please think of the children watching and listening to you on TV as you speak.

When you insulted the American ambassador—and threatened to curse US President Barack Obama if he would “lecture” to you—surely there were those who cheered for you for standing up to our former colonizer, and pointing out historic wrongs in our colonial past. When you threatened to withdraw the Philippines from the United Nations, there were those who cheered for you simply because it was you who said it. But do you really think these statements were beneficial to our country? Please think of the 10 million Filipinos living abroad before you say words that can antagonize their host countries.

When you catcalled a reporter, or shamed a senator by revealing her private life in public, women are hurt, because it reminds them of the vulnerabilities they face daily. Surely, as the most powerful man in the country, you should be the first to show your respect for our women, even those you consider your enemies.

When you suggested that drug users are not human, please think of all the people in rehab centers right now, trying to change their lives. Please think of the reasons why many are into drugs in the first place. Many of them supported you. Please think of them, too, as your children and have mercy on them.

I understand your feelings and frustrations. Surely the weight of the presidency can be too much and, late at night, when you hold your press conferences, it is but human to feel the need to release pent-up emotions.

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But surely you know that your utterances—even your jokes—are more than just words. They carry much weight, and they circulate all over the country and beyond. You say you don’t care about your own reputation, but surely the repute of the country is something that you should hold dearly.

Some have been unfair to you, too, and we can also see that. They have baited you with provocative questions. They have painted you as a Donald Trump, twisted your pronouncements, and cast you in the worst possible light. But how can we defend you when they are simply reporting what you’ve said? Their words cannot harm you, but your own words can. Your mouth can turn out to be your greatest enemy.

So what do I ask of you?

First, I urge you to not take criticism, even calls for investigation, personally, and to not respond with verbal attacks. The fact is that many people actually support your war on drugs, but are rightfully concerned about possible abuse. Surely you will agree that innocent lives cannot be victimized. As you yourself said, “We cannot build a nation over the dead bodies of our citizens.”

Second, I ask that you be open to other people’s suggestions, and be willing to change your mind when the situation calls for it. Please think very carefully about the issue of the Marcos burial, which is causing pain and anguish to many—and about the “state of emergency” that is making many uneasy.

Finally, I hope that you use the power of your words not to hurt, but to heal.

I was in Davao City when you delivered your Sona. Everyone was tuned in to TV; the malls even put up big screens so people could watch you and listen to your speech. When you were done, there was thunderous applause. What has changed? Nothing. But with a vision of a better future, the present becomes infinitely more bearable, and the path lighter. Such is the power of a leader’s voice.

And so while your words can be your undoing, they can also be an instrument for change. It is not too late. The people are listening—some hoping that their fears will be allayed, others ever ready to rally behind your cause. With words of encouragement, empathy, and, yes, reconciliation, you may yet lead us to unity, to progress, and, importantly, togetherness as one nation and one family.

Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. Follow him at Gideon Lasco on Facebook and @gideonlasco on Twitter and Instagram.

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TAGS: Commentary, Duterte, open letter, opinion, president, Rodrigo Duterte
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