When it became clear that he had won the presidential election last May, Rodrigo Duterte said: “Let us begin the healing now… Let us begin to forget and start healing. Let us be friends and forget about the travails of election.”
Many people backed Mr. Duterte in the hope that he would be a unifying president. Coming from Mindanao, the Cebuano-speaking mayor of Davao, it was thought, would bring back to the fold those who had long felt disenfranchised and neglected by “Imperial Manila.” Having led Mindanao’s largest city for decades, it was thought, he would have an understanding of the peace and order situation there, allowing him to win over our Muslim brethren.
His being on friendly terms with the Left, it was thought, would likewise do the same for the communists. With him as president, it was thought, all rebels nationwide would finally turn their swords into plowshares.
The final proof lay in the surveys, which, even before the election, showed that he was leading both in Mindanao and in Metro Manila—and in various socioeconomic classes.
We badly needed this unifying potential after a divisive election season. And to his credit, President Duterte has made efforts to live up to some expectations. Even before he took office, he sent Jess Dureza to meet with Joma Sison. He also opened Malacañang to militant leaders. Significantly, he has spoken of the historic rights of the Muslims and the lumad in Mindanao.
But while all of these—and many others—are commendable, some of his statements and actions have sparked division.
Consider his unnecessary tirades against his local critics, from politicians to priests. While Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez and his ilk seem to be built for going after the likes of Sen. Leila de Lima, it is quite unbecoming of the President to wallow in the same political mud.
Consider also his unabashed support for the Marcoses. While his affection for Bongbong Marcos sits well with the millions who voted for the latter, what of the far greater number who didn’t? He speaks of the need to win over Marcos loyalists, but what of the martial law victims? One cannot “heal” some sectors at the expense of reopening others’ wounds.
Then there is his “independent foreign policy.” While I agree that we should be friends with China and even Russia, I do not think this necessitates burning bridges with our allies; geopolitics—as former foreign secretary Albert Rosario put it, is not a “zero-sum game.” While Mr. Duterte’s invectives at the United Nations, European Union, and United States may thrill those who have long wanted to tell off our perceived overlords, it really does not do our country—let alone Filipinos overseas—any favor, and neither does it advance the goal of international unity.
In all that he has said and done, Mr. Duterte can claim that he has done nothing legally wrong. But being legal is too low a bar for being presidential. If the head of state is to be a unifier in chief, he should speak in a way that represents our dignity and the best of our values. And he should act in a way that reflects what the people want, not just what he wants.
With over five years to go in his term, the President remains in the best position to unify the nation. His newfound voice in the international arena can be an instrument of unity in this part of the world.
But for this to happen, he must learn to be inclusive—and we must keep demanding that our leaders develop an inclusive mindset. Even with an 86-percent approval rating, unity calls for reaching out to the 14 percent, mindful that the tiniest minority matters. A father of seven sons does not invoke the approval of the six to marginalize the seventh.
Real unity involves listening to the people, consulting with them, and considering their aspirations and values as part of one’s paradigm. It involves making new friends, but not at the expense of old ones. It calls for forgiveness and moving forward, but not at the expense of justice.
Indeed, selective unity is just another term for divisiveness.
Gideon Lasco is a physician and medical anthropologist. He is on Facebook and on Twitter and Instagram.
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