By Diana G. Mendoza
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MANILA – The festive mood, the awkward and funny handshake and the Malagos chocolates made from his native Davao City as tokens to state leaders’ spouses did not do much to the gruff Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte who hosted the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit and Related Meetings in the second week of November.
No sooner had the heads of state and their delegations began their travels back to their own countries, Duterte did exhibit his pattern of livid behavior when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised his country’s concern over the human rights situation in the Philippines brought by the violent killings of thousands of mostly poor Filipinos in Duterte’s ongoing crackdown on illegal drugs.
“It is a personal and official insult,” was his undiplomatic remark before journalists in a press conference at the end of the summit. “I said I will not explain. I was elected by the people of the Republic of the Philippines. I only answer to the people of the Republic of the Philippines,” he said.
Trudeau, who faced the media in the morning of November 14 as the meetings concluded, said that during his bilateral meeting with Duterte, he emphasized the people-to-people ties between Canada and the Philippines “but I also mentioned human rights, the rule of law, specifically the extrajudicial killings being an issue Canada is concerned with.”
In the afternoon of the same day, Duterte told the media he would not let a foreigner question human rights violations in the Philippines. “I will answer to the Filipino. I will not answer to any other bullshit, especially foreigners,” he said, though not specifically naming Trudeau.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinta Andern, who brought the issue of values and peace during a bilateral meeting with Duterte, told journalists by the end of the summit that her country is concerned over the deaths in Duterte’s war on drugs.
“Our view is that the number of deaths certainly requires investigation and oversight at the very least,” she said, although she was fortunate not to have received Duterte’s ire, unlike Trudeau.
The 10-member ASEAN, composed of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines, concluded its summit with some member countries voicing out their concerns over the plight of Rohingya refugees of Myanmar.
But ASEAN meetings being diplomatic and subdued, agreements were instead forged such as the issue on a code of conduct in the South China Sea to ease tensions over disputed water territories, monitoring and preventing cybercrime, protecting migrant labor, economic security and countering terrorism.
Observers noted that Duterte as the leader of the host country cozied up more to US President Donald Trump, who is more like him in demeanor, and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, even as the Philippines has been a vocal critic of China’s aggressiveness in regional waters.
A glaring false move in the Philippines’ hosting is Duterte breaking tradition by disinviting Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, who was supposed to be the lead government official to welcome foreign leaders.
Robredo resigned last year as housing czar after Duterte barred her from attending Cabinet meetings due to her criticisms of his policies and decisions, particularly on giving a hero’s burial for the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos and the drug war killings that continue to increase without accountability.
Robredo, who was invited to attend only the ASEAN Summit opening and closing ceremonies on Monday and Tuesday, November 13 and 14, respectively, remained unfazed by the treatment she received but still did her part as she urged leaders of the regional bloc to push for freer trade to boost economic ties in the region.
“Pursuing free trade within and outside ASEAN in a free world is also a developing challenge. People, goods, and services must be allowed to freely move across our borders. We can do things faster and better,” she said during the ASEAN Business and Investment Summit attended by business leaders from ASEAN and other countries.
She highlighted the need to make growth inclusive by engaging micro, small, and medium enterprises to benefit from value chains, fair trade and peace and be able to participate in global activities.
In the few days leading to the summit, Robredo spoke before the 1st Southeast Asia Women’s Summit held at Miriam College in Quezon City about the region’s more promising position now in providing opportunities for women through ASEAN economic integration that offers competencies that will be in line with the demands of the international market.
She also said ASEAN countries need to address gender equality issues as more women in the society continue to suffer from misogyny and violence. She even cited her experience of being catcalled by no less than President Duterte when he publicly admitted ogling at her knees during cabinet meetings last year.
“Catcalling, misogynistic remarks, and violence are still considered the fault of the woman if her knees show when she sits,” she said, adding that social media has also become a space for harassment of women, especially those that hold leadership positions.
“If there ever was a better time to strengthen ASEAN’s commitments to human rights and gender equality, it is now,” she said, stressing that to be able to achieve this, society needs “evolved,” “kind,” and “brave” men who are willing to fight misogyny and bigotry.
As the Philippines turned over the regional chairmanship to Singapore, diplomacy was shown in stark perspectives by the top two leaders of the Philippines. The vice president, wearing a blue suit at the closing business summit, remained calm even if she was disinvited and continued to be attacked by pro-Duterte supporters. The president, with his slack, rolled up sleeves that is a no-no when wearing the barong tagalog, the formal shirt for Filipino men, and the improperly worn necktie, was a favorite among netizen-critics who expected a more proper representation of their country. (Photo from Google Kapamilya)