De Lima's time in jail has yielded the same opportunity that prisoners like Nelson Mandela, Benigno Aquino, and Antonio Gramsci discovered: time to reflect on the problems of the country. In this wide-ranging interview, the senator shared her thoughts on, among other things, Philippines-China relations, Dutertenomics, Gina Lopez, Malacañang and the generals, Duterte's popular support, an alternative economic strategy, Metro Manila traffic, Nicanor Faeldon and the Good Conduct Time Allowance law, and what's in store for the opposition. The questions were submitted to De Lima in writing to avoid the constraints on her thinking aloud in a "reception room" at Camp Crame.
The Xi-Duterte bromance and Teddyboy as gofer
Bello: Let's start with foreign policy, Senator.
What do you think about the meeting of President Duterte and President Xi Jinping in Beijing? Some writers say he was almost apologetic when he brought up the Hague ruling on China's claim in the West Philippine Sea. Some people say the whole thing was scripted beforehand – for Duterte to bring up the Hague ruling, then Xi to say no, but with Beijing softening the blow by telling the Chinese skipper in the boat incident to apologize and China to offer compensation to the fishermen whose boat was rammed.
De Lima: We can only speculate. There is no official record of what was said in this meeting, and Malacañang is keeping it as is to evade scrutiny and accountability. Duterte could have already sold the Philippines to China for all we know, and we would not know anything about it. Duterte and his administration have raised the bar on impunity in public service. They have no concept of transparency and accountability. This is best exemplified in how they conduct business with China.
Bello: President Xi Jinping has asked the Duterte administration to ban online gambling on the grounds that it is encouraging crime in China and illegal migration of Chinese to the Philippines. President Duterte has refused. Is Duterte standing up for national sovereignty? Who do you think is right?
De Lima: We call this a zarzuela. Xi Jinping cannot care less if the Philippines becomes the Triad capital of the world because of the expansion of Chinese gambling interests in the Philippines. China is conducting an Opium War in reverse. By making the Philippines the center of mainland China's criminal activities, like shabu, gambling, human trafficking, and money laundering, the more our territorial integrity and national sovereignty are undermined to favor China's interests here.
A Philippines weakened by criminality care of Chinese triads makes it harder for us to stand up to China, aside from the fact that election money can be coursed through these triads to support candidates ready and willing to be Chinese puppets, as what happened in the last elections where Duterte won partly because of Chinese support.
Bello: What do you think about the administration's foreign policy? Some say that it's been badly handled by non-professionals like Teddyboy Locsin. Some say Locsin is more interested in defending the President rather than defending the Philippines' national interests. What do you think about our top diplomat calling the Vice President "boba"?
De Lima: Loose tongues sink ships, not only in the national security sense, but in the sense that careless talk of demagogues undermines our international stature. Locsin is close to being one when he imitates Duterte's loose talk, although he has already been known for his own boisterous language. This might be due to Locsin's oligarch heritage, but either way it does not help in his conduct of our foreign relations, especially in the way he defends Duterte's human rights records before the international community, short of praising his boss' Hitlerite final solution to Philippine problems.
However, insofar as Duterte is concerned, Locsin is his best foreign secretary to carry out his administration's pivot towards China and all that the authoritarian superpower represents, i.e., disregard for human rights, absence of democracy, maltreatment of minorities, corruption, disdain for western values, etc. Ever since he himself pivoted towards Dutertismo, Locsin has started to embrace all these "values" propagated by Communist China.
Bello: Do you think those critics are right who say Locsin would be better on China's side of the negotiating table than the Philippine side? Are they just being mischievous, or do they have a point?
De Lima: Insofar as Duterte's Philippines is concerned, there is no longer any difference between Philippine and Chinese interests. Duterte has made it clear that under his administration, we are a Chinese vassal state. This explains the regularity of his trips to China to report to the PROC leadership, as a feudal lord would to a king. In exchange, China will continue to prop up Duterte with international support against the West and financial loans to sustain his debt-driven economic program.
Under Duterte, we have ended up mortgaging our national patrimony to China, with our children and grandchildren left to deal with a future where the Chinese Shylock comes demanding his pound of flesh. Locsin couldn't care less which side of the table he sits at, because as far as the administration he serves is concerned, there is no longer any difference.
Bello: If you were president, what would you do different from what President Duterte is doing in relation to China?
De Lima: First of all, I will work for the enforcement of the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Philippines v. China by asking all western powers to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Second, I will beef up our troops in the Kalayaan Group of Islands where we maintain our presence and our claim. Third, I will ask the AFP to draw up a comprehensive strategic plan in enforcing Philippine sovereignty in the area, short of matching China's presence.
Fourth, I will engage in talks with Western allies how they can help in containing China's presence at Scarborough Shoal, including joint military exercises and loaning of naval and air assets which will be based in Subic Bay. Fifth, I will put an end to Duterte's economic pivot towards China by encouraging investments from other countries instead of only China. Sixth, I will put a stop to all onerous Chinese loans and their control over our public utility, communications, and energy infrastructure. All public utilities vital to national security and defense should purely be in the hands of Filipinos and not any foreign country.
Seventh, I will invite China to be an equal partner in development, not as the vassal state that it envisions us to be, but as a country and a government that the superpower will respect and treat with dignity. Eighth, I will put an end to the proliferation of Chinese nationals in our labor and capitalist sector, starting with the Triad’s gambling interests (POGOs).
Ninth, I will investigate and prosecute all Chinese nationals who have participated in any bribery or corruption of public officials in the Duterte administration, including the Filipino officials they bribed and corrupted. Finally, I will ask Congress to pass legislation laying down state policies on treasonous conduct vis-à-vis China or whatever foreign country, and expanding the crime of treason to cover peacetime collaboration with any foreign country that would undermine national security, sovereignty, and Philippine territorial integrity. You can say that this is my 10-point program in reversing Duterte’s pivot towards China.
Lest I be misunderstood and further pilloried by my detractors, let me clarify that I am not at all eyeing the presidency. Let us just take this response simply as an academic discourse.
Dutertenomics vs Delimanomics
Bello: But why not? You'd make a far better president than your predecessors, I think. But let's move on to the economy and related issues.
The rice tariffication law has become the subject of much controversy, with many rice farmers saying it is the final nail in the coffin of rice growing in the country. Why do you think the President signed the law after he made that memorable statement during his victory speech in Davao that the World Trade Organization's demands for liberalization of the rice trade was the main cause of the crisis of Philippine agriculture?
De Lima: Rice tariffication has long been one of our unfulfilled obligations under the WTO and the exemption has already expired two years ago. We have always operated with the eventuality that the quantitative restriction for rice would be lifted. That being said, the current administration did not do a good job in preparing our farmers for the inevitable enactment of rice tariffication law (RTL). The timing of the law was also problematic as it came on the heels of NFA mismanagement, which saw them use the funds for buying rice for payment of its past debts and failure of NIA to fully implement the free irrigation law. These are all supported by COA audit findings. The farmers were left vulnerable while the agencies are scrambling for quick solutions. The Department of Agriculture was not able to use the initial funds judiciously and focused their attention to rice industry development rather than helping farmers sell their harvest at reasonable prices.
The President and his administration did not give due consideration to the immediate effect of the RTL to the farmers and was just too focused on complying with our WTO obligation and the projected revenues that it will bring. They should have anticipated that the RTL would cause a flood of imported rice that would cause significant deflation in the local rice market. The initial fund from RTL should have been used to ensure that the local farmers would be able to sell with reasonable profit.
Bello: One of the President's campaign promises was to end contractualization. Yet, he vetoed the anti-contractualization bill, which was already a watered-down bill. Do you think he's been captured by the employers' lobby?
De Lima: Yes. Duterte sees no problem in making promises and not keeping them. As a sociopath, he is a pathological liar. Words do not mean anything to him, so long as he gets what he wants. He is worse than a trapo, because at least a trapo keeps some promises in order to survive the next election. Duterte has no such scruples, especially now that he is president and in his mind he can do anything he wants.
In the case of endo, he realized it's just too much trouble going against the business lobby than keeping his promise to the workers. The choice was not difficult for him. He can afford to hoodwink the workers anytime, but not big business to which he is already beholden.
Bello: Do you think many in the labor movement were naïve in thinking Duterte would follow through on his promise to end contractualization?
De Lima: Yes. If they knew Duterte's strongman record as Davao mayor, they should have realized that you can never trust a strongman to take the side of the people. By its very definition, a strongman looks after himself and his interests first, before anything else, definitely not the workers and their interests.
Bello: The list of key promises that the President has retreated from is growing. There's his abandoning the rice farmers he vowed to defend against the WTO, there's his backtracking on contractualization, there's his allowing the Commission on Appointments not to confirm the late Gina Lopez after she really went after the mining industry, which he said he was against.
Speaking about Gina Lopez, what do you think about her? Do you think she was naïve in thinking Duterte would really move against mining?
De Lima: She was hopeful that Duterte would support her all the way. But Duterte most probably just used her to gain leverage over the mining industry, possibly for purposes of a shakedown or whatever concession or favor he wanted to wring out of the industry. This is a man with no principles and no commitments, definitely not to the environment or any other cause that will not directly benefit his interests.
Bello: If you were president, how would you manage the economy differently from the President and his team?
De Lima: I will focus on programs that spread out economic opportunities for the majority of poor Filipinos. I will pay more attention to those who have been neglected in favor of macroeconomic targets. I will also place greater emphasis in protecting our food security by ensuring that the programs in agriculture are implemented properly. We need to protect our agricultural lands by minimizing, if not preventing conversion, as well as giving proper assistance to farmers by ensuring that their harvest reach the markets at minimal cost.
I will also focus more on attracting manufacturing industries in our country instead of casinos and offshore gaming. I will also ensure that economic development does not come at the expense of the environment by first and foremost making a comprehensive review of our mining and commercial farming policies. Finally, I will ensure that the exploitation of our natural resources, especially non-renewable ones, redound to the benefit of local communities rather than the big corporations.
Metro Manila traffic, mass transit, decongestion, family planning
Bello: Let's turn to what's turning out to be the country's biggest man-made disaster. It seems like the Metro Manila traffic has gone from bad to worse, despite the administration's claim in 2016 that it would solve it in no time at all. Is the blame largely the Aquino administration's, as Duterte's people claim? Is it largely the Duterte administration's? Is it insoluble? How do you propose to address it since Metro Manila is now becoming one big parking lot and people are reaching the limits of their tolerance?
De Lima: Traffic is a by-product of increased economic activity and an expanding labor force. It is an indication of an expansion of the economy. However, the kind of economic expansion in Metro Manila has also engendered the era of motorization due to the lack of efficient mass transit facilities. People started buying cars because government was not investing enough on mass transit systems. This resulted in traffic due to the proliferation of private vehicles.
There can be no real solution to traffic until government gives the people a better commuting experience through comfortable, clean, and efficient mass transport systems. Unless this is done, those who can afford cars will just keep on using their cars, thereby clogging EDSA and all metro thoroughfares. After building these mass transit systems, decongesting Metro Manila should be the next planned priority. And after that we should really start curbing our population growth rate.
(To be concluded)
Walden Bello is a former member of the House of Representatives and author of the recently published Counterrevolution: The Global Rise of the Far Right (London: 2019) and Paper Dragons: China and the Next Crash (London: 2019).