COTABATO CITY (MindaNews/13 March) — Much as I’d like to say that the President graced Tuesday’s thanksgiving mass held in honor of Mindanao’s first cardinal, his presence was a disgrace.
We first had an inkling of the inconvenience that was to come when the insistent police manning the road juncture flagged down the news van and asked us to take a hike the rest of the way to the Immaculate Conception Cathedral where the cardinal was due to say mass at 4:00 pm.This wasn’t an ordinary news assignment for Carol, Toto, Gg and me. We were there to cover a monumental historical event in Mindanao and had brought along Pam Castrillo who appreciates history unfolding.
If the good cardinal knew that the police would treat his guests and parishioners this way, I don’t think that he would have approved. But I am sure he had more things on his mind right then. It would be impolite to call him up and tell him we had hit a snag at the first line of his cordon sanitaire. In the years MindaNews has known the cardinal, he has never been associated with a cordon sanitaire.
We walked among the locals who bantered merrily about “O, ang MindaNews nga naglakad.” Yeah, that’s how it should be. We walk among us.
Coming to the side of the church, we were greeted by the most incongruous sight of a fire truck flanked by two formations of riot policemen, their shields and truncheons at ready. They were guarding the statue of Sultan Kudarat. It was the weirdest sight my eyes had seen on the streets of Cotabato City. People here don’t riot. Ochlocracy is more the hallmark of leftist dissidents that, try as they might, have yet to infiltrate the mass base of Cotabato City.
On the statue’s base were two standees of photo exhibits. The police manning the statue enclosure let us in when I asked to see what this exhibit was that they were guarding. It turned out to be pictures of soldiers doing civic action with civilians – the kind of pictures that they use to showcase how soldiers are bridging the gap in the provision of basic services to the grassroots. They situated this exhibit where people could not see. It would really take a little foolhardiness not to be intimidated by the wall of human and metal shields to go across the street and appreciate the message the soldiers wanted to convey in those pictures.
Pam and I counted the number of riot policemen. Their helpful platoon leader whispered there were 72 in all. They came from Gensan.
Right. They had to import these boys because riotous behavior is not a staple diet in Cotabato City. They would have been better off guarding the regional office of the DSWD in Davao City where a flash mob turns a dull day merry ever so often.
Soon a jeep with a mounted machine gun came by. We followed it down to the church entrance. Out on the cleared streets, boys in domino camouflage packing automatic rifles secured the road. When the President’s men are around, the President can’t be far behind. I ogled their road security maneuvers for a bit. In another lifetime, I had wanted to be in the secret service. I would have pursued that dream had there been a president who made it worth taking a bullet for.
No, don’t ask me about this one.
True enough, this President would keep us gritting our teeth. In the next few minutes after we had claimed a seat in the jampacked church, three people came by to try and politely dislodge us. The first one offered to find us seats somewhere else. She never came back. The second one thought she’d get us to move out with much alacrity to us by saying that the President would be coming. I had to remind her that we were not a threat to the President.
Really now. I am his boss. He said so himself.
Stumped, she clarified by sharing that the President intended to pass that way.
Oh, his holiness, I am not worthy? To that I said, “We don’t mind that the President is here”.
At her wits’ end now, the good lady desperately said, “Please don’t throw questions at the President.”
I could think of other things to throw, but really – I wouldn’t have thought of those things had the lady not primed me. We were there for the cardinal, not for the President, no matter how he tried to make this event about him. I really don’t like arguing with someone who won’t even introduce herself, never mind if she had borrowed the mantle of presidential authority and was making it seem like I were a misplaced, disorderly citizen of my land. Definitely, this was not her church, and she was not the one who invited us here.
The third person to ask us to leave was so insignificant I don’t remember any more. Soon we had the Presidential Security Group milling in front of us and denying us a clear view of the altar. I spied Col. Rosalito Martires among them. Ah, that explained it a bit.
Butch Martires used to be the friendliest commander of Task Force Cotabato. If anyone knew how to secure the city, it would be him. I sidled up to him and gave him an unobtrusive “Hi there.” He quietly marks where I am and acknowledges with a polite smile. All right, no one will bother us now.
Except the President.
He put us all through this regimented crowd control that had no place in this celebration. Then he put us all through all this some more by showing up 45 minutes late! According to the visibly incensed cardinal who is known to be a stickler for time, “the dignitary who is supposed to speak there had not yet arrived.”
Ever gracious to his guests, the cardinal did a little light-hearted fashion show to take the edge off the crowd’s restiveness. He poked fun at the missing dignitary by telling the crowd to look but not touch as he had already been sanitized by the President’s men.
Sanitized at his own celebration? Whatever happened to the separation of the Church and the State?
Man, I like my Church and State where they should be: apart. This is exactly what happens when the State insists to be part of a Church celebration. The State apparently has no idea of what to expect of a conventionalized church crowd. It is retarded in its thinking that all crowds can turn into a rioting mob that can threaten an insecure head of state. It threatens us law-abiding, God-fearing citizens instead.
Mischievous Carol had snapped Pam and me against the backdrop of riot policemen in formation. She had uploaded the picture on Facebook while the President made us wait, generating virtual remarks about the militarized (or is it policed?) Cotabato streets. It caused an official from OPAPP to come running after us to say, “It was not Mar Roxas. It was the PSG. It was an overkill. But it was not Mar Roxas.”
Yeah, right, you hack. Gosh, I wish we had Hadji Balajadia and his placard with us! The one that said “Mar Roxas… (unprintable).” He could hold it up where the lady could see it.
The PSG was indeed there in the streets in their domino camouflage, there in the parking lot and the entrance with their trained canine darlings, and there in the cathedral in their formal reception wear – black pants, white barong, and black leather shoes looking like misplaced Freemasons taking over the church. Colonel Martires even found the time later that night to text me an invite to come visit the PSG sometime soon.
Full force there and sticking out like a sore thumb, but I doubt that the PSG’s operational budget extends to flying in the 72 truncheon boys of Gensan to guard Sultan Kudarat’s statue and the entrance to PC Hill.
I take back what I said to that second lady about us not minding the President being there among us. Last Tuesday, he was more bother than he was worth, really. Next time Mindanao has something to celebrate, I hope he stays away. It would be the most polite thing he could do.
And he can exile himself with Mar Roxas. You know Mar Roxas. He’s the one who is never responsible for anything monumentally and historically bad that happens in Mindanao or elsewhere in this land. Ask that redhaired lady again – it wasn’t Mar Roxas. It was the PSG. Or somebody else. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Gail Ilagan heads the Psychology Department and the Center of Psychological Extension and Research Services at the Ateneo de Davao University.)