ADVOCACY MINDANOW: On Surrendering to Presidents

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/02 September) — I can see that the surrender of Ms. JANET NAPOLES to President Noynoy himself, no less, is now creating some controversy. The way things were handled from what I read in the news; I am not surprised at the negative reactions in its wake.

Take it from me: there is nothing wrong, improper or irregular about it. It is not about propriety. But it is more of a public relations gambit, with the Palace weighing its options before “dirtying its hands” in what clearly can be given a negative spin. Perhaps, to the presidential “operators” of Malacanang, it was hitting two birds with one stone: snaring a high-value wanted person like Ms NAPOLES and scoring a public relations scoop with the highest official himself taking credit for it. But on the other hand, it can also put the President no less in an unenviable or awkward position knowing of the speculations, undue or otherwise, that will definitely come. In this world, one cannot just satisfy everyone. I handled quite a few similar surrenders of wanted persons to the president and I will tell you why they are to be treated with due circumspection and care, lest the intended good results will all be lost in the maze of mishandling, mistakes and undue speculations.

BACKFIRE — First of all, surrendering to the highest official of the land not only ensures maximum protection from harm of the fugitive. It glamorizes what otherwise is an act of ignominy, capitulation, utter helplessness, fear, and desperation. It can be a face-saving act, especially for those who had eluded the arms of the law. Most often, the “negotiator” who makes the initial contact with the fugitive, especially high functionaries — like cabinet secretaries — get more traction in convincing one to surrender peacefully if he dangles the possibility that no less than the President will “preside” over the surrender. But on the other hand, that gambit may backfire simply because it can be viewed as unduly dignifying and high-profiling someone who does not deserve such public glare. It can even turn into a public relations nightmare.

But there are different factors to consider. Usually, surrender of rebels who defied government and have decided to transition to a peaceful life is a bit different from the surrender of wanted criminals like murderers or plunderers. A rebel surrendering with his firearms or with his men is usually welcomed and a presidential presence witnessing or presiding over the “ceremonies” always — well, almost always, does not evoke negative vibes. I have a few examples.

LANAO SURRENDER –I recall, when rebel COMMANDER TUMAROMPONG of Lanao decided to surrender, he had only one request: to be presented to President Arroyo. He did not ask for other concessions. I thought it was worth the effort knowing that he and his armed followers had been creating trouble in his area. So, I flew him by military helicopter to Cebu City where the President was visiting just to find a “window” for a quick turnover of the commander with his high-powered firearm. A rebel surrendering generates positive vibes. Silencing the guns of war is always welcome. A simple presidential “presence” to wrap up my efforts would be worth it all. But I was aware also of the ‘political costs’ on the presidency if things turn out sour.

“BUCAY MANERO” –When convicted prisoner NORBERTO ‘BUCAY” MANERO” escaped from the Davao Penal Farm, I was Presidential Adviser for Mindanao. I was able to track him down in a mountain lair in South Cotabato and decided to make personal contact to “negotiate” for his return by penetrating his hideaway high up in the sky. Together with me were the late businessman TOTO PAGLAS, a friend of “Bucay” and a few aides.

SURRENDER —After a long climb, “Bucay” emerged from a row of bananas with his young horse in tow. When I talked to him asking him to return to the folds of the law, he told me that the only reason he escaped was because his case which had some unresolved issues had been long pending and he called it a “hopeless case”. He just wanted it expedited. I immediately said: “Call”. To give him the confidence level that I could be of help, I told him that I would bring the matter to President Arroyo no less. At that time, the President was scheduled to visit Mindanao in the next few days and a quick surrender could be arranged. He agreed. I picked him up by Huey helicopter from his mountain hideout the following day. (I cannot forget that “pickup” because BUCAY insisted that his young horse also hitch a ride with him up to Davao Airport, causing some overloading concerns and in the process dislodging GMA TV correspondent MIKE PAJATIN from his seat. He was already covering the event and out scooping everybody else. (Sorry for that, Mike! We had to give your space to that baby horse to further assuage BUCAY.)

From Davao, we flew BUCAY to Zamboanga City for a presidential presentation of surrender. But alas, things went wrong.

SCRIPTED — Having broken protocol, I briefed the President about the sudden insertion of BUCAY in her schedule. Knowing the sensitivity of the scenario and the expected media coverage of receiving an escaped prisoner who was accused of killing Italian priest Fr. FAVALI in North Cotabato years back, I clearly advised the President that BUCAY would be quickly brought in at the back while the President was seated. She would remain seated facing the audience while the announcement was being made about the “success” of the surrender efforts of Malacanang with BUCAY standing behind her and then quickly exiting. That was the script. But when BUCAY was being ushered into the room, President Arroyo was still standing by the table and talking with another person. When BUCAY approached her, instinctively (and forgetting my script) she extended her hands of welcome to the man approaching (I suspected she did not realize then she was shaking the hand of BUCAY). I could only tell myself “Patay!” Cameras clicked and whirled. The following day, the national dailies splashed the presidential handshake in the front pages and attacked her for “warmly welcoming a notorious escapee” with a handshake. My error of judgment that put the president in bad light without her fault. My mistake. MEA CULPA!

MAGUINDANAO MASSACRE — So, when I successfully negotiated for the surrender of DATU UNSAY AMPATUAN in that Maguindanao Massacre, I was more than careful than usual knowing that the presidency would again get unnecessarily smeared if I committed a similar mistake.

During my “negotiations” with the father, BAPA ANDAL AMPATUAN while waiting for the arrival of DATU UNSAY in their home at Shariff Aguak, I was very, very careful in not committing or promising a presidential presentation. So, when the discussions touched on whether I would bring DATU UNSAY to Malacanang for a “turnover”, I made it clear that I would be turning him over to Justice Secretary AGNES DEVENADERA in Cagayan De Oro where an inquest proceeding would be conducted prior to flying on to Manila. But I personally committed to the father, BAPA ANDAL that no harm would come to DATU UNSAY while he was in my custody until his eventual turnover to the NBI.

“SPECIAL TREATMENT?” – – After the quick inquest proceeding at the Cagayan de Oro Lumbia Airport Air Force lounge, I accompanied DATU UNSAY all the way on board a Philippine Air Force Fokker plane that same evening. When we landed at the Manila airport, another interesting episode took place. The reporters and media noticed that DATU UNSAY was not handcuffed. Another interesting twist. Of course, they went to town later claiming “special treatment” by Malacanang for a massacre suspect. My explanation for the suspect not being handcuffed was not accepted. Even when I told them the real score: the PNP officers assigned to effect the arrest suddenly found out that they did not have the handcuff keys as we were about to take off. In fact while airborne en route from Shariff Aguak, Maguindanao to Cagayan de Oro, DATU UNSAY had to be manually restrained to avoid any untoward incident in flight. But none of that would assuage an enraged and bristling, angry public.

The public was extra sensitive and touchy at that time when even a photo with me smiling before the cameras during the negotiations at the Ampatuan residence that appeared in the evening news in Manila was even criticized prompting President Arroyo to even call my attention about that “unwelcome smile”. Indeed, I had lessons learned from those various incidents.

SQUANDERING —Back to the NAPOLES affair. The presidential boys may have something up in their sleeves not known to us why they had to get President Noynoy deep into the picture. It’s either they have none of the lessons I have learned from. Or they are just all banking on the presidential high popularity rating that made them oblivious –or just too cocky — to believe that the president has enough “political capital” to squander once in a while.

Being myself now an outsider merely looking in, I am in no position to divine why Malacanang made those judgment calls that necessarily put the President right on the hot spot — like giving her audience in the presidential inner sanctum in the palace and personally escorting MS JANET to Camp Crame for her detention. But the bottom line is: in this exciting world of ours, we cannot satisfy all. There will always be those who are pro and others anti. That makes our world go round! (Lawyer Jesus G. Dureza was government peace panel chair in the negotiations with the MILF under the Arroyo administration from 2001 to 2003 and was later named Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (2005 to 2008). He heads Advocacy MindaNOW Foundation, Inc. and was recently named publisher of the Davao City-based Mindanao Times. This piece is from his syndicated column, Advocacy MindaNOW).

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