FULL TEXT: Interview with Ateneo de Davao’s Fr. Tabora on Duterte | Inquirer News

FULL TEXT: Interview with Ateneo de Davao’s Fr. Tabora on Duterte

/ 01:55 PM June 28, 2016

Earlier this month, INQUIRER.net held a series of interviews with leaders of civil society and the academe based in Davao City. One of them is Fr. Joel Tabora, president of the Ateneo de Davao University, who discussed with us the prospects of a Duterte administration.


Below is the full transcript of the interview:

John Nery, INQUIRER.net Editor in Chief: Good afternoon and welcome to our live interview with the very influential president of the Ateneo de Davao University, Fr. Joel Tabora, SJ. Good afternoon Father.


Fr. Tabora: Good afternoon, John. Good to see you here. Since you were in my classroom.

Nery: Back in your presence. Thank you for making time for us on a Sunday afternoon. We have a few questions to ask, and really, most of them have to do with how should we understand the Duterte presidency. Maybe we can start with the very basic question. Duterte is the first ever president from Mindanao. How does the Ateneo de Davao University see this historic achievement?

Fr. Tabora: I guess first of all we have to say that Ateneo de Davao university does not have an official position on this. Official positions in the university are governed by the Board of Trustees, etc. We have a process. But on the other hand, the Ateneo de Davao is very supportive of the newly elected president. Many of its professors and its students are very very active in the campaign for him, and as we have discussed matters after his election, many are very enthusiastic about wanting to be able to help him succeed as our national leader. And the reason I think is simple. Ateneo de Davao is in Mindanao and there are many hopes that Mindanao once had and they‘ve come to rest these hopes in Rodrigo Duterte.

Now, many of the…outside of the fact that many in this university shall support him in his campaign against crime and his campaign against drugs. Many of our people here are very, very committed to the peace process here. We are very disappointed that despite all the efforts that the Aquino administration made in this regard, which engaged many of us very, very deeply here at the Ateneo de Davao, we got very involved in the peace process under President Aquino, but I guess we were all just very disappointed that in the end, because of unfortunate errors that were made, that the, misunderstandings here and there, that the process did not end up in the peace agreement that we all hoped and prayed for.

We really believe that President Duterte can lead the country to a genuine peace agreement with the Muslims. Outside of the fact that he has Muslim blood, we are convinced that he understands the Muslim situation and that he can read, I mean, the political forces within the Muslim groups, better than most leaders, most national leaders in the country. So, we hope that he shall certainly be able to play a big part in bringing peace about. It will be complex and it will probably take a different shape than it took under Aquino because the president is sensitive to the MILF but also to the MNLF and we’ve heard that he is not close to discussing the possibilities of exploring the Sabah claim. So those are things I think that we hope can also be part of a peace agreement that could be more inclusive than it being more just, than it is presented…in the problems that we have in Sulu and Malaysia and Sabah area.

The other area where I think, very urgently, people are supporting him with great hope is because in this university, most of our students and our professors are very committed to the environment, you know? Our professors who are environmentalists are willing to risk their lives for the environment and they’ve conducted studies in the environment where they have put their life on the line. That sort of thing. So one of the things that have been very important for our people here is his commitment against large scale mining. Our environmentalists see large scale mining as a huge threat to the environment here, and our water studies have shown that if you have something like the SMI Tampakan Mines allowed here, then it could poison the entire water system of Mindanao because all of these rivers and water bodies are itner connected so we’ve been passionately anti-mining from this university, but it’s never really registered as an environmental issue under the Aquino administration. They’ve been cool on mining and large scale mining because of the returns that the 1995 Mining Act deprives the Philippines of. But they’ve never really said large scale mining is an environmental problem. And it is an environmental problem.

Nery: So we’re looking at a, you might say, definition of 4Ps that excites Mindanao. There’s the peace process, there’s the peace and order, there’s the planet, and then there’s also greater participation by Mindanaoans in national government. I’d like to discuss one or two of these Ps, is there anything else aside from this that has gotten Mindanaoans excited in a Duterte presidency?


FR: Tabora: He’s ours. In a sense, he’s ours. Because I think that’s what, you know, people from Mindanao are saying that we finally have a Mindanaoan president. He’s ours, but I think we all know he’s not ours in the sense that we don’t own him. And we know that we don’t, we cannot manipulate this guy. He has his own way, he has his own style, and he uses his own words, but many of Mindanaoans understand him to be ours, therefore, on our side. You know, to an extent, in Mindanao the so called Manila imperialism is felt over many years, we can say over centuries. The ruler from the north has come and has exploited conditions here, you know, when there was a social problem in Central Luzon, they sent the farmers here and they settled here in these lands. There were resettlement campaigns which were started in the American times, but was also carried over under the Filipino officials in the Commonwealth time and later, the resettlement issues which brought migrants from Luzon into Mindanao, displaced the Mindanaoans from their lands and often through loss they did not understand, and that was certainly very true with the Muslim people here in Mindanao, but was also true with the indigenous people in Mindanao.

So, the Mindanaoans feel, finally we have a national leader who can at least mediate this to people in Luzon and help them to understand that much of the poverty that we have here in Mindanao is because of the policy that was made in Manila. Even if you look at the statistics relative to poverty in the Philippines today, I think you have like, 70 percent poor in the Metro Manila area. In the Visayas, it becomes 30 percent. In Mindanao, it becomes 40 percent. But in Muslim Mindanao it becomes 60 percent. So the development has really begun to solve the problems well in Metro Manila, it it has really neglected Muslim Mindanao and Mindanao in general. But at the same time, Mindanaoans are aware that the resources in Mindanao have been exploited by people who eventually are in Manila. The timber resources have been depleted. And now that the timber is gone, they’re going after the mineral resources, you know. With no clear understanding of, if this exploitation takes place, how will Mindanao benefit? So there’s a social justice dimension, a very clear social justice issue here, where we’re going to have to look at the economy, how the economy has been run by the north, to the disadvantage of Mindanaoans and how politics has been played against the Mindanaoans, and even the use of the military and the perception of many Mindanaoans is that the military defends the interests of the north, rather than the interests of all. So, Mindanaoans are happy that they have now a president who loves Mindanao so much he doesn’t even want to go there. He wants to govern from here, which is an endearing sign for the Mindanaoans.

Nery: Father, you have also been president of Ateneo de Naga, and you taught many years in Ateneo de Manila, so you know what the sentiment is in Luzon.  In what way is President Duterte not merely the first president from Mindanao, but truly, in fact, the 16th president of the Philippines, I mean to say, what, we can now understand what the Mindanao agenda would be, but what can the voters who voted for him in Luzon, what can they look forward to from President Duterte?

Fr. Tabora: Well, I think if you address the major problem of peace in Mindanao, you’re not just addressing a Mindanao problem. You’re addressing a national problem. This has really been a national problem with international (repercussions) for a long time. I think everybody will benefit if the problem of peace in Mindanao is addressed. I think everybody will benefit also if the problems of the indigenous peoples will also be addressed, because I think when we talk about the indigenous people, we are, to a great extent, talking about our national heritage, our national soul.

Where is it that we value being Filipino most? In our ability to acquire traits from the West or in our ability to be able to respect our traditions that are of old, and that form part of the richness of our Filipino heritage? The indigenous peoples, they are being decimated by what we consider to be development aggression. People want to put up a mine, and they hit the indigenous people. People want to put up a huge monocrop farm, they hit the indigenous peoples. And by hitting these indigenous peoples, they don’t just displace, they destroy cultures that belong to the national heritage. I think if president Duterte can address that, he would be addressing a national thing. If because of Duterte now people in universities and people who write histories and anthropologies can correct the writing of history relevant to Mindanao that would be a big gain for the country.

I think solving crime is a national concern, specially the drugs that affect interestingly enough, even and especially the poor. They are plagued by this problem. They are the ones affected and are being hit by this thing. And the drugs situation is very difficult because it’s underground and international. It begins with drugs and it ends with human trafficking and gun-running. So a president who is going to effectively move against this kind of crime, I think is national gain. So I think if he attacks poverty that is a national gain. I think, if you were to ask me this would be my opinion. Why is it that the Liberal Party lost so badly? You know, I think it was because they ran under the slogan “Let’s continue with this Daang Matuwid.” And people were saying “Continue with that, that has not benefited us?” From the viewpoint of the poor, the poor have heard of the improvement in the national economy. People are boasting how much, under the Aquino administration, the economy has grown, but they’re not feeling its effects. Well, people, as far as poverty is concerned, they don’t feel its effects. As far as the environment is concerned, once again, there was disappointment relative to mining. And as far as the peace process is concerned, it didn’t work, so why give me a continuation of this?

Kristine Sabillo, INQUIRER.net Chief of Reporters: Father Tabora, you mentioned a while ago that “Duterte is ours,” meaning of Mindanao, but not ours. You also mentioned that in your much talked about speech “The President and the King.” Everybody knows that no one can control Duterte. He has his own way of doing things. So how are we sure that he’s grounded enough to make the right decisions for the country? I mean, besides coming from Mindanao, what do you think is in his character that would make him grounded and a good president for this country?

Fr. Tabora: Many times, the comparison very badly has been made between Duterte and Trump because of the many similarities. Both of them speak their minds, both of them use expletives that are very colorful, and both of them are in a sense, icons that last, they are not afraid to strike at the idols of our civilization, our current civilization. But I think Trump is full of himself, and that’s not Duterte. I think Duterte is a person who is really concerned about the poor, and really concerned about reforms, understands what he wants to do, and is going to do what he says that he’s going to do, or what he means that he’s going to do. So my confidence in him is the experience we had with him in Davao. This is a good man. He has a lot of, he has a colorful way of presenting himself, but business is thriving in Davao. People are happy in Davao.

He’s not a dictator. If he were a dictator, he would be able to keep his children more in line. But you know, he has a political line, Sara has a political line, Paolo has a political line, and he allows it. You know, he says one thing and they do another thing. And he allows it. So, I think to answer your question, on the our basis of our experience here in Davao, where he has delivered well, I am confident that he would deliver well in the national scale. Duterte is also a man who does not like to have the headlines. I don’t know him to be that way in Davao. He works very quietly, very effectively, you know, And when there are problems, he comes. He fixes the problems. I remember once, we had a food poisoning incident here, and a good number of our students, including myself, ended up in the hospital. And uh, lo and behold, he was at my side. And he was on the side of the kids, taking care. So people know him for that, for that sort of personal care for people who are sick, who are disadvantaged.

Sabillo: Sir, they say that much of the controversies surrounding Duterte now with the national media is because he is misinterpreted, or the people are not yet used to how he does things or how he says things. Do you think that the national media and the rest of the population would be able to eventually understand him more, in the long run, and adjust to how he is, how he works?

Fr. Tabora: Sure, because the national media is also intelligent.  I think the logic is, it’s like learning a new language, you know. You’re gonna have to learn how to decipher, we’re all gonna have to learn how to decipher. I’m also taken aback by all the things I hear. When I watched the Miting de Avance, I was also turned off by the rhetoric that he was using, you know. But it was rhetoric. And that’s why I do hope that he will metamorphose, like what he said, “I’m going to be different when I become president.” I do hope that he continues in his activity to bring reconciliation to the country and unity to the country. So I think it’s not good to push him against the wall, you know. Let him be. Let him act, as I think he will. And I think we’ll see surprising results.

Nery: Father, speaking of learning a new language, maybe you can help us make sense of what may be just seeming contradictions in the Duterte approach to policy and governance. I know that you’ve insisted that you are not limited to the way the mind thinks, you are not part of the inner circle, you don’t consider yourself an expert, but you run one of the leading educational institutions in Mindanao, that plays a key role in the Davao society. Maybe we can ask you to help us make sense of the following. Maybe I can start with the reputation which you have just reconfirmed, for reaching out to the poor. He has a lot of pro-poor policies in play, and yet he is also perhaps more famously known for insisting on the death penalty, which the Catholic Church recognizes as essentially anti-poor because of flawed judicial systems. How do you reconcile these two? So, a pro-poor approach, and yet, insistence on a policy that will, in fact, impact on the lives of the poor.

Fr. Tabora: Yes, it is a seeming contradiction, and I don’t know that it can be reconciled. I think president Duterte really wants to go after crime. He wants people to respect the law. As of now, he is convinced that getting people to respect the law can be done by death penalty, by the legislation of the death penalty. The Church has over and over again insisted that the death penalty is not the answer. I think the Church and a Catholic university like this will try to convince him that it is not the answer. But we will also understand that he will not decide this issue alone, he will go to Congress and Congress will decide on the basis of the Congress’ perception on the common good. The Church, I think, will make a stance, say, in so many cases the death penalty is anti-poor because it kills not the rich, but the poor. And sometimes, erroneously because many times, they cannot get legal assistance. But he will say, ‘I need some way of making people fear the law’. So he’ll go to Congress for that.

Nery: Davao has been booming for decades, as you said earlier business is thriving, and anyone can see that. Now he’s bringing in some of his friends from the national democratic front, or maybe in fact from the communist party, which might spur some apprehension on the part of businessmen even businessmen in Davao City. So he’s going to have a cabinet that will have at least three departments headed by people you might call our friend from the militant Left.

How do we understand that situation? Would we expect as in the first Corazon Aquino cabinet some internal struggles between let’s say businessmen who are there and then members of the left or should we expect something else from President Duterte.

Fr. Tabora: I don’t know. It’s a little bit too early. Within this week we will have a meeting …in order to be able to discuss. We really don’t know what this means. I’m just sympathetic to the national leader, who is saying this conflict has gone for too long. And, sometimes we don’t even know what is being fought about or what is being fought over. From my classes you know the Marxist movement, the communist movement relative to capitalism at heart is a social justice movement. Whether it works or not is another thing, but at heart it’s a movement that is trying to call forth optimum realizations of humanity within the productions scheme that we have versus a capitalism that has so often been dehumanizing in its exclusion of many from its benefits.

Our constitution, the way our 1987 constitution is framed, is really a social justice constitution. Sometimes I think it hasn’t been tried. They already want to change it but it hasn’t been tried. It’s a social justice constitution, and it’s trying to  bring justice to the poor person, to the farmers etcetera.

So based on the constitution, there is a lot of room to come into dialogue with people who have been fighting for social justice. If the fight for social justice means that we’re going to have to talk to the lords of big business, to the policy makers, to the landlords, to those who are determining land distribution, etc. We’re going to have to talk because peace will depend on it.

I don’t think the CPP-NDF is just going to say now that Duterte’s here we’re going to give up the fight. I think we have to be able to say because of so many years of struggle, there is going to have some improvements among the farmers, some improvement among laborers that has not yet been achieved.

I don’t know what’s gonna happen in those negotiations. From the viewpoint of the Mindanaoans, the NPA leftist conflict has taken a life of its own that people don’t understand. Those are the NPAs, the ideology, the targets are not clear, what they’re fighting for is not clear. SO often it looks like they have become a set of bandits and are simply there for themselves.

Now in a dialogue this, it’s good that something like that would be clarified. What are they fighting for this time? We know what the Bangsamoro are fighting for, but in the case of the CPP-NPA, tackling the regime is so far away that it simply becomes fighting the local military or fighting the local businesses which people don’t understand.

So we have an opportunity with dialogue, try to understand one another, and I think representatives of a social justice constitution should be able to talk to representatives of a social justice revolution.

Nery: There are a lot of pro-women initiatives in the Duterte administration here in Davao City and Duterte has a lot of female supporters, and yet especially in the last few weeks, we have been witness to rather demeaning language regarding women. How do we start to make sense of this?

Fr. Tabora: I don’t want to speak for the women and where offence has been taken. We will simply have to accept that offence has been taken. I would simply counsel Rody Duterte in what he does, not what he says or how he whistles. I don’t mean to say his style is the best presidential style, but that’s his way of doing things. I know that in Davao the legislation that is pro-women is the best in the country and has been leading legislation in the country so there I have to say maybe wait to see what he does, rather than just take offense in how he behaves. I don’t want to excuse but I would be more comfortable if he stops the whistling and tempers his language.

But that’s not the substance of Duterte.

Nery: Your fellow Jesuit Archbishop Antonio Ledesma issued a pastoral letter just before the elections where among all the things he referred to the killings in Davao, supposedly by the Davao Death Squad. The contradiction I’m looking at is I don’t think that there is evidence to prove that these 1,200 or so killings did not happen. So, do we give credit to Duterte for this kind of, I’m not sure if the word is achievement, or as Archbishop Ledesma said, do we take into task for failing to stop these 1,200 killings since 1998 I think. So I guess the contradiction has to do with the price that Davao City pays for the peace that it enjoys. How do we approach this question of the Davao Death Squad.

Fr. Tabora: That’s a difficult question and I don’t mean to diminish its import. What Archbishop Ledesma said is true. There is a problem on the Davao Death Squads here. There has been no proof that it is linked to Duterte, but it’s also true that there has been no action against them.

The Ateneo de Davao took a survey; we do city-wide social surveys based on the methodology of the Social Weather Stations. So, we do this regularly. One of the questions we asked was “Do they accept the Davao Death Squads and what is said to have been done by them.” It is a matter of concern for us that the large majority said yes.

Another question that we asked was “What is your perception of the legal system, does it deliver justice.” And the large majority said no. They have been able to correlate the fact that there has been a failure in the justice system, with their approval of what seems to be a system that is delivering justice. Is it the best way that things should be? Certainly not. But that’s the empirical reality here that people are supportive of what seems to be delivering justice or delivering peace and order.

I know that it’s very dangerous and it’s subject to human rights abuse and subject to error, and people have no ability to defend themselves. But it seems that the people who are looking at this understand that.

It is a big price that has been paid. At the same time, the justice system, that is supposed to prevent this sort of thing seems not to be functioning. And people understand it not to be functioning.

Sabillo: You’re confident with Duterte but do you trust the people surrounding him, especially the ones he appointed to government positions because some of them are controversial  as well or other people have concerns about their integrity or their links to cases of corruption so what can you say about that?

Fr. Tabora: As of now I’m not making judgments on his appointees. I feel, with many of my people here, let’s give him a chance. I felt that somebody else might have been a Department of Education Secretary, but he has made that choice; I respect it; I work with that person. So, let’s see what comes of this.

Nery: You said that the peace process might take a different shape, so you have a framework agreement on the Bangsamoro and the Comprehensive agreement on the Bangsamoro. Are you saying that perhaps it might not be the current shape of the Bangsamoro Basic Law that will be laid before congress?

Fr. Tabora: I hope that there will be success, there will be respect for the comprehensive agreement Bangsamoro. That’s a national commitment; I really hope that it will be respected. For that to be respected I think, I hope, that the Muslim community can get together and understand itself to be represented by the MILF, but we know that it’s challenging because not all feel that they are represented by the MILF. So, I hope that we can work things out as is prescribed by the comprehensive agreement Bangsamoro.

I hope that this happens before federal system of government can be legislated by a constitutional change. So, as I said, the Bangsamoro Basic Law therefore may take a different shape because Mr. Duterte may have access to more Muslim groups whom he may lead to a new agreement among themselves for the sake of the Bangsamoro. But I am hoping that it will still be within the framework of the comprehensive agreement Bangsamoro.

Nery: Talking about great participation by Mindanaoans in the national government, are you encouraging perhaps your professors some of your alumni, to join the Duterte administration?

Fr. Tabora: I think he’s taking a number of our alumni, but im very jealous of my people I hope he does not take my people. We will help as much as we can. We think we can help by convening people, we’ve done that in the past and we will continue to do it, like the National Democratic Front and the CPP-NPA that’s coming up June 8, and June 11 and 12 we’ll be convening a large number of indigenous people groups to be able to contribute to the whole discussion.

In these discussions, people may say what they want to say and we’ll just document it and goes out in the social media. Some of it becomes viral, but that’s the contribution I think we can make in the process.

Nery: But Father, I know that President-Elect Duterte is interested in constitutional change, would Ateneo de Davao, your law school, take the lead in maybe starting the discussion on how this change would take place? Will it be through a constitutional convention, what kind of amendments would be in play and so on?

Fr. Tabora: We will certainly be very active. We’ve talked about this already. Whether we’d be leading, I don’t think that we feel that we need to be leading it. There are law schools in Ateneo de Zambaoanga, in Xavier University, Ateneo de Manila. We are organized for our advocacy among the different Ateneos now so that we can bring a collective Ateneo name to suggestions for Constitutional change. So, I think we will be very interested, first in whether we would have a constitutional change at all. That’s an issue, I know that Mr. Duterte is very much for it and for federalism, but I’m also instructed by Christian Monsod who was the framer of the constitution, who really believes that many of the intentions of President-elect Duterte can be achieved simply by amending a local government code. You can bring about a constellation of provinces and bring them working together and de-imperializing Manila has simply by working with the local government code. It would therefore free us from the danger of the social justice provisions of the constitutions being tampered with. That’s something that president Duterte may have to consider because he is a social justice man. And the biggest friend of social justice is Article XIII of the Constitution. It sort of spells out where we want to go, and the last thing I want is for constitutional change to be done with respect to the international desires of our multinational companies who wish to force their agendas on us, and who therefore may make the social justice failures all the worse here. So, we will be interested in this and we will participate if there are social changes in the constitution that needed to be made, we would like to be able to participate, also to protect the social justice values there in the constitution.

Nery: Father Tabora, 2-3 weeks ago you gave him advice. A very nuance statement, but people remember “Don’t turn into a monster.” Maybe we can end with advice from you. I mean, if you were in a position to sit down with president Duterte, maybe you’re down with food poisoning and he’s sitting on the side of your bed, you have a chance to tell him, “It’s what, less than 3 weeks to your inauguration?” What should he be doing?

Fr. Tabora: I put this in one of my tweets, you know, and I remember how when Cory Aquino became president, you know, she came from the masses, from the people. She was the epitome of a simple person with, who represented people power in the country, a very powerful concept at that time. When she got to Malacanang, every Tom, Dick and Harry started saying, telling her, how to be presidential. So Cory Aquino became presidential. And I think she was taken away from the masses. She became presidential, you know, people began to understand, well she’s really fitting into Malacanang, you know, but I think it hurt her. I think everybody’s gonna try to tell Mr. Duterte how to be presidential. And my advice to him would be: just follow your heart, follow your people and remember your mother. That’s all.

READ: Duterte told: Follow your heart, your people

Nery: It would be interesting to know that his mother was a leader of the anti-Marcos struggle in Davao City, which was the reason why he was appointed Vice Mayor. Father thank you so much

Fr. Tabora: No, you remember that moving scene after he was elected, he cried on the grave of his mother because his mother does play a big part in his life, you know. And his highest ideals I think come to him from his mother.

Nery: Father, I think this will be for another interview, but there are many questions as to his willingness to bury Marcos in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, his closeness to Bongbong Marcos, and all that, but maybe another time. Maybe we need to do more research into Soledad Roa Duterte. Father I want to thank you very much for giving your time this Sunday afternoon.

Fr. Tabora: You’re welcome John.

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