HOST: Haslinda Amin
Quezon City Reception House
August 13, 2019
HASLINDA AMIN: Vice President Leni Robredo, thank you so much for joining us today.
VP LENI: Thank you for having me.
HASLINDA AMIN: With the increasingly escalating US-China trade war, countries increasingly find themselves in the position to choose between the two sides. How would you describe the relations between the Philippines and the US right now?
VP LENI: I think, the relations has changed over the years, especially in the last three years. With the new administration, foreign policy, as far as dealing with the United States [is concerned], has really changed. There seems to be a perception that to be more friendly with China or with Asian neighbors would mean, you know, decrease our… our friendship or our relations with the United States. And I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe that the Philippines should choose between the US and China in the sense that friendships with both countries would be beneficial to the Philippines. I understand why the new administration has chosen to be more friendly with China. What I don’t understand is why there is no clear lines between, you know, giving up our sovereignty because we can maintain economic relations with them, but there should be a clear line—clean and clear line—as far as protecting our territories is concerned and preserving our sovereignty. But I would like to believe that we could be more friendly with the US and at the same time, be more friendly with China without taking sides.
HASLINDA AMIN: Some critics say that there has been a slight of a push back when it comes to China in the South China Sea. Why do you think that is the case? Some others went as far as saying that perhaps, the Philippines is selling itself to China. Do you agree with that?
VP LENI: There is a great sense that we are. And we can’t, you know, we can’t… [interruption]
HASLINDA AMIN: I’ll take that question again. Are we good? Apologies for that.
Vice President, there’s a sense out there that perhaps the Philippines is selling itself to China? Do you agree with that comment?
VP LENI: Yes. Yes because of the way that our administration now is responding to threats to our territories and threats to our sovereignty. For many years now, China has been occupying many of the territories where we have staked our claim on. And in fact, many years ago, we filed a case before the UN arbitral tribunal and we won overwhelmingly and we felt like it was a big win for us, in the sense that we were hoping that the win, that the decision, we would be able to use that to, you know, to rally nations behind us. Because there is a sense that we are too small and too powerless dealing with China. But even after we got the arbitral tribunal award already, the government has not responded in the way that we were expecting it to. We felt like, you know, the victory that we’ve had was relegated to the background. And the President has made a lot of statements which gives a sense that we are acquiescing to what China wants. And we feel like we have not taken advantage of the victory that we’ve had.
So if people feel like we are selling out, we would understand why they feel that way. The President has made a lot of statements which gives us a scare in the sense that we might wake up one day and many of our territories are no longer ours. We—in the recent past, there has been a shift in those statements. The President recently said that when he goes to China this month, he would already take up the arbitral tribunal decision with the President of China. And I think, it’s a big development in the sense that we have—people have been prodding him to do that already in his previous meetings with the Chinese officials and he has been saying, “There would be time for that.” So, the question now is—I think everyone is waiting with bated breath—what will happen in that meeting?
Number two, there have been a lot of incursions in the recent past and we would always prod the government to, you know, to protest, to make a diplomatic protest, to make public statements that, you know, would say that we are against what China has been doing to us. But it felt short of that.
But recently, our officials, our DFA Secretary, our DND Secretary, have been more public with their complaints with, you know, survey ships of China being in our territory and many other things. We are hopeful. We are not contented with what’s been happening but we are still hopeful because we cannot afford to be.
HASLINDA AMIN: China has been militarizing some of the islands, yet the Philippines has made concessions in the South China Sea. Do you think those concessions were made because of the need for Chinese investments, Chinese money, in the Philippines, especially the $24-billion commitment?
VP LENI: You know, we can only speculate. We have been asking the President to be more transparent as far as the deals with China is concerned. You know, every negotiation, every contract should be based on mutual respect. We are both—there should be a recognition that we stand on the same footing. There has been a regression that the President considers China more powerful than us—and we do not subscribe to that, you know, to that presumption. There have been a lot of speculations… there have been a lot of speculations as to why this administration has decided on this shift. But we continue to demand for this administration to be more transparent with its dealings with China. You know, there have been talks of verbal agreements with China but this government has not been transparent with the details of those talks. The arrangements with regards to the ODAs, with the loans with China, the arrangements with regards to the infrastructure projects which have been awarded to China. Whether there is a list available online on this projects, the details are not really available. So we have been demanding the government to do that.
But you know, I think for… for Filipinos to be, you know, to allay their fears on government selling out, all the government needs to do is to be more transparent.
HASLINDA AMIN: What do you make of talks on the code of conduct in the South China Sea? Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said that talks are progressing well, yet President Duterte has said that China is delaying. What’s the status of those negotiations?
VP LENI: You know, we have been waiting for that code of conduct. We have been waiting for many years. We all know that negotiations started even before the term of President Duterte. But I think, we are more impatient now. We are more impatient now considering what’s been happening and considering the fact that really, there is a growing fear that we might sell out. And so the sooner the code of conduct is passed, the sooner… You know, I remember reading in the news a few days ago that the Defense Secretary is demanding on a separate code of conduct as far as dealing with our fishing grounds are concerned. Whatever the subject of the code of conduct is, I think it will be—you know, it will, again, allay the fears of Filipinos if that is passed already. Because as of now, we are all pushed to the wall as far as incursions—reported incursions—are concerned; as far as threats of, you know, occupying our islands are concerned; as far as stories of Chinese fishing vessel lording it over our exclusive economic zone is concerned, we’re all at a loss. And I think, the code of conduct will be a one way of providing a platform where, not for China but many other neighboring countries with claims in the South China Sea is concerned. At least there will be a platform where, you know, everyone will be guided on how to proceed.
HASLINDA AMIN: The South China Sea has been a flashpoint in relations for a very long time. How far is the Philippines willing to go?
VP LENI: You know, I cannot answer that, in the sense that I am as… I am at a loss at, you know, I’m not privy to negotiations between government and China. But you know, if you’ll ask me—
HASLINDA AMIN: Do you hope for a US intervention?
VP LENI: I hope not. While we do understand that the US presence in the South China Sea is a source of comfort now, in the sense that we know that we do not… we do not have as much resources and power as China in pushing for our rights on the South China Sea, the fact that US is there, the fact that many other countries are there, is a source of comfort. But it would be best if we are in a position to defend our rights ourselves.
I have always… I have always pushed for a multilateral approach. Multilateral in the sense that we consider ourselves all benefitting, not the Philippines depending on some other country to fight for our rights and our sovereignty. There have been talks of doing bilateral approaches as far as dealing with China is concerned. I am not too hopeful with that because of the history. Because we have tried that track already for a long time. The decision of the arbitral tribunal would have been, you know, would have been a good rallying point; would have allowed other countries to be on our side or rally behind us. But I think, we missed taking advantage of that.
But I would like to think that all hope is not lost, it’s not too late yet. As I have said earlier, I’m hopeful with the recent… with the recent statements of some of our government officials that were finally on the right track. But that remains to be seen. We are waiting—we await what will happen in the talks in Beijing. We would have wanted to have access to all the protest. We have been filing—not because we don’t trust this government—but it will be a source of comfort for many Filipinos who have been fearful that, you know, that we have lost many of what we do.
HASLINDA AMIN: Vice President Leni Robredo, I’d like to tackle your political plans. What are your plans for 2022? Would you be seeking presidency?
VP LENI: You know, I have always said that my entry into the political field was an accident. I have always said that my running for a seat in the House of Representatives and my running for the vice presidency was really destiny. I have not planned for it. Had my husband not died in the plane crash, I would not have sought a political office.
If you ask me now, I have no plans. But I’m leaving… I’m leaving everything open. I do not want to say anymore that, “Over my dead body.” You know, when I was asked after my husband died if I would seek a political office now that he’s not with us anymore, that was how I answered—“Over my dead body.” But I’ve eaten my words so many times already.
We still have three years before the next presidency—presidential elections. A lot can still happen. If you look at the history of our—of many of our elections, one year spells a lot of difference. When I ran for the vice presidency in 20—I filed my certificate of candidacy October of 2015—two months before that, it was still not in the plan.
You know, I’ve not planned on running. My, you know, my decision then was either I’ll still seek for another term in Congress or would get back to political life, and then I ran for the vice presidency. I’ve always said that the presidency’s destiny. There are so many politicians who have sought the presidency and have prepared for it for many years.
HASLINDA AMIN: Do you think you’re ready [for presidency]? Do you feel like you’re ready?
VP LENI: You know, when I ran for the vice presidency, that was one of the pre-requisites—that I’m ready to be president. Because the mandate of the Philippine vice president is to take over if anything happens to the president. So I would not have ran for the vice presidency if I thought that I was not ready for the presidency.
HASLINDA AMIN: You’re one of the more vocal voices out there against President Duterte’s war on drugs—
VP LENI: Yes.
HASLINDA AMIN: —and there’s a sense that there could be a backlash. Are you concerned that you could be kicked out of office before 2022?
VP LENI: You know, the threat has always been there since Day 1. Since Day 1, the threat has been there. Right after we got elected into office, I tried to reach out to the then President-elect. Because I felt like the country would benefit if we would be able to work well together. But the signs have been there from the very start. The President requested for a separate inauguration. And historically, the president and the vice president have the same inauguration event, but the President requested for a separate one. I thought things were changing when the President asked me to be a member of the Cabinet. But you know, even when I was a member of the Cabinet, I tried very hard to be very professional, to work well with him as Housing Secretary. But you know, I could not help but be critical of policies which I think were not good for the country. And his stance on the drug war was one of them. As early as 2016, there were already a lot of extrajudicial killings and I have been very vocal about them.
But I thought that the, you know, my stand on certain policies and certain issues, the President would respect. In fact, I remember there was one Cabinet meeting where I thanked the President. I was telling him that, “Thank you, Mr. President. You did not take it against me that I was very vocal of certain issues that I felt so strongly about.” So I thought that it was working. But all of a sudden, I was asked not to attend Cabinet meetings anymore and we did not have any recourse but to resign because I felt like the portfolio that I was… I was handling would suffer great deal if I was not… you know, if I did not have a good working relations with the President. So apparently, he did not look kindly on how I was very vocal on these issues. There was a threat that I would be impeached—I think in 2017? Impeachment complaints were filed before the House of Representatives. I have a protest case still pending against me. Although we hope that it will be decided over soon since the… the, you know, the review and the recount already happened. There is a sedition case which has been filed against me. So, threats are there.
But while I feel like all the challenges are there, it’s been—I have trained myself not to be distracted by all the noise. I know that I will be here as Vice President only until 2022. We have been doing an anti-poverty program which we feel is very successful. Our—most of our energies are focused on that. So despite all the noise around us, we’ve been very focused on doing what we will be doing. It’s been a challenge, especially because if you look at the mandate of the Office of the Vice President. There’s really nothing there except succession. I don’t have the mandate to implement programs. The office does not have the budget to implement programs. If you look at our budget, it’s one of the smallest in the entire bureaucracy. When we started, our budget was just for operations and salaries of staff. Right now, we have additional budget already because Congress, especially the Senate, has recognized our efforts with our anti-poverty program. We’ve been able to do what we’re doing because of our collaborations with the private sector. So despite the challenges, all is good.
HASLINDA AMIN: Vice President, you talked about the challenges. Is there a sense that there is active effort to replace you as the Vice President?
VP LENI: There is active effort to replace me. My opponent in the last elections has been claiming he’s the rightful vice president. There’s a pending case—as I’ve said—there’s a pending protest case before the Presidential Electoral Tribunal. There are a lot people close to the President. There are a lot of people who are identified with the administration who has made no qualms about saying that they would hope that I would be unseated or they would hope that I be booted out of office. So if the question is are there groups who are actively seeking for my ouster? There are. But I think, there’s no… there’s no proof that the President is behind these efforts.
HASLINDA AMIN: President Duterte has made flippant comments on women. Do you think it’s increasingly difficult work for women to be in power under this administration?
VP LENI: You know, the signals are mixed. On one hand, you see the President, you know, delivering misogynistic remarks. I’ve been on the receiving end of some of these remarks. But on the other hand, you also see the President signing into law very important legislations that we think are beneficial to women. Just recently, he signed into law the expanded maternity benefit act. He’s also signed into law Bawal Bastos Law, which really creates safe spaces for women. Although much of the effort has been on the side of our legislators. The fact that the President did not veto these laws and in fact, deals beyond signing them into law, really gives us a sense that, you know, behind those misogynistic remarks, he has allowed pieces of legislations like this to be passed.
But you know, Senator Leila de Lima is still in jail. Former Supreme Court Chief Justice—the former Supreme Court Chief Justice was removed from office because of quo warranto proceedings. There have been a lot of… there have been a lot of remarks against women political opposition leaders like myself, like Senator Risa Hontiveros, so the signals are really mixed.
HASLINDA AMIN: Three more years to the term, how would you steer the opposition party? What needs calibrating in the lead up to 2022?
VP LENI: There is a lot that needs calibrating as far as the Liberal Party is concerned. You know, the sad thing about Philippine political parties is that whichever the political party of the sitting president is, almost everyone is there. The previous president was a member of our party so most of the politicians were with our party when the President was—when it was still the time of President Aquino. When there was a change in leadership, there was a deluge of, you know, political leaders transferring to the political party of President Duterte. And we… we lost a lot of members in the party, which I think would have looked like a defeat as far as our political influence is concerned. But I look at it as an opportunity—as an opportunity to rebuild the party and to reassess where we are going. Because when there were a lot of members in our party—in the Liberal Party—we sort of lost our sense as a party already. Many of us were there not understanding what the party stands for. We have lost track of—most of the members have lost track of the values… the values of the party. And when we lost a lot of members, it was a time to reassess why are we here, what are we here for, what does the Liberal Party stand for.
So it’s mostly—the first three years was mostly a time to reflect on what happened. And then the midterm elections happened. When the midterm elections happened, it was a time to understand and to, you know, humble ourselves and realize that perhaps, many of the things we are doing are not responsive to what the people need. Because if the results of the midterm elections are to be the gauge— is true that the President is very popular—but the complete shutoff also is, I think, a wake-up call to understand what are we not doing right.
HASLINDA AMIN: How do you make sense of the President’s popularity which is in excess of 80 percent right now?
VP LENI: I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. Mainly, people feel that he’s very authentic. I—we have not had a president this casual, this, you know—he’s different from the previous ones we’ve had. And I go to the provinces often enough and if you base what people think about him, the number one thing that they appreciate of this president is that he’s authentic. And I think, it’s refreshing for people. It’s not to say that we agree on many things that he does but we have to realize—and we have to understand—why people like him.
As far as the party is concerned, there is a lot of relearning and tweaking to do and we have less than three years to do that. We hope to be, you know, we hope to be very faithful to the tenets of liberal democracy. By tweaking, it does not mean that we have to change the values we hold dear, because the values are still there. But perhaps, one of the things that we have to ask ourselves is how are we responding to the needs of our people? And the President has been very effective as far as that is concerned because feel like—you know, if you look at the approval and trust ratings of the President, it’s really high and it’s past midterms already.
HASLINDA AMIN: There is a possibility of a Duterte dynasty because his daughter could be a presidential candidate. What’s your reaction to that and what can prevent a Duterte dynasty?
VP LENI: It’s difficult to say what can prevent but it’s actually a reflection of Philippine politics. It’s not just the Duterte family who are lording it over in the Philippines. President Duterte’s president, his daughter is mayor, the son is vice mayor, the other son is a member of Congress.
But in many other parts of the Philippines, that is what’s happening. And the irony is that our Constitution is very specific in saying that we should not allow political dynasties to proliferate. But given that, we have not passed an enabling law. Congress has not passed an enabling law to give heart and soul to that constitutional provision. So it would not… it would not, at all, be surprising for another Duterte to become president. I think, people would have to respond in a manner that does not just focus on the Duterte family as members of a political dynasty but of the many other dynasties that have been proliferating all over the country.
You know, there’s a lot of debate on whether that should be banned. There is a lot of talk that although there are good and bad dynasties but the fact is, there is a constitutional provision prohibiting it. So it’s one of the things that we should rally around—the fact that this is specifically prohibited by the Constitution and yet why are we not doing anything about it.
HASLINDA AMIN: Vice President Robredo, just one more question, what should the priorities be for the government in the next three years?
VP LENI: Poverty is still the prevailing problem across the entire country. If you look at our numbers—our economic numbers—our economy has been growing. And it has been growing in a manner that we’re better than many of our Asian neighbors. Our growth rate has been very good since, I think, 2009. Although from 2017, it’s been decelerating. But it’s not a growth that has been inclusive because many—a big, a sizeable portion of our population is still poor. The gap between the rich and the poor is still very wide. Although poverty incidence has decreased over the past years, it’s still not at a comfortable level. There’s a sense that growth has been seen as an end… as an end by many of our economic managers when in fact, it should just be a means to an end. We cannot claim growth to be really effective if many of our people are still poor.
So for the next three years, it’s what government should focus on—an assessment whether or not our policies, whether economic or not, are really pro-poor. There has been a lot of hope that has, you know, that has been given at the start of this administration in the sense that the economic agenda was really to spend more for social development. But if you will assess many of our programs, you would have to ask: have this program’s been very responsive to the needs of the poor segments of the society? Because I think, they’re not.
For example, TRAIN Law was passed to benefit, you know, you passed a tax reform law to benefit the lower income segment of the society. But when it was passed, it was passed at a really difficult time because inflation rates were very high. The safety nets given to the poor were not given on time. So for many months, the poorer segments of our society were the ones who suffered the most. There has been a lot of talks of expanding social benefits. We have free college education now. We have a lot of social development programs. But if you will assess, how have most of… how have most of our programs benefitted the poorer segments of our society? Agriculture is still… is still very bad. So I think, there should be a reassessment of how our policies are really affecting the Filipinos who are at the lower income bracket of our society.
HASLINDA AMIN: Vice President Leni Robredo, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure.
VP LENI: No, thank you for having me. Thank you for having me.
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