By Rommel F. Lopez
Former Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile shares his narrative with President Rodrigo Roa Duterte regarding the disputed waters in the West Philippine Sea prior to the President’s talk to the people at the Malacañang Golf (Malago) Clubhouse in Malacañang Park, Manila on May 17, 2021. ALBERTO ALCAIN/ PRESIDENTIAL PHOTO
Is it a case of advanced age or has former senate president Juan Ponce Enrile perfected the art of flip-flopping?
Pulitzer-prize winning journalist and PressOne.PH columnist Manny Mogato was not surprised with Enrile’s skill in doing 180-degree turns.
For Mogato, Enrile’s flip-flopping on crucial issues is his way of relating to whoever is in power and ensuring his political survival.
“It’s in his character. What matters to him is his own survival, political survival. If he can betray Marcos for his own selfish interest and ambition, he can do it to anyone. So, it was not surprising he was licking the president’s boots,” he said in an interview with PressOne.ph.
Enrile’s entered the corridors of power when he was appointed to the Cabinet by President Ferdinand Marcos, who had defeated Diosdado Macapagal in the 1965 election. He was Marcos’ first finance secretary, occupying the post from 1966 to 1968. He served as justice secretary from 1968 to 1970 then as defense secretary from February 1970 to August 1971. He became defense minister in January 1972 when a new constitution was adopted.
1972 ambush: Staged or real?
As defense minister, Enrile was the chief implementer of Marcos’ brutal martial rule. One of the pretexts used by Marcos to place the Philippines under Martial Law was the alleged ambush attack on Enrile’s convoy on the night of Sept. 22, 1972 in Wack-Wack as the defense chief was on his way home to Dasmariñas Village in Makati.
Marcos wrote in his diary that “it was a good thing he [Enrile] was riding in his security car as a protective measure.”
Businessman Oscar Lopez, who lived on Notre Dame Street in Wack Wack, recalled hearing a lot of gunfire that night, forcing him to step out of his home. In his 2000 book, “Phoenix: The Saga of the Lopez Family”, Lopez wrote that he recalled seeing an empty car riddled with bullets.
“Our driver happened to be bringing our car into our driveway at around that time, so he saw the whole thing. He told me that there was this car that came by and stopped beside a Meralco post. Some people started riddling it with bullets to make it look like it was ambushed. But nobody got killed or anything like that. My driver saw this. He was describing it to me,” Lopez said.
In September 2018, Enrile sat down with former senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr, son of the late dictator, for an interview streamed on social media, dubbed “JPE: A Witness to History.”
It was supposedly “correct” what had been written about Martial Law and the 1986 People Power Revolution. At the end of that episode, Enrile claimed: “I do not manufacture facts. I have not lied to the people. I have not manipulated events.”
However, on Feb. 22, 1986, during the People Power Revolution, Enrile admitted in a news conference before foreign and local press that the ambush was staged by Marcos to justify the declaration of Martial Law and solidify the dictator’s hold on the country.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer published the story the following day, Feb. 23, 1986.
However, in his memoirs published in 2012, Enrile wrote a different story: His political foes spread a lie after the 1986 People Power Revolution that the ambush was faked to justify the imposition of martial rule.
“This is a lie that has gone around for far too long such that it has acquired acceptance as the truth … . This accusation is ridiculous and preposterous. Whether I was ambushed or not, martial law in the country was already an irreversible fact. So, what was the need to fake my own ambush?” he wrote.
PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty
During a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte on May 17, Enrile said the Philippines could not invoke the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States if hostilities with China erupted in the West Philippine Sea.
The 97-year-old Enrile claimed that American officials had told him that the West Philippine Sea was outside the coverage of the MDT.
“Unang-una, kung basahin mo ‘yung Mutual Defense Treaty, ang sinasakop lang noong kasunduan natin sa Amerika ay kung may atake sa ating mga fighter planes o sa ating mga barkong pandigma sa Pasipiko, saka lang natin puwedeng gamitin ‘yun. Pero ang sinabi ng Amerika sa amin noong pinag-uusapan na namin ang amendment ng Military Bases Agreement, revision ng Military Bases Agreement…Sabi nila ‘yung West Philippine Sea or the South China Sea is not part of the treaty area of the Mutual Defense Treaty,” he said.
However, in an interview back in June 2011, when he was asked about the Philippines invoking the MDT should China attack any Philippine vessel sailing on the West Philippine Sea, Enrile responded, “We can invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty, if our forces in the body of water between the Philippines and mainland Asia are attacked by anybody.”
He also said the MDT’s definition of the Pacific area “starts from the coastline of Asia all the way to the coastline of America.”
“That’s the Pacific area. That is what the Mutual Defense Treaty covers,” Enrile said. “If it is a naval vessel of the Philippines, then you can invoke it, or a force of the Philippines, you can invoke it,” he said.
This was consistent with what the United States had said about its obligation under the MDT.
“An armed attack against the Philippines’ armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price said in April.
Friendly approach with China
In the May 17 dialogue with Duterte, Enrile said the president’s move to set aside the 2016 arbitral victory of the Philippines against China was the best thing to do to manage the crisis.
“Ngayon, sa inyong panahon medyo mahirap ang katayuan ninyo at binabati ko kayo sa inyong approach dito sa ating usapin sa West Philippine Sea. Hindi natin kailangan ang mainit na ulo diyan sa bagay na ‘yan sapagkat ‘yan ay malaki ang kaugnayan niyang usapin na ‘yan hindi lamang sa ekonomiya ng Pilipinas kung hindi sa seguridad ng ating bansa, ng ating mga kababayan at lalong-lalo na itong lupain natin na minana natin sa Espanya at sa Amerika,” Enrile said during the president’s weekly broadcast.
Enrile stressed that the only way to resolve the issue was to avoid “irritating” China.
However, in 2013, Enrile, then Senate president, co-authored a resolution with Sen. Vicente Sotto III supporting then President Benigno S. Aquino III’s decision to file an arbitration case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
The resolution noted how the Philippines had exhausted almost all available tools, mechanisms and fora for the peaceful settlement of the disputes with China and that China had declined the invitation “to discuss the matter peacefully under any of the available dispute settlement mechanisms.”
It said the Philippines was left with no other option but “to proceed with bringing China to arbitration under Part XV of UNCLOS in order to protect Philippine sovereignty, territorial integrity and sovereign rights over its maritime domain.”
Mogato, who covered the defense beat during the Cory Aquino administration, described Enrile as a “political butterfly” who’d bend over backwards to satisfy whoever was sitting in Malacañang.
Veteran journalist and best-selling author Marites Vitug, who was present in the 1986 press conference where Enrile tearfully confessed that the 1972 ambush was staged, said that if one looked at Enrile’s political pattern, the former senator’s habit of flip-flopping was not an “isolated case”.
“I even had to ask some colleagues who were there [at the press conference] and covered. And they came out with their own accounts. So sabi namin, ‘This is not something factual to put in an autobiography,’” she said during an episode of The Press Room podcast.
“That for me was a very concrete experience with Enrile na bumaligtad siya.”
She added that what Enrile said during his dialogue with Duterte and during her 2012 interview with him were completely different. Enrile said last week that he could not recall being interviewed by Vitug.
Vitug said she asked Enrile about his recollection of the Cabinet meeting called by Aquino to address the continuing incursion of China into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“Ang tanong ni PNoy (Aquino), ‘Shall we go multilateral or keep this conflict at a bilateral level?’” Vitug recalled.
Vitug said she was told by Enrile that his suggestion was for the Philippines to assert its sovereign rights without foregoing bilateral talks.
“So, it was a strong position compared to what he told President Duterte na huwag nating i-antagonize China,” Vitug said.
Vitug said she did not have photos of the interview but her book, “Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case against China,” has endnotes stating the actual date of the interview.
Mogato believes Enrile’s support for Duterte is linked to the ex-lawmaker’s plunder and 15 graft cases at the Sandigandabayan anti-graft court. His former Senate chief of staff, Jessica “Gigi” Reyes, with whom he was known to be especially close, has been in jail for six years over the pork barrel scam involving bogus nonprofit organizations put up by alleged scam brains Janet Lim Napoles. Enrile was released on bail in 2015 on humanitarian grounds, despite plunder being non-bailable.
Enrile and Reyes are accused of getting P173 million in kickbacks from Napoles.
The late senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago, had the choicest words for Enrile, her arch-nemesis.
In a privilege speech in 2013, she described Enrile as a “psychopathic hypersexualized serial womanizer,” “the icon of shameless lying,” an “incorrigible liar,” “the prince of darkness,” a “gambling and smuggling king,” and “the drama king of corrupt politics.”
“My attacker is the icon of shameless lying…He eats his own words for breakfast. In the law of evidence, he has absolutely no credibility. Falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus. False in one thing, false in all things,” the fiery senator said in her speech.