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Fired by text.

The Cabinet members of President Rodrigo Duterte made a show of force last Monday at the Senate when they circled the wagon to fellow Secretary Christopher 'Bong' Go. Go, better known as the 'national photo-bomber' for being omnipresent behind or beside President Duterte, holds the rank of special assistant to the President (SAP).

Go was invited to the Senate public hearing after his name was dragged into the middle of what obviously is turning out to be internal feud between and among officials in the military and defense establishments over acquisition of two naval frigates.

But only five Cabinet officials were invited along with Go to attend the Senate public hearing. They were, Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana; Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano; Department of Budget and Management (DBM) Secretary Benjamin Diokno; and Department of Justice (DOJ) Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre.

The rest of the Cabinet officials led by Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea were in full force seated at the audience during the six-hour long Senate hearing. Taking note of the presence of almost the entire Cabinet, Sen. Chiz Escudero was prompted to ask Go: 'Who was left to assist President Duterte at Malacanang?' A non-smiling Go retorted the President was alone by himself.

Go has long been a trusted aide of President Duterte even while he was still Mayor of Davao City. A lawyer by profession, Go can actually take care of himself. It's not as if he needs the backup of the entire Cabinet if only to show his innocence over allegations of his having intervened to favor one South Korean contractor in the acquisition of two frigates for the Philippine Navy (PN).

In fact, the President himself already publicly spoke in defense of Go. I am sure Go would not want to be projected as some kind of a 'power center' at Malacanang. But the stunt pulled by his fellow Cabinet members gave that impression to the public. They did not give that kind of show of support when other Cabinet members like for example, DOJ Secretary Aguirre underwent Senate grilling last year over alleged multi-million bribe pay-off.

But being the closest Palace aide, dragging the SAP into this questioned contract was something Duterte enemies saw as a best shot to bring down the President's credibility in fighting corruption in government. And as Go told the Senate hearing, the unfounded accusations against him in the Navy frigates deal were apparently meant to undermine the presidency.

If there was one glaring revelation made during the Senate hearing last Monday on the controversial PN frigate deal was the 'unceremonious' relief of the former Flag-Officer-in-Command (FOIC) for insubordination. The Defense Secretary relieved vice admiral Ronald Joseph Mercado as Navy's FOIC last month by text message, or SMS.

As the 'alter ego' of President Duterte, Lorenzana exercised his discretion as delegated to him by the Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces. The Defense Secretary relieved in December last year the Navy FOIC and named the latter's deputy, Rear Admiral Robert Empedrad.

The public hearing by the Senate committee on national defense and security dwelt on the question of who intervened in the P15.7-billion frigate acquisition program and caused delay in its implementation under the Congress-approved Armed Forces of the Philippines Modernization law.

For the military culture steeped in ceremonies and tradition, the manner by which Mercado's relief order was handed down came like an ultimate slap in the face for a stubborn subordinate who crossed his superiors.

Appearing in full military regalia of the white Navy uniform, Mercado lamented he was sacked as FOIC less than three months before his mandatory retirement. Now demoted as ordinary senior Navy officer, Mercado told the Senate hearing, he got his relief order from mere text message sent to him by Lorenzana who confirmed it.

Lorenzana conceded it was 'unceremonious.'

Or as the Defense Secretary himself defined it, Mercado's relief as FOIC was done without the ceremonies observed under traditional military turnover of command.

But what was more surprising was the silence from the Senate committee on national defense and security, three of whom were erstwhile graduates of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). They are, namely, Senators Gregorio Honasan, Panfilo Lacson and Antonio Trillanes IV.

Senate majority leader Vicente Sotto III shared a bit of trivia during the public hearing that Lorenzana once served as 'squad leader' of Honasan and Lacson. The two Senators both belong to the PMA Class 1971 while Lorenzana was a young plebe of PMA Class 1973.

The Senate hearing on the questioned PN frigate deal came at a time of this year when the PMA prepares for the commencement rites for the 2018 batch of graduates from the country's premier military training school. Lacson aptly cited in his opening statement the situation of military men: 'Our career ends when we retire. Our character stays up to the day we die.'

Reading from a prepared statement before the Senate inquiry into the P15.7-billion frigate deal, a visibly indignant Mercado described his FOIC relief as a surprise as he cited having a clean track record in the military service. 'I have never disobeyed any lawful order of my superior. I take pride in, and treasure, my profession the way I do to my name, my family, honor and reputation,' Mercado swore under oath.

Unfortunately, as what we have heard from the testimonies at the Senate hearing the PN frigate deal weighed down whatever good intentions Mercado had for the Navy.

The woes of the ex-FOIC chief, especially after this Senate hearing, would likely be far from over. Mercado who got fired via text message from his immediate boss can be considered still more fortunate compared to other government officials earlier fired also from their posts.

These appointees were unceremoniously dismissed and announced no less by President Duterte himself in his extemporaneous speeches ranting against their sins.
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Publication:Philippines Star (Manila, Philippines)
Date:Feb 21, 2018
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