Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Go ahead, sit down and talk!

This is my column today.

So all the furious speculating and all the frenzied efforts to ascribe motives and read all kinds of intents into the much ballyhooed impending meeting between President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and Manila Electric Co. chairman and chief executive Manolo Lopez proved futile after all. The meeting did not materialize. Meralco, however, was said to have been invited to the Cabinet meeting held at Panglao, Bohol, to make a presentation about its take on the current imbroglio about electricity.

I think it is sad that the meeting did not take place. Sadder still is the fact that the high-level meeting seemed to have been cancelled because too many people were wary about what the meeting would achieve. There was just too much speculative drivel from a lot of the usual well-meaning experts.

Many people in this country have become naturally suspicious of the actions of our leaders, particularly those of the President, in the light of recent revelations about allegedly clandestine meetings held with ZTE officials in China. Sadly, her critics know this and are expectedly capitalizing on this.

Adding to the pressure was the protestations of Government Service Insurance System president Winston Garcia who came very close to accusing the government of being ungrateful of his proven and steadfast loyalty and his valiant efforts to take on the Lopezes supposedly on its behalf. Of course Garcia did not say it in those exact words, but the real meaning of the gobbledygook he spewed needed no deciphering; it was clear.

What the cancellation meant was that old-school diplomacy, the one which required warring or disagreeing parties to come to the negotiation table to try to thresh out or resolve their difference in an atmosphere of civility and sincerity is really going fast, if not perhaps already gone.

This used to be the way conflicts were resolved, remember?

If two people had disagreements, they were supposed to work it out among themselves in a civil, respectable and mature way. If one had a problem with someone else, one did not necessarily go to media to amplify his position or defend the imagined slur on his honor; or to pile on dirt on the other person. One was supposed to seek out the other person in an effort to clarify things. One was supposed to come to the negotiating table to iron out what was called a gentleman’s agreement where at the end the parties shook hands either to signify that they have come to an agreement or that they have agreed to disagree.

By requesting the meeting and by signifying that they were open to it, the Lopezes and Meralco showed the stuff they are made of. Unfortunately, I wish I can say the same of others.
This kind of diplomacy used to be the accepted and honorable way to resolve conflicts.
The high level summits between the presidents of the United States and the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war era were classic examples. Two other examples come to mind as I wrote this piece.

There was a time, when Cory Aquino was President, when she was having some problems with then Defense Secretary (now Senator) Juan Ponce Enrile.

Enrile was then being vocal about his criticisms about Aquino and there was much speculative drivel being raked up in the press that tended to aggravate the impasse further. That particular conflict was resolved quickly when Aquino sought Enrile to ask him what the problem was. I don’t anymore remember what Aquino’s exact dialog was or Enrile’s exact repartee—I only remember that Enrile was caught by surprise and stammered that he really had no issues with then President Aquino, but rather, with the people around her. Aquino’s efforts to reach out and show willingness to resolve the issue paid off at that particular time.

Another incident that easily comes to mind happened when I was in college in Tacloban City, when AM radio was most powerful and hard-hitting radio commentators reigned supreme. I remember one incident when the top AM radio station in the city spewed an all-out barrage of criticisms directed at the then female city mayor supposedly for berating a student leader who applied for a rally permit. The radio commentators lambasted the mayor for hours and went to town doing what radio commentators do best: Crucify public officials on air.

Imagine the listeners’ surprise when they heard the mayor’s calm voice interrupt the relentless on-air attack on her person. What happened was that she had walked into the radio booth, took a seat in front of the commentators, grabbed a microphone, and announced to everyone calmly and in a mature way: “Here I am, say these accusations to my face and let me answer them as well.” They had to go to a commercial break. After a few minutes, you bet they were all cordial and agreeable.

My point is that a lot of things can be resolved in this country if only people were more open to resolving differences the civil and amicable way rather than picking fights with others on public media.

For example, and this is an idea that was broached by a blogger friend of mine several months ago, wouldn’t it be such a great idea if the President would walk (without cameras in tow) into the office of a senator who is openly critical of her actions, sit down and tell that senator “You have a problem with me, let’s hear it and see how we can resolve it.”

Oh I know it’s not as simple as it seems and we don’t have to be literal about it. I know that it is difficult to negotiate under an atmosphere of mutual distrust, which is why third party roles such as conciliators or mediators have been invented.

There comes a point when one simply wishes that people re-learn the fine art of diplomacy. I don’t know about you, but this is a thought that’s been top of my mind lately: Why don’t our leaders just sit down and discuss their differences among themselves like the mature, responsible, intelligent people that they are supposed to be?

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