If there’s anything this government, this President, is good at, it’s putting out fires. And it’s not by actually ensuring that we get to the bottom of the cause(s) of these fires, or even count the victims properly (hello, HTI), and certainly it is never about calling out those who are so obviously responsible for these fires, whether oligarchs or factory owners or the leadership of the Philippine Export Processing Zone (PEZA), and certainly not the family that owns NCCC Mall, now found to have violated building safety requirements, which led to the death of 37 in the December 23 fire.
Instead they put out fires – literal and figurative – by bombarding us with information that will take over the news. They depend on the news cycle, on the easily distracted public, and of course on their social media army that dictates what is (or should be) relevant these days.
They exercise double-speak and double-standard: while Duterte’s, his family’s, and his men’s perceived enemies are always guilty before being proven innocent (drug suspects, Leila de Lima, Jun Pala, Chito Gascon, Ombudsman Morales, CJ Sereno, the militant Left, critics, mainstream media), and are to be made to reckon with their past, their alliances, their de-contextualized proclamations (especially for anyone who is part of or is equated with the Liberal Party), Duterte allies and political patrons are given a bottomless pit of benefit of the doubt.
This is what operated in the aftermath of the NCCC Mall Fire. It is what operated when Duterte refused to blame anyone for the fire, when we know him well enough to throw invectives at government officials and oligarchs for the flimsiest of reasons – and a fire is not flimsy at all. It is what operated when Mayor Sara Duterte said, four days after the fire, that the mall’s permits and inspection certificates were in order.
Damage-control-via-distraction was when Vice Mayor Pulong Duterte decided to resign two days after the fire, for having fought publicly with his daughter earlier that week, but also for his alleged involvement in smuggling at the Bureau of Customs — which was in the news five months before, in August 2017.
With Pulong resigning, and the Christmas holidays too, we weren’t quite talking about Mayor Sara. We were distracted from the fact that the President had allowed her to evade the responsibility of speaking to the victims’ families herself as Mayor of the city, as the one under whose office the permits to operate (including fire permits) were approved. Said President Duterte:
“Of course, it was a crisis last night. And I consider it lucky because I was around to commiserate with the people there. I was the one who broke the news to them. Because Inday begged off. She said, ‘Hindi ko kaya, pa.'”
It took a while before we realized that in fact Mayor Sara is an endorser of NCCC Supermarket, something that Tonyo Cruz reminded us about on Dec 27, which is the same day the mayor said NCCC Mall was “fire and safety compliant.” She denied the importance of her connection to NCCC, downplaying her involvement with the company by saying:
I am not NCCC mall endorser, I have a contract with choice mart, another company of NCCC supermarket…
Quite accurate actually, but nothing more than spin at this point. ChoiceMart is an NCCC company, functioning under NCCC Supermarket. But the former is not independent of the latter. Think SM Hypermart is to NCCC Supermarket, as ChoiceMart is to SaveMore. Which means that as ChoiceMart endorser, Mayor Sara is on the payroll of NCCC (or LTS Pinnacle Inc, which it was transformed to recently), and can only be grateful to the company. Upon scion Javelin Lim’s death early 2017, Mayor Sara said:
And while the Mayor might pretend now that she is just an endorser of one small part of the NCCC group of companies, in fact at the December 1 2016 thanksgiving party for the 38th anniversary of this NCCC Mall that burned down, she talked about being “graciously accepted” as part of the NCCC “team.”
A year earlier, in July 2015, the NCCC Supermarket page reposted Mayor Sara’s IG post where she said: “Proud to be part of the NCCC and Choicemart families!”
Of course in classic Duterte fashion, Mayor Sara (and even her father) can easily brush off these statements from the past, say that things can change, maybe even say that this is an accident and no one wants this fire to happen. This would be difficult to swallow — even for Duterte himself. For one thing the President loves history (he has said so many times) and the Alvarez Lims who own NCCC Mall have a history of fires, which should have been enough reason to make sure they were meeting all safety requirements, which is how we avoid fires like this one.
For another, the Alavarez Lims might be considered as Duterte allies: in April 2016, the brothers were considered as part of the top personalities who showed their support for “Duterte ta! #DU302016” in Davao; in June 2016, Javey Lim was at the Presidential Inauguration; and in January 2017, the President spent time at the wake and sat down with the family of Javey Lim.
This is a President who has promised no political favors, no patronage politics, who has said time and again that he owes no one anything. This NCCC Mall fire is yet another instance when he needs to prove that to be true.
But let’s not be so distracted that we forget Mayor Sara. Because even as she downplays her relationship with the Alvarez Lims, not only is there a history of their relationship online, there is also just the fact of patronage politics: of businessmen and oligarchs cozying up to politicians and governments (local and otherwise), and based on that connection getting “harmless” favors, i.e., becoming the chosen venue for LGU events, from press conferences to Kadayawan events. But also this connection has been proven to be harmful to governance, precisely because there is conflict of interest.
And for Mayor Sara, this conflict is even more difficult to resolve: if you endorse the product of this company (i.e., ChoiceMart), how can you, as government official take a stand against its abuses? how can you be objective in its violation of the law? How can you speak to the families of those burned to death in the NCCC fire, when you are identified as an endorser and ally of the Alvarez Lims who own this mall, when your face is plastered on their advertisements and Facebook page?
Lucky for Mayor Sara, on the night of the NCCC Mall fire, her father — the President — was there to do her job for her.
Now one wonders what both father and daughter will do for the Alvarez Lims.