Interview with Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella
CNN Philippines / The Source by Pinky Webb
17 May 2017 / 9:05-9:21 A.M.
USEC. ABELLA: (recording cut) …there’s a write up on it, that the Landbank will be the lead bank in here and there will be—it will make available financial services to OFWs  and  that  they can also become part equity owners of that.

WEBB: But over and above that, sir, do we know anything else?

USEC. ABELLA: Basically at this stage, mainly that.

WEBB: Because you know it’s good to talk about, sir, because number one, we have so many OFWs abroad.

USEC. ABELLA: That’s right.

WEBB: And when then President said this there was a loud applause, because it seems for the OFWs, this is our bank; a bank that we can trust.

USEC. ABELLA: That’s right.

WEBB: But I guess, it’s also important to find out exactly what they can gain from an OFW bank?

WEBB: Well, part of it is that—first and foremost they have access ‘no, they have access which is usually—access to banking services are usually limited to a particular class, that sort of thing. But however, in this particular case, they can make use of the facilities and they will be…I think, as far as I know, as far as I remember, that they become part owners of the bank.

WEBB: Interesting.


WEBB: Okay, until maybe we have more information on this, Secretary Abella, also good to talk about it in the future. Now, let’s move to Beijing.

USEC. ABELLA: That’s right.

WEBB:  As we said earlier, an unlikely friendship, of course the President has been open to a lot of well, a relationship obviously with China drawing some criticism from some sectors; but what was the trip like in Beijing?

USEC. ABELLA: Again, it was in a sense also—largely official and not just focused on the Philippines, there were 20 plus nations all over there represented. However, the interesting part – as far as I am concerned – were the meet ups between Premier Li Keqiang and the Prime Minister—and the President and President Xi Jinping. And what was very noticeable was that there was great rapport between the leaders and—again the President although was really warm towards them, also did mentioned that, that he wasn’t—that certain issues would not necessarily be discussed at the particular stage, but there were, like for example, certain mechanisms that will be coming up soon. And also, that at the right time things would be discussed; it was done in a very oriental way.

WEBB:  It’s almost as if we can even discussed among ourselves. You were saying of course the arbitral ruling was not going to be discussed. It was already known during  the  President’s trip to Beijing that it will not be discussed.

USEC. ABELLA: I don’t know if it was known, but it was certainly stated by the President during the face to face meetings.

WEBB: Right and then you talk about the bilat talks, good to talk about that a little later on, sir, because I think that happens this week. But what are the MOAs, memorandum of agreements signed during that trip, Secretary?

USEC. ABELLA: Okay, there were four agreements signed in China. The first one, was having to do with economic and technical cooperation between PROC and the Philippines. And also, the agreement would serve as a basis for the grant to be provided by China to the Philippines to implement the grant of 500 million RMB, to conduct feasibility studies for major projects like… even drug abuse treatments and rehab centers and bridges crossing the Pasig River—

WEBB: This is the 3.6 billion grant from China. That’s the one you are talking about the 500 million, sir?

USEC. ABELLA:  I suppose that’s the one, okay, and then also the memorandum—the MOA on cooperation on human resource development between NEDA and China. It will serve as a framework for the Philippines to strengthen cooperation in human resource development and promoting personal exchanges. Then there was also an MOU signed on energy, okay. The objective is to strengthen cooperation between the two countries’ electric power, natural gas; and then the last one was between the PCOO and the China International Publishing.

WEBB: Which is?

USEC. ABELLA: Which basically enhancing capabilities in terms of publishing and broadcasting.

WEBB:  Secretary, this is over and above what was talked about during the first trip of the President to China or this is just a continuation?

USEC. ABELLA: At this stage, I would say that this is a—there was no memorandum signed during that particular time.

WEBB: Just the verbal deals.

USEC. ABELLA: Yeah, these are the—

WEBB: Ito na iyong apat?


WEBB: So far that we have.

USEC. ABELLA: So far that we have.

WEBB: Okay, also it’s good to note here, Secretary Abella, some concerns raised. Jose Maria Sison was raising that, because of the President’s ‘build, build, build program – his infrastructure program until 2022 – he is saying that the Philippines could actually be a debt slave.

USEC. ABELLA: No. I think that’s a misunderstanding of the thing. Part of that, as explained by Secretary Mon Lopez that the ratio would be 80% local loans and 20% foreign loans. So it’s not something as if we are going into debt with another country, no.

WEBB: And also with the build, build, build plan of the government, Mr. Secretary, of course our tax measures also being put in by—was suggested by the Department of Finance.   

USEC. ABELLA: That’s right.

WEBB: You talked about the bilateral talk, sir, the code of conduct on the South China Sea. When is the bilat talks; whose going to go and what can we expect?

USEC. ABELLA: Well, I cannot provide you the finer details, but it will be sometimes this week, I think on the 19th, and that the code of conduct will be discussed. And so that is when they will discuss matters about the South China Sea.

WEBB: So a delegation from the Philippines will be going to Beijing?

USEC. ABELLA: Yes, yes. I don’t have the final list on that.

WEBB: Even the representatives from the Philippines ay wala pa po tayo.

USEC. ABELLA:  I don’t have.

WEBB: But at least, it’s going to happen on the 19th. And then, I guess, this is in continuation of some of the frameworks or agreements talked about during the ASEAN?      

USEC. ABELLA: Well, those things will be—that will be part of the framework discussion.

WEBB: But sir, it should be very interesting because finally this is the first of the bilat talks under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

USEC. ABELLA: It will be quite interesting.

WEBB: Something definitely to look forward to. Now, sir, also highlighted was the President saying that he is open to exploring the South China Sea with China and with Vietnam?

USEC. ABELLA: Well, as he explained during the press briefing when he arrived, he said this was proposed way back during the Arroyo time, President Arroyo; and I suppose he will bring it up with Senator Alan Cayetano. No, these are not contradictory. Senator Alan was simply saying that as far as he was—when he was making that statement, this was the general direction that we we’re going. However, the President did say with a caveat, he said, ‘if,’ you know, if properly studied, hindi tayo lugi, stuff like that, we may consider that.

WEBB: Okay. So you’re right though, it was I think in 2005 during the time of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo that there was a deal supposedly to explore oil deposits with China and I believe also Vietnam. But the deal didn’t push through.

USEC. ABELLA: Did not push through.

WEBB: That was junked as well. But where we in terms of a possible agreement; after the President saying this, what could the next step, sir?

USEC. ABELLA: Well, those things will have to be carefully considered at the appropriate departments and agencies.

WEBB: Kasi siguro the question also, Secretary, is: what about the other claimant countries?

USEC. ABELLA: Well, it’s exactly the point. It’s not something that we could just enter into lightly. It’s something that has to be carefully consider.

WEBB: And even if they start—you know, saying, sir, that even if China has built artificial lands, even if they have, you know, military structures there, here is the Philippines saying we are open for joint exploration with China on the South China Sea.

USEC. ABELLA: Well, again let me just say that we being open is something that has to be carefully consider, it’s not a given.

WEBB: Yeah. But the operative word there is ‘open,’ sir.

USEC. ABELLA: It’s something to be considered.

(commercial break)

WEBB:  There was an SWS survey, Secretary, saying 52% of the Filipinos expect the President to fulfill all, if not most of his promises. That’s a lot, sir. And I heard that you were saying already that there are three issues, core issues, that the Duterte administration is really going to be focusing on.

USEC. ABELLA: That’s right.

WEBB: Let’s start with drugs, sir. The question really is: after the Human Rights, 45 member states raising concern over, well, the killings here in the country. What is government about to do regarding that?

USEC. ABELLA: Well, the government’s approach is basically holistic, okay. I think we need to frame it in the larger picture that the President has already drawn. During his State-of-the-Nation-Address – first State-of-the-Nation-Address – he did say, I promise you a comfortable life for all. I promise you a comfortable life for all, and then … that’s one of the things he said. On the other hand, you know, that’s premised on three things: Number one, reducing poverty; pangalawa, iyong building a trustworthy government; and third, peace within our times.

The trustworthy government is basically premised on a law abiding society. And it’s anti-crime, it’s anti-corruption, and anti-illegal drugs. And in fact, it was a Adrian Monk who did say—again, let me just go back to Adrian Monk. He said, “So I see,” he says, “all the efforts of the President especially regarding even drugs is basically part of an anti-poverty program.” So I think that’s what the picture is. The President is not just a one-trick pony. You know, he is basically a holistic … his approach is holistic, although he is rhetoric sometimes seems to emphasize only one portion.

However, he is concerned about three things. Number one, reduction of poverty; number two, law abiding society; number three, peace.

WEBB: But when you talk about law abiding society, and then you have alleged extrajudicial killings, Secretary, how do you become a law abiding citizen when you have extrajudicial killings in the thousands as alleged?

USEC. ABELLA: Okay, as alleged. I’m glad that you said ‘as alleged’. Because basically, this has been—this I think what’s Senator Alan Cayetano has corrected during the UN presentation, that basically, what they did is they lumped all homicides into one number. When, basically, those deaths under the police operations were, basically, under 2,000 or something like that.

WEBB: Two thousand six hundred, sir.

USEC. ABELLA: There you go.

WEBB: Ang lumalabas ho kasi, if we got the numbers right, deaths from drugs that were legit was … let’s put it at 2,600. Tapos iyong death under investigation was at 3,700, something like that. Is that the same numbers you have, sir?

USEC. ABELLA: More or less, along the same lines. However, the thing we want to point out is that the definitions that are being raised up there, and even by some, quote/unquote, “media” are really bloated and based on the wrong premises that, you know, not all homicides are drug-related. So the image in abroad is that there’s killing on the streets, which is entirely wrong.

WEBB: But here’s the thing, Secretary Abella, we understand, of course, as Senator Alan Peter Cayetano defended the Philippines before the United Nations’ Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, but even after he defended the government’s war on drugs, 45 member states still said that they’re raising concern over the killings here in the country.

USEC ABELLA: Remember that the statements of those countries were not based on what Senator Alan Cayetano’s—these were prepared statements. They were previously prepared but afterwards, they did go and congratulate him and basically they congratulate the efforts of the Philippines regarding drugs.

On the other hand—so basically, they did appreciate the presentation. But the statements that they said were actually prepared, pre-prepared. So doon sila nakabase.

WEBB:  Does it mean they couldn’t change that, Secretary?

USEC. ABELLA: They couldn’t change that.

WEBB: So what’s the point of Senator Alan Peter Cayetano going there if he can’t even bring the cause of the Philippines before the member states, the member countries?

USEC. ABELLA: Well, he did bring an enlightenment. So, I suppose, in hindsight, there’s a correction there.

WEBB: Okay, so still, the outcome is, 45 member countries are saying/raising concern over the government’s war on drugs. Is the President or the government likely to change its strategy or it shall still continue?

USEC. ABELLA:  You know, the President’s strategy on this has actually been holistic. Actually, we just need to—he’s just been misunderstood.

WEBB: Okay. So is there pressure? Let me rephrase that question: Is government feeling the pressure after that statement made by the 45?

USEC. ABELLA: No, because we’ve been doing the right path. You know, it’s just been misunderstood. It’s just been, I suppose largely skewed because of this perceptions in the media.

WEBB: Okay. Then, there is criminality, that’s the second focus. And then, you were saying also anti-corruption. How is the government’s drive against corruption, sir?

USEC. ABELLA: Well, I suppose, psychologically, there’s a—not psychologically, but there have been a drop in ano … for example, in complaints. And I think, it seems to be going faster these days. And I cannot, you know, I suppose part of it … I suppose I can refer you to what’s happening in the airports, and apparently there’s less stress happening in the airports.

WEBB: When we talk about corruption though, also highlighting the news very recently, sir, is the possibility – according the DOJ Secretary Vit Aguirre – that Janet Lim Napoles can turn state witness. But you have the Ombudsman saying that she will stop any moves to make Janet Lim Napoles a state witness. Let’s listen to both statements [VIDEO CLIPS].

Secretary, does the President want Janet Lim Napoles to turn state witness? I’m asking that because early on, he already said he wants to look into this case, there’s something he wants to tell us?

USEC. ABELLA: I don’t know exactly what he wants in this case. He hasn’t verbalized it. He hasn’t verbalized anything on the matter, so I defer to his decision.

WEBB: What is your reaction though that you have an Ombudsman saying she’s going to block moves to turn Janet Lim Napoles into a state witness, and then you have the DOJ saying we’re likely to find ways—

USEC. ABELLA: Well, these are two separate branches of government so—the Ombudsman, you know, quite free, you know, to express her openness regarding the matter. But however, I do trust that the DOJ Secretary will be able to do what he says he will do.

WEBB: So you support, government supports, obviously, the move of Secretary Vit Aguirre, sir?

USEC. ABELLA: I wouldn’t know if I say support. I would just say that I would defer to him.

WEBB: Okay. Russia, the President is going to go to Russia. When? And I understand, sir, that you are going to be with him too?

USEC. ABELLA: Yes. Well, I don’t know about the weather. Yeah, but it will be a quite interesting thing.

WEBB: When are you leaving, sir? When is the team, the delegation leaving?

USEC. ABELLA: Next Tuesday, I think, 26th. It will be a 6-day trip, I think.

WEBB: Okay. Sir, ilan ho kayo in the delegation, the usual suspects?

USEC. ABELLA: The usual suspects, I suppose. And as far as I know, well, the last time, Secretary Lisa Masa joined us in China. And again, I think she’ll be joining us in Russia.

WEBB:  What are you expecting from this trip, sir?

USEC. ABELLA: I don’t know if there’s anything too much to be expected in terms of signing or anything like that. Basically it will be, I think, just the President broadening his horizons, his international relations.

WEBB: And the President is already saying in the past that President Vladimir Putin is his idol, and they saw each other.

USEC. ABELLA: I think, there was a—it wasn’t featured. But I think, there must have been a meet up in the sidelines.

WEBB: Yeah, okay. Any news on that, sir? Did he say anything about that?

USEC. ABELLA: None. There were no comments regarding the matter.

WEBB: Okay. Sir, on Tuesday, it’s really maybe just strengthening friendship between the Philippines and Russia?

USEC. ABELLA: And of course, socio-economic ties, cultural ties.

WEBB: Yeah. But mayroon na ho bang ini-expect na, you know, deals that could possibly be signed, or which areas are we looking into?

USEC. ABELLA: I suppose economics. I suppose part of that is economics, maybe people to people exchange. That’s about as much that I can say.

WEBB: Okay. Secretary, on a last note. Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, I believe, has just been confirmed as Secretary of Department of Foreign Affairs. Just a reaction, sir?

USEC. ABELLA: He’s been doing a great job. He’s representing.

WEBB: What happens to the acting secretary?

USEC. ABELLA:  He’s still be part of the diplomatic corps. By the way, he also had done a great job, I’d just like to say that.

WEBB: All right, anything else you would like to add, Secretary?

USEC. ABELLA: None, except that have a great summer.

WEBB: And we wish you a safe trip to Russia, sir, and the whole delegation.

USEC. ABELLA: Thank you.

WEBB: Secretary Ernesto Abella, always a pleasure as I said. Thank you, sir.

USEC. ABELLA: Thank you.