Notorious for spitting fire on controversial issues and against her detractors, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago tails in the presidential race.
By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Of the five candidates for president, Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago has made the strongest stand for Philippine sovereignty. Even before she declared her candidacy, Santiago had criticized defense agreements with the US that engendered Philippine dependence on America’s military might, such as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (Edca).
She has also been hailed by various environmentalist groups to have the “greenest” track record among the candidates. She is the only one without a link to a big mining company, and had promised to stand pat against the entry of more mining companies.
Santiago, 70, has a long list of awards for academic excellence and public service, having served as a regional trial court judge, chief of the Commission on Immigration and Deportation, agrarian reform secretary, and three-term senator. She was also elected to a prestigious international position as judge to the United Nations International Criminal Court (ICC).
As a student at the University of the Philippines, she was the first female editor-in-chief of the Philippine Collegian, and has a doctorate on juridical science from an American university.
Santiago has written some 30 books, on law and social sciences, and her most recent humour books, Stupid is Forever and
But in spite of all her shining credentials, the popular Santiago is tailing in the polls. She also seemed to have lost steam, specially when it comes to her stand on human rights.
On her second try for the presidency, Santiago paired up with Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., son and namesake of the dictator whose 20-year reign was one of the darkest times in the country.Ironically, she was one of the first trial court judges who defied the Marcos dictatorship when she ordered the release and dismissal of the cases against activists who were arrested and detained for holding a rally against the dictatorship, including the late directors Lino Brocka and Behn Cervantes.
Now, she is even defending the son of the dictator Marcos for his lack of remorse for the human rights violations and brutalities of martial law. She has said that she is okay with giving the late dictator a hero’s burial in the Libingan ng mga Bayani, but in the last presidential debate on April 24, she said this should be decided by the majority in a national referendum.
She also agrees to allow house arrest for former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who is under hospital arrest for electoral fraud, and has yet to be held accountable for more than 1,000 victims of extrajudicial killings, 200 enforced disappearances and other grave human rights violations during her nine-year term.
In 2014, Santiago was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer and had to take a medical leave from the senate, including from her work as ICC judge. But she surprised the public when she returned even feistier and aiming for the presidency. And even during her leave, Santiago filed bills to protect the rights of various sectors.
On the rights of lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender, Santiago, in her past terms, filed bills to ban gay marriage in the country. But she recently filed two bills to protect LGBTs from discrimination in employment, education, and social services: Senate Bill 1559, also known as the Anti-Sexual Orientation Discrimination bill, and Senate Bill 1871, creating LGBT protection desks in all police stations.
As head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Santiago led a senate investigation on the 2014 killing of Filipina transgender Jennifer Laude by American service man Joseph Scott Pemberton who participated in the PH-US Balikatan exercises.
In 2013, she filed a bill to protect the rights of workers in business process outsourcing (BPO), the proposed Magna Carta for Call Center Agents, which includes protecting the right to organize and form unions.
Last year, she filed Senate Bill 1913 that seeks to amend the Labor Code and ban companies from contracting out services performed by union members, or even threatening to do so.
As agrarian secretary during the first Aquino regime, Santiago pushed for compulsory acquisition of lands to be covered by the Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). This replaced the Voluntary Offered to Sell (VOS) scheme which was riddled with anomalous transactions.
She also supervised the referendum in Hacienda Luisita, in which farm workers overwhelmingly voted to approve the Stock Distribution Option (SDO), twice. Santiago, however, was of the opinion that the SDO violates the equal protection provision of the Constitution.
“The general rule is for land to be taken away from the landlord and given to the farmers. Why should there be an arbitrary exception for the Cojuangco hacienda?” she said in a 2005 news report, after the DAR decided to scrap the SDO in Luisita.
Santiago’s stint in DAR was cut short after she commented that Pres. Corazon Aquino should inhibit herself as chairperson of the Presidential Agrarian Reform Council (PARC) which gives final approval to Luisita’s SDO. Aquino sacked her from the Cabinet.
Despite her being a strict constitutionalist when it comes to issues of sovereignty, Santiago is open to amending the Philippine Constitution to reduce restrictions on foreign ownership.
“The first best solution is to amend the restrictive provisions in the Philippine Constitution which have discouraged the entry of foreign investors into the country. Compared to its ASEAN-6 counterparts, the Philippines has attracted the least Foreign Direct Investments. That is proof enough that we are lagging behind,” she said.
Last year, she led 14 senators in passing a senate resolution which expressed that the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the US and the Philippines ( Edca) requires senate ratification, just like the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which was approved by the Senate in 1999. She had also called for the review, if not abrogation of the VFA.
During the first Aquino administration when she was CID chief, Santiago became known as a “graft buster” for flushing out corrupt officials and employees, for which she received a Ramon Magsaysay award. Ironically, at the height of the 2001 ouster campaign against President Joseph Estrada, she took the side of the unpopular president, who was accused of amassing wealth from jueteng and corrupt deals.
Notorious for flaunting her intelligence, explosive temper and sharp wit in lashing at her detractors, she belittled the evidence against Estrada, and swore to jump off a plane without a parachute if he gets arrested for plunder. When the ousted president was later arrested, Santiago promptly laughed it off, with her memorable soundbite: “I lied!”
When she first ran for president in 1992, Santiago garnered 19 percent of the votes, being popular among the youth and middle class. She claimed she was cheated as she lost to former Armed Forces Chief of Staff Fidel V. Ramos, who got 23 percent of the votes, the smallest plurality gained by an elected president.
In 1998, she again ran for president, but lost to Joseph Estrada, ranking seventh among 10 candidates.
Twenty-four years later, Santiago may no longer have a shot at the highest post, but with her brilliant mind and bold stand on pressing issues in the country, she remains an important voice in Philippine politics.