MANILA, Philippines - It has become a deadly combination: guns, controversy, and the President's men. This time, the one under fire is Secretary Ronald Llamas, the presidential political adviser whose AK-47 the public saw on national TV after his car figured in an accident Friday. The incident provided ammunition for President Benigno Aquino III's critics, and raised questions for an administration gunning for change.
The accident occurred when Llamas's black Mitsubishi Montero crashed into a truck at about 3 a.m. last Friday along Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City. TV cameras caught an AK-47 underneath the driver's seat. Llamas’s office later explained that the two staff members used the vehicle for personal purposes and have been ordered dismissed. (Llamas was in Geneva at the time of the accident.)
Reactions ranged from the typical to the circumspect. "If a member of the Arroyos is involved in an alleged crime, they immediately talk about jail time and charges are filed at once. If allies are involved, they are absolved," said lawyer Raul Lambino, legal spokesman of former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Gabriela Rep. Luzviminda Ilagan urged Malacañang to show moral ascendancy.
To all the criticism, the Palace and Llamas's line was this: No laws were violated, the gun was licensed, his safety was under threat.
Observers argue though that the debate goes beyond legalities to propriety, Aquino rhetoric versus action, and how Malacañang treats its own.
From wang-wang to bang-bang
In trumpeting his daang matuwid (straight and narrow path), Aquino famously used thewang-wang (siren) as a metaphor for the abusive governance he opposes. In Llamas' case, the image and sound were not lost on critics.
Alliance of Concerned Teachers Rep. Antonio Tinio said Aquino's officials are not only "utak wang-wang" but also "utak bang-bang." Another party-list representative, Teddy Casiño of Bayan Muna, said Llamas's possession of a high-powered firearm sends the message that government officials enjoy special privileges. "The fact na hindi karaniwang tao ang pwedeng magdala ng AK na ganyan and siyempre very conscious tayo sa sinasabing ibang klaseng tao ka 'pag mataas na opisyal ka." (If you're an ordinary person, you cannot carry an AK and of course, we are very conscious of the impression that if you're a high-ranking official, your'e a different kind of person.)
Upon his arrival Monday from a United Nations meeting in Geneva, Llamas explained that he has been receiving death threats since April. He believes his work on sensitive issues like the ARMM elections, and investigating the past administration may have threatened some people. He said suspicious vehicles were parked near his house, and one even tailed him while he was picking up his daughter from school.
In media interviews, Llamas said he bought the AK-47 in June and formally asked the police for protection in September. Yet he admitted that he has four other guns, some of which he has had for 20 years as a former gun enthusiast. He said all of his firearms are licensed.
The presidential adviser denied allegations of special treatment and double standards. "Actually, noong panahon ni Erap (former President Joseph Estrada), lahat pwede. Nagbago iyan noong panahon ni Arroyo, ang pwede mga handgun sa mga karaniwang tao, at kung may mga high government officials, nasa discretion ng PNP kung sila ay bibigyan (ng high-powered firearms). Sumunod naman kami sa mga procedures na iyan." (In the time of President Joseph Estrada, all citizens were allowed to carry guns. That changed in Arroyo's time, ordinary people can carry only handguns and if there are high government officials, it's the discretion of the PNP if they will be given high-powered firearms. We followed those procedures.)
In an interview on GMA7, Casiño said a threat to security is always a convenient reason to acquire arms. "Hanggang saan tayo titigil sa ganyang kaisipang bangbang na tinatawag? Ang mga may private army sa probinsya iyan din ang sasabihin sa iyo, 'Kailangan mayprivate army ako kasi may threat sa akin.'" (Where will we stop with this bangbang mentality? Those with private armies in the provinces will tell you the same thing, "I need a private army because there are threats to my security.)
Llamas and his office were also accused of a cover-up. TV reports show that after the accident, two men arrived on the scene and took the rifle, bullet-proof vests and other belongings from the car.
Critics said this smacks of irregularity because a scene of a crime or accident should not be touched.
Llamas explained the rationale of his staff’s decision. "May crowd doon sa unang instinct, i-secure ang mga gamit sa loob. Alas 3 ng umaga iyon, tulog pa ang aking senior staff so wala sila to give guidance .... Wala pang kapulisan noong dumating sila doon kaya dinala saPNP." (There was a crowd so the first instinct was to secure the possessions inside the car. It was 3 in the morning, my senior staff was asleep and were not there to give guidance. There was no police yet when they arrived so they brought the car to the PNP.)
Llamas said his office will cooperate with police investigation but some people are skeptical.
In his "Teditorial on ANC," former congressman, broadcaster and speechwriter Teddy Boy Locsin said, "He should have left them and the weapons they carried, and the police should have taken them all to jail... His men should face what any of us would be facing if we were stupid with this thing they have about guns: the inescapable penalty of illegal possession of firearms."
But Llamas has called on the public to focus instead on the political reforms the administration is pushing for but Locsin already wrote him off.
"This man is history before he is even current events," said the wordsmith. "Until this incident, Llamas was known to nobody. I even got his name wrong. I called him Ricky."
KKK all over again?
Reacting to Malacañang's statements, others fear the President may be going too soft on his allies as he has done with his so-called Kaklase, Kaibigan at Kabarilan (KKK).
There was Interior Undersecretary Rico Puno who Aquino spared in the Manila hostage crisis. Another was former Bureau of Corrections Chief Ernesto Diokno whose resignation over lapses in Bilibid Aquino described as honorable. Virginia Torres remains head of the Land Transportation Office even after interfering in the Stradcom dispute.
Rep. Ilagan wants Aquino to look closer into Llamas's liability. "Yes, we have to protect ourselves from the death threats but nobody should be beyond the rules of pronouncements of the President. Public officials should follow the rules they themselves have established."
Aquino was set to meet with Llamas Tuesday afternoon. The Secretary said he doubts he lost his boss' trust and caused him to be unpopular. "The President, what he stands for is much bigger than one of the parts like me," he told Karen Davila’s “Headstart” on ANC.
But like it or not, this incident leads Aquino's bosses to look to the President, and assess if his chosen officials are indeed top guns or—pardon the pun—mere gun-toters.