What if they threw a state dinner and everybody came? In the case of the Philippines’ reception for US President Barack Obama, that would mean a guest list with plenty of colour.
Two former presidents (one of them a convicted plunderer), a dictator’s son, a martial law enforcer and a serial coup plotter were among those who sat down with Obama at Monday’s state dinner hosted by President Benigno Aquino.
During the dinner, Obama paid tribute to Aquino’s parents, Ninoy and Cory, and their sacrifices that “the nation might be free” of the martial law dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos.
Seated nearby was the dead dictator’s son, Ferdinand Marcos (Bongbong) Jnr, currently a senator. Near him was Senator Juan Ponce Enrile, notorious for being the elder Marcos’s right-hand man. Enrile is currently being prosecuted by government for allegedly taking part in a plot to steal billions of pesos in public “pork barrel” funds. The younger Marcos is also being investigated by the Office of the Ombudsman for the same scam.
Obama praised Aquino, saying, “you bear the scars of those who would have taken this nation backwards.” He was referring to five bullet wounds Aquino suffered during an ambush in one coup attempt in 1987. That putsch was led by yet another one of the dinner guests, Senator Gringo Honasan, who masterminded many bloody military uprisings that killed hundreds of Filipinos.
The coups were all attempts to install dinner guest Enrile as president. Honasan was pardoned by another one of the dinner attendees, former President Fidel Ramos, who has frequently criticized President Aquino’s foreign policy handling of the South China Sea dispute
Apart from Ramos there was another former president at the dinner, Joseph Estrada, who was chased out of office in 2001, then tried and sentenced to 30 years for plunder. He was pardoned by yet another surviving ex-president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Ms Arroyo could not make it to the dinner: she’s been under hospital arrest since 2010, also charged with the crime of plunder.
It was the first time Estrada had set foot in the palace in an official capacity since his ouster. His presence provoked a Facebook comment from arts and culture writer John Silva: “Convicted plunderer and pardoned Joseph Estrada is at the presidential table in the state dinner for President Obama. How screwy is that? Why don’t you just invite Gloria Arroyo too while you’re at it!”
Others chimed in, recalling how Estrada, as a senator, voted to reject a new agreement on US bases in 1991, leading to their closure. He even starred in an anti-US bases film called Sa Kuko ng Agila (In the Eagle’s Claw).
But politicians with checkered pasts did not comprise the entire guest list. President Aquino’s sister Kris, a hugely popular celebrity, was in attendance, joined talk show host Boy Abunda and Joanne Rae Ramirez, editor of People Asia magazine. Ms Aquino sported a new “pixie cut” bobbed hairdo.
In his short speech, Obama noted what Filipinos and Americans have in common. “There is our mutual obsession with basketball, there is our mutual admiration for [boxer] Manny Pacquiao, even if sometimes his fight against Americans doesn’t turn out the way we’d like.” Pacquiao was not present at the dinner.
Entertainment was provided by local artists and, surprisingly, by three cabinet members - Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, Secretary to the Cabinet Jose Rene Almendras and Public Works Secretary Rogelio Singson. The trio belted out one of Obama’s favourite songs - Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece “What’s Going On”
The surprise musical number prompted Zerline Go Trinidad-Balleque to post wryly on Facebook, “Imelda’s parties come to mind,” referring to the former dictator Marcos’ widow who held notoriously lavish parties in the same venue.