MANILA, Philippines – It came as a surprise to most people, including Senator Leila De Lima herself, that President Rodrigo Duterte himself came up to her on Monday, July 25, before his first State of the Nation Address.
Duterte, who was on his way to the podium, was seen taking a look at De Lima, who was seated with senators on the front row. After walking slightly past the senator, Duterte took a step back and greeted no less than one of his biggest critics in the Senate.
“Siyempre nagulat ako…Di ko naman siya napansin na talagang halos tumitingin. Medyo sumulyap lang. And then I didn’t even know also how to show my face so ngumiti lang ako nang konti and then lumagpas na nga siya nang kaunti. Bumalik (siya) at he extended his hand. Siyempre nagulat ako,” De Lima told reporters on Tuesday, July 26.
(Of course, I was suprised. I didn't notice that he was looking. He just kind of looked my way. And then And then I didn't even know also how to show my face so I just smiled a little and then he walked slightly past me. He came back and extended his hand. Of course, I was surprised.)
She added: “I shook his hand. He didn’t say anything he just looked at me straight in the eye and with a little smile and so I smiled and I could only say ‘Hi Sir.’”
Asked if she saw Duterte’s reaction after shaking her hand, De Lima said the President was just being his usual playful self.
“Nag-make face sya. Childish smirk. Kasama lang yan sa kapilyuhan niya, sabi ng mga fellow Bedans pilyo talaga yan noon pa,” De Lima said.
(He made a face, a childish smirk. It's just part of his playfulness, according to our fellow Bedans.)
It was only the 3rd time the two apparent rivals met face to face. The first two instances were not good memories for the two of them. The first one, De Lima said, was when the Department of Justice conducted an investigation into the supposedly Duterte-backed Davao Death Squad.
The next one was when they met during the Senate investigation into the alleged rice smuggling, where De Lima, then justice secretary, expressed outrage over Duterte's statements that he was ready to kill alleged smuggler Davidson Bangayan.
For De Lima, Duterte’s act was a “warm, friendly” gesture that served as an icebreaker between them.
“I take it positively in the sense na (that) it could be a warm friendly gesture, sort of an icebreaker. He tried to dispel some notion that we are ‘mortal enemies.’”
It is a sign, De Lima said, that there is no personal feud between them, as she maintained she is just doing her job.
“I think he just also wants to show the people na kahit nagkakadiperensya kami (even if we had differences) on certain issues, as a matter of principle also, I have my own beliefs, I have my own advocacies, he has his own principles, beliefs, and advocacies for governance pero walang personalan (but nothing personal),” De Lima said.
Both De Lima and Duterte are graduates of the San Beda College of Law – she obtained her law degree in 1985. De Lima said there are schoolmates who want to facilitate their reconciliation.
“I think there are certain efforts. There are efforts by certain Bedans doing that, but well, let's see. Alam naman ho siguro ni President na ginagawa po natin ang trabaho ko,” she said. (The President maybe knows that I'm just doing my job.)
Some Bedans, she said, have expressed concern over the public perception that the two are political rivals – something that De Lima denies.
“There are schoolmates that expressed certain concern na bakit daw pareho kaming Bedans and yet tingin sa amin talagang magkaaway kami (that we are both Bedans and yet others think we are enemies). Ganun lang impression ng karamihan (That's just the impression of many). I’m supposed to be his nemesis…na sobra kaming magkaaway (that we are really enemies). That’s the common impression, but our fellow Bedans know that’s not the case,” De Lima said.
The encounter during the SONA may be pleasantly surprising for some, including De Lima herself, but she vowed to continue her role as a lawmaker. As “fiscalizer”, she is keen on continuing the Senate investigation into the recent spate of drug killings in the country.
Prior to being senator and justice secretary, De Lima was appointed head of the Commission on Human Rights by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.