SANTA ROSA CITY — During the February 23 visit of President Rodrigo Duterte to Biñan City, Ronald Gian Carlo Cardema was among the cheering crowd of supporters of the administration’s Partido Demokratiko ng Pilipinas-Lakas ng Bayan. Outside, far from the party’s campaign rally, a few militant students and workers gathered to protest Duterte’s bloody crackdown on illegal drugs and the imposition of martial law in Mindanao.
Cardema, the National Youth Commission (NYC) chairman, donned a dark-collared shirt, his hair styled just like a soldier’s, his demeanor no different from the way he carried himself years ago when he studied Biology at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. After the Biñan event, he was seen with Ilocos governor Imee Marcos, who is vying for a Senate seat under Duterte’s party.
To people who know him and his brief activist background, the sight of him hobnobbing with the late dictator’s daughter — who remains unapologetic about the sins of her family during the dictatorship — must have rankled. People may rightfully feel insulted that he is now also a very loyal supporter of Duterte.
“He used to be a humble and principled man,” Leo Fuentes, former UPLB student council chairmain, told Laguna Now. “We used to share some ideas for the country and (agree) how the system needs to be reformed.”
Supporters of Cardema might argue that he has not repudiated his progressive ideals but that he is taking part in reform in his own way, foremost by supporting the vision of President Duterte. People change all the time, although watching Cardema doing a closed-fist salute reminiscent of the one by the Hitler Youth — which apparently was the inspiration for Cardema’s group called Duterte Youth — can be quite discomfiting. And for him to parade the streets at night carrying tiki torches, as neo-Nazis often do, adds to the uneasiness.
A native of Calamba City, Cardema finished high school at the Maquiling School Inc. (MSI), a nonstock and nonprofit school with a campus inside UPLB. A group of MSI alumni recently petitioned that a tarpaulin congratulating Cardema for his appointment to the NYC in August 2018 be taken down, following Cardema’s controversial statements asking the government to cut scholarship funding for schools known for activism.
His exact words were: “As chairman of the National Youth Commission, I am requesting our head of government, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, to issue an executive order removing the government scholarships of all anti-government scholars, specifically those students who are allied with the leftist CPP-NPA-NDF (Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army-National Democratic Front), a terrorist group that is trying to overthrow the Philippine government and killing our government troops.”
The proposal drew the ire of lawmakers, a few cabinet secretaries, and activist groups. Cardema tried to remedy the backlash by saying he was not referring “to all” student protesters but only those who took up arms to join the rebels. He nevertheless refused to take back his words.
“This irresponsible statement proliferates an idea in contrast with (MSI’s) vision and mission, an exhibition of utter disregard for democracy and basic rights. We believe that Mr. Cardema is not setting a good example among the youth,” read the MSI alumni’s letter.
The school took down the tarpaulin, although MSI principal Mona Opaco said they had been planning to do so to give way to another school activity.
“Gian was my student before. This is just me, I’m not representing (MSI), but I think he did not put much thought when he said those things,” Opaco said. “It was offensive.”
After high school, Cardema joined the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) but was discharged in 2006. That same year, his uncle, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan-Southern Tagalog coordinator Noli Capulong, was gunned down in Calamba City and, in an open letter, Cardema blamed his death on the military.
Cardema then enrolled in UPLB where he became a member of the activist group League of Filipino Students (LFS). His stint with the leftist group is unremarkable. “He may have had other priorities then,” Fuentes recalled.
After about a year, Cardema was dismissed from UPLB after the university found out he had not been honorably discharged from the PMA.
Most loyal supporter
Cardema felt he was a “victim” of state persecution under former president and now House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Fuentes said. “We even campaigned against his (dismissal) from the UP Board of Regents,” he said. That Arroyo went on to become a key Duterte ally is another irony.
Several years later, Cardema would lead the Duterte Youth party-list organization, whose first nominee in the 2019 elections is his wife, Ducielle Marie D. Suarez.
Cardema brands himself as the #MostLoyalDuterteYouthLeader, a hashtag he would attach to several Facebook photos that showed him with Duterte or his “ninong and ninang” (godparents), former Duterte aide Bong Go, and Duterte’s daughter, Davao City mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio.
The LFS and other activist groups have since variously branded Cardema as a “dog,” “karerista,” and a “youth fascist.”
In the February 21 episode of the TV show “The Chiefs” on One News, Cardema said his having been on both sides — the military and the militants — put him in a better position as a youth advocate. “I think now, after what? 15 years? I think I understand how the leftist groups orient the students. I was a member of the (LFS), she was not a member of the military,” he said, referring to an activist in the audience during the interview.
Cardema said rebels recruit students by stoking their sense of nationalism and the problem comes in once they join the armed movement.
But what about activists or people like his uncle? asked journalist Ed Lingao, one of the hosts of the show. “No problem with that,” Cardemas replied, choking up on his own argument that street protests were an exercise of “democracy.” (Laguna Now)