Imelda-built Coconut Palace takes ASEAN Summit spotlight

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 29 2017 04:12 PM | Updated as of Apr 29 2017 05:33 PM

Southeast Asian leaders (L-R) Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc, Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith pose for a family photo during the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Manila, Philippines April 29, 2017. Erik De Castro, Reuters

MANILA - For long a venue rented out for private affairs, the opulent Coconut Palace in Pasay City had last seen state functions when former Vice President Jejomar Binay made it his official residence until last year.

On Saturday, the elegant, tropical-themed state house by the Manila Bay set the stage for the money shot at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) annual leaders' meet: the iconic “family photo” of the bloc’s 10 leaders, arms locked in a chain as a symbol of enduring cooperation.

Malacañang dusted off the P1.2-billion Coconut Palace at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Complex for the luncheon and retreat among ASEAN leaders as the Duterte administration made its debut hosting of the regional meet.

It was the first time in recent history that the palace, commissioned as a guest house by former First Lady Imelda Marcos between 1978 and 1981, was used as venue for an international event.

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said the ASEAN National Organizing Committee, led by its Director-General for Operations Ambassador Marciano Paynor Jr., made the decision to include the Palace as one of the venues for this year's ASEAN hosting.

“I am not sure about the rationale of Ambassador Paynor. But one thing I know is that the events were organized on this side of town,” Andanar told ABS-CBN News.

The Coconut Palace is located right across the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC), also built during the Marcos time. The PICC served as venue for the ASEAN opening ceremonies and summit Saturday morning, just before leaders proceeded to the guest house.

“Tabi-tabi (the venues are close to each other) to avoid traffic. Security was also taken into consideration. ‘Di mahirap bantayan, madaling pumunta sa airport (It’s not hard to secure, it’s easy to go to the airport)… It’s just very convenient for everyone,” Andanar said.

He said the administration made sure that the Philippines showcased its hosting flair during the ASEAN events, noting the country’s economic standing.

“Best foot forward, because it’s the 50th ASEAN [anniversary], we’re the chairman, [there’s] international media covering. [It’s the] first time (for the administration to host), and we have a GDP (gross domestic product) [growth] of 6.8 to 6.9 percent, the fastest growing [economy] in Asia, one of the fastest in the world,” Andanar said.

“You really have to show the rest of the world that you are competitive, that you can deliver these kinds of events,” he said.

The Tahanang Pilipino (Filipino Home), better known as "the Coconut Palace", is pictured in Manila on March 29, 2010 in Philippines. Commissioned in 1981 by former First Lady Imelda Marcos for Pope John Paul II's visit, however, the pope declined the offer, saying that it was too ostentatious a place to stay while in the poverty-stricken Philippines. Lionel Bonaventure, AFP

Political analyst Richard Heydarian saw practicality rather than symbolism behind the choice of the Imelda-built guest house as an ASEAN venue.

“My hunch is that accessibility and logistical practicality was the main driver, rather than a subtle effort to promote the legacy of the Marcoses, notwithstanding the tremendously cozy relationship between the President and the former First Lady,” said Heydarian.

Duterte is known to be friends with the Marcos family, as his late father Vicente served under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ cabinet. In November, Marcos was buried in secrecy-shrouded ceremonies at the Libingan ng mga Bayani after Duterte allowed the controversial and much-protested interment.

Imelda Marcos, the former First Lady, was among those invited at the tightly guarded ASEAN opening ceremonies at the PICC on Saturday, seated alongside former and incumbent officials.

Analyst Manolo Quezon also said as much, citing the convenience of using the Palace as an ASEAN venue.

“It’s really a long underutilized asset. Since EDSA (the 1986 EDSA People Power revolt, which ousted Marcos), the government has rented it out for events anyway aside from the period it was used as official residence of VP, who rehabilitated it,” he told ABS-CBN News.

“From a security point of view, it’s very practical because the area is more easily secured. It may be the first time it is being used for an important government event since it was built in the Marcos era, however,” he said.

As then First Lady, Imelda Marcos had the Palace built for Pope Saint John Paul II’s 1981 visit, commissioning architect Francisco Mañosa for the project. The pontiff refused to use the guest house as he found it extravagant.

The Palace features stately dining and living rooms, seven bedrooms, and a swimming pool at its expansive backyard that offers a panoramic view of Manila Bay. It is known to house a mural by renowned Filipino artist Araceli Dans and poster beds designed by national artist Napoleon Abueva.

Upon the dictator’s ouster in 1986, it had been rented out for private affairs such as weddings and other events. It was also opened to tours.

In 2010, then Vice President Jejomar Binay used the Palace as his office and residence for a P500,000 monthly rent. Incumbent Vice President Leni Robredo opted against holding office at the guest house due to the high cost.