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Aquino spokespersons worsening Taiwan row


It was bound to happen, with the arrogance of President Aquino’s two spokespersons, Edwin Lacierda and his deputy Abigail Valte, who sources in Malacanang say hardly consult with their boss for their daily press briefings. They had been getting away with their mostly off-the-cuff, often non sequitur statements regarding domestic issues, thanks to a docile Malacanang Press Corps.

We suffer the consequences when their unstudied, pompous words are taken as official statements of the Republic of the Philippines, and that’s understandable since they are officially speaking for the President. That is exactly what happened in the wake of Taiwan’s anger over the fatal shooting of its fishermen by the Philippine Coast Guard in disputed waters.

Aquino’s “personal envoy”, Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) chairman Amadeo Perez (more on him below), reported that “the Philippine government’s apology was seen in Taiwan to be insincere because presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte smiled when she made the public announcement three days ago.” It wasn’t really a smile but more of a smirk, a trademark facial expression of Valte’s whenever she thinks she made a witty reply.

The government statement on Taiwan’s threat to ban Filipino workers there could have been a calming one, for example: ‘The Philippines appeals to Taiwan to reconsider their proposed sanctions until a full investigation of the incident is completed.”

Instead Valte in effect dared them to do so: “This is not the first time that we’ve dealt with this sort of sanction and the labor department has been looking into alternative markets.”

That go-ahead-make-my-day reply was also that of chief spokesperson Lacierda, who even “double-dared’ the Taiwanese by saying that the sanction would also hurt Taiwan, especially its airlines.

It was Lacierda who first made the response that infuriated Taiwan. Rather than say that a full investigation would be undertaken (as Aquino later ordered the National Bureau of Investigation to do so), Lacierda justified the killing as part of the country’s “fisheries law enforcement operation within our waters.” (Emphasis mine.) Lacierda was obviously ignorant of that law of the sea that goes back centuries, which states, in so many words, that an armed ship or boat should never ever fires on an unarmed, especially civilian, boat.

Lacierda even emphasized that “the incident happened within our exclusive economic zone and there is no dispute to that effect.” That immediately raised the incident to a level of sovereignty issue, with Lacierda in effect saying that the Philippines Coast Guard had all the right to fire on the Taiwanese fisherman since they entered our exclusive economic zone. Taiwan officials at least are claiming that the incident happened in an area where the two countries’ exclusive economic zone overlap.

Another misstep by the Aquino government was made by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, when she refused to even see Taiwanese officials sent to investigate the incident, saying that the Philippines “is a sovereign nation and that it has its own processes.” That’s misplaced nationalist arrogance.

Of course the Philippines has its own processes, but that is not the point. Given the gravity of the situation—the livelihood of 100,000 Filipinos working in Taiwan at stake, among others—and given the fact that a Taiwanese fishermen, for whatever reason, was killed, de Lima should have agreed to involve the Taiwanese officials if only as observers. The American Federal Bureau of Investigation in fact has even undertaken many joint investigations with the NBI and the Philippine National Police not only of incidents involving Americans killed in the country, but also in other cases as the alleged hacking by Filipino Muslim terrorists of a US telecoms firm website.

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Aquino and even Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario seem ignorant of that tenet in diplomacy, that it is the messenger, and not even the message, that is crucial. With the row becoming so bad, and with even Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou himself—for whatever ulterior domestic political motives—speaking against the Philippines on the killing of his country’s fisherman, who does Aquino send as his “personal envoy” to Taiwan?

Amadeo Perez, chairman of the de facto embassy to Taiwan called—in order to comply with our one-China policy —the MECO. But it was his job in the first place to have accompanied his subordinate the resident representative in Taiwan Antonio Basilio, who apologized over the incident to the Taiwanese minister of foreign affairs, and even visited the victim’s family.

But maybe Amadeo Perez has the gravitas to be Aquino’s personal envoy, as in the case of US Senator Paul Laxalt, President Reagan’s envoy who told Marcos “to cut and cut cleanly?” Perez though is a “small-time” provincial politician controlling Urdaneta City in Pangasinan, who is not at all close to Aquino. He was congressman (1992-2001) of Pangasinan’s 5th district and, after that, mayor of Urdaneta for three terms.

The two top MECO officials are rumored to have been given their posts in payment for a political debt owed to a major power player. It is also said that they serve as a conduit of MECO-generated funds to the ruling party. In any case, the entity is officially a private non-stock firm that the Commission on Audit does not audit.

“Perez a personal envoy of PNoy?” one local politician rhetorically asked. “I would believe it if you said Danding Cojuangco’s.”

Why in the world would the Taiwanese consider him as Aquino’s personal envoy sent to them with the message that the Philippines sincerely wants to settle the problem? No wonder even the hotel in Taipei where Perez and his associates were booked refused to take them in even for a night, and a cheaper hotel they got threw them out the next day.

Who should act as Aquino’s personal envoy? Well, it wouldn’t have been demeaning for him, nor would it break protocol if he spoke out, as the Taiwanese president had done, on the issue. Aquino should have gone on TV and radio not to apologize but to assure the Taiwanese that a full investigation would be undertaken, inviting the Taiwanese to send in observers for good mesure.

Or he could have sent to Taiwan his sidekick cum troubleshooter Mar Roxas or even Vice President Jejomar Binay, who after all heads the government’s Task Force on Overseas Filipino Workers.

Oops, I forgot. The two were busy in the elections, and why in the world would Aquino ask the leader of the opposition party to help settle the dispute and be the hero of OFWs in Taiwan?