The most memorable message to come out of the 26th Asean summit in Kuala Lumpur had nothing to do with our desire to get our Asean partners to take a common stand against China’s reclamation activities on the disputed islets and reefs in the South China/West Philippine Sea.
Our success in that area lies in our having been able to tell the world what we wanted Asean to do before we had any chance of asking anyone, in private, to do it. In this unorthodox way of doing diplomacy, we were a spectacular success. No statement from the summit matched or supported our prodigious press releases on the subject.
But the most memorable message associated with our presence in KL was a playful tweet from Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which instantly went viral on Facebook, about the Asean heads of government standing together on stage for their ceremonial picture-taking and waiting for the only missing participant, our very own B. S. Aquino 3rd. PNoy managed to steal the show from everybody else just by turning up late for this final photo op.
Punctuality is the duty of equals, the courtesy of princes, the politeness of kings. But PNoy had to answer the call of nature, said his spokesman Sonny Coloma, and he was late for the photo op for less than a minute. So from Malacanang’s point of view, no big deal. But it must have been a very long minute for Lee to have reacted. The prime minister was presumably still in mourning following the recent death of his father, the great Lee Kuan Yew, and could not have been in such an exacting mood. But such obviously is his character and training that he could not resist reacting to PNoy’s unseemly behavior. Imagine if he had been a Filipino and had to endure PNoy’s normally delayed response to natural and man-made calamities!
Did PNoy apologize for his fumble? Did Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario or the Philippine ambassador to Kuala Lumpur (or to the other Asean countries) apologize on his behalf? I hope that in one short seizure of humility, or one temporary loss of hubris, Aquino managed to whisper something to the ear of his host. But there was no sign of it.
Had he failed to do so, it is not too late for the Foreign Office to send out a note verbale to the Asean governments saying that Aquino wasn’t being rude when he failed to apologize, he was just being himself.
He has never been known to apologize for anything in his life — not for the death of eight Hong Kong tourists in Manila, not for the massacre of 44 Special Action Force police commandos under his command at Mamasapano, not for the rampant corruption and hypocrisy that have made a fool of those who took seriously his slogan about his so-called “daang matuwid” (straight and narrow path).
It took former president Joseph Ejercito Estrada, after his election as mayor of Manila in 2013, to formally apologize to the Hong Kong government for the death of the eight Hong Kong tourists in a 2010 Manila bus hijacking incident. Since no public official may have the courage to apologize this time on PNoy’s behalf, I would like to offer a citizen’s apology to our Asean friends in my humble name as a Filipino and other Filipinos who may have felt diminished by PNoy’s conduct.
No one has asked me to speak for anybody else, but I believe we all have a duty to speak for ourselves and ask others not to judge our country and people on the basis of the misconduct of our bumbling president.
Why do our neighbors manage their conflicts with China better?
I feel genuinely sorry that we are not much better represented, as we deserve to be, in the Asean, the APEC and everywhere else. I feel genuinely diminished each time I listen to our officials on issues that need a deeper understanding of humanity, the moral order, the common good and the national interest.
Take China, for instance. Our geographical situation puts us in maritime conflict with China over some reefs, islets and shoals in the South China/West Philippine Sea. This is a serious conflict we must resolve, but we cannot do it now, and we cannot do it by war. We need to resolve it by peaceful means with the help of our neighbors. And we need patience and time.
Now, why have our neighbors like Malaysia and Vietnam managed to run their conflict with China better, while we have succeeded in creating so much bellicose noises each time our officials open their mouths on anything? Why do our officials seem to believe that our poorly armed country could engage this emerging economic, political and military giant in armed hostilities, and that the United States, our longtime Pacific ally, could finish whatever hostilities we start to the last American? Why do we seem to believe that our government, with its near-zero capability to defend our national sovereignty and territorial integrity, will ultimately decide who between China and the US will prevail in the competition for sphere-of-influence in the Asia Pacific?
Aquino’s deliberate effort to avoid mentioning Sabah
These are some of the thoughts that could have occupied PNoy’s mind before that last photo op in Kuala Lumpur. But there was no sign they ever did. In the bilaterals with Prime Minister Najib Razak, which he should have exploited to the hilt, if they had any bilaterals, he should have explored the possibility of reopening talks on the most important issue between Malaysia and the Philippines. The Philippine rights to Sabah, which has resurfaced in the public debate on the proposed peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Malaysian-backed Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
But as in all of Aquino’s previous meetings with Razak, there seemed to be a deliberate effort to avoid mentioning Sabah, despite the Lahad Datu incident in which so many followers of the Sultan of Sulu who wanted to talk about Sabah were exterminated by the Malaysian armed forces. The last time the Sabah issue was discussed was in the 1968 Bangkok talks, which ended in a stalemate. Since then the elephant in the room has simply grown bigger. One question no one has asked Aquino before, during, or after Kuala Lumpur is this: Why is the Aquino government so eager to risk so much in trying to pursue its claims against China over some small reefs, shoals and islets in the Spratlys, but quite unwilling to assert its rights on Sabah, which is one of the region’s largest minerals-rich islands, inhabited by many native Filipinos from the outermost Southern Philippine islands?
The other question which Aquino seems mortally afraid to answer is this: Is the proposed Bangsamoro political entity, which Malaysia and several foreign powers are so determined to steamroll, through their proxies in the Philippines, not intended to consolidate Malaysia’s control over the resources of the Islamic areas in Sabah and Southern Philippines, in order to bury the Philippine rights to Sabah forever?
We would like these questions answered now.