I TRUST the State of Qatar and the Kingdom of Bahrain will not need to invade or be invaded by a third country just to take advantage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s gratuitous offer to send Filipino troops to fight for them. They should know what that offer is worth—nothing. The Philippines has such a middling, modestly equipped armed forces that it cannot possibly get involved in any foreign armed conflict of any magnitude. And it has its own mega problems. The communist New People’s Army, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, the Abu Sayyaf, the drug lords and crime lords, etc.
There are now 10 million Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs), many more are trafficked into crime and prostitution every day by various syndicates. But the country has yet to produce “mercenaries” (whether officially or unofficially) to rent out to interested parties. We may not have formally acceded to the treaty, but Protocol 1 of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 prohibits “mercenaries”, and our soldiers are not known to have the military prowess of the Gurkhas or the French Foreign Legion.
Secondly, PDU30 does not have the authority to dispatch troops to any foreign war, except for international peacekeeping through the UN process, and for treaty-based mutual defense between two or more security partners. The only mutual defense treaty we have is with the United States with a limited application. Although the US seems to have closer ties with Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia than China has, this doesn’t at all figure here. If any of the three countries were attacked, and DU30 would like to punish the aggressor out of gratitude for the hospitality they had extended to him during his recent state visits, Congress, not the President, will have to declare a state of war against the aggressor, invoking our highest national security interest. If the UN organizes a peacekeeping force and calls for volunteers, then and only then can DU30 and Congress talk of sending a military contingent.
Fighters for the Middle East?
This is the first time in the nation’s history that the President has offered to dispatch troops to fight unknown enemies in a war that doesn’t yet exist. From 1950 onwards, Filipino soldiers fought in the Korean war, and one of the combatants (Fidel V. Ramos) rose to become the 12th President of the Philippines. But during the Vietnam war, Ferdinand Marcos disappointed US President Lyndon Johnson at the Manila summit when he decided to send a mere civic action contingent instead of armed combatants.
In 2003, the Arroyo administration joined the “Coalition of the Willing” in support of the US invasion of Iraq. Then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was the first to proclaim support for President George W. Bush’s search for Saddam Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction,” which proved to be nonexistent. But in 2004, GMA withdrew from the coalition after the Iraqi resistance threatened to execute Angelo de la Cruz, a Filipino truck driver they had captured, if the Philippine contingent of 51 soldiers and police officers on the ground did not pull out. De la Cruz was released unharmed after the pullout.
In 2014, B.S. Aquino 3rd volunteered to help the US in its fight against IS. Then-Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who was earlier reported to have assured the US State Department and Pentagon that the Philippines would act as “the frontline state” in containing the rise of China in the Asia Pacific, sat down with State Department officials on the offer, but no results were announced. In all these instances, the adversaries were already known; in the case of DU30’s offer, the conflict did not yet exist, and the enemy was still unknown.
Apparently, the whole thing was the unintended consequence of pure exuberance. DU30 had to make a speech in Riyadh, Manama and Doha, and he did not have much to say to his audiences, so he wove together what he thought would most impress them. Hopefully, what he told them has now been forgotten, and his supporters and critics at home will now also forget and forgive him this unnecessary bloomer.
A Department for OFWs
Happily, there are at least two important initiatives DU30 could now focus on for the benefit of our 10 million OFWs and their dependents. One is the creation of a Department for OFWs, and the other is the establishment of an OFW Bank. These initiatives have long been in the pipeline. They were being pushed actively by then Vice President Jejomar C. Binay, in his capacity as presidential adviser on OFW concerns. I listened to numerous discussions on these during Binay’s travels to the Middle East from 2011 to 2012, when I had been asked to accompany him, and it is to DU30’s credit that he is now ready to implement them.
But the ideas must be fine-tuned. The creation of a Department for OFWs is a legislative undertaking. It is best carried out within the framework of a broad reorganization of government, which will affect the mandate of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the possible creation of a Department of Maritime Affairs to take primary responsibility for the length and breadth of our territorial waters. The care of OFWs has become the principal activity of Philippine diplomatic missions abroad, in areas where they exist and develop various problems needing government intervention. There is an undersecretary for Filipino migrants and overseas workers.
Here at home, the government is not obliged to provide a lawyer to a domestic worker who kills an abusive employer. But abroad, the government must provide legal assistance to such a worker. As of now, this responsibility is absorbed by the DFA and the Department of Labor. With the creation of a Department for OFWs, will the DFA and DOLE be relieved of their current responsibilities to migrant workers? How do we avoid the overlapping and organizational muddle? And how can foreign governments and other parties avoid a similar confusion?
As a rule, a government has only one face, one state body, that deals with other governments on every issue beyond its borders: the DFA or Ministry of External Affairs. This is why some governments like Canada have included “international trade” among the responsibilities of their DFA or MFA—a proposal I have been trying to push for years. Now we seem to be moving in the other direction. What additional burdens will we be imposing on foreign governments when we create a new Department for OFWs? This is just one of the questions which could be answered with greater clarity if the DU30 government embarks on a broader reorganization scheme.
A Department of Maritime Affairs?
Given our maritime problems which have been hogging international headlines, some sectors would like to see the creation of a Department of Maritime Affairs, to underline the fact that we have more sea than land, and that we are in fact a sea-based rather than a land-based people. One vigorous proponent of this idea is environment undersecretary Art Valdez, who in 2006 led a Filipino team of mountaineers in climbing Mount Everest in an effort to replicate the feat of Sir Edmund Hilary, the New Zealand mountaineer, and Tenzing Norgay, the Sherpa from Nepal, who became the first men to reach the summit of Everest on May 29, 1953. Tenzing, whom Time magazine has called one of the most influential men of the 20th century, got connected to the Philippines through the marriage of his daughter Nima to our good friend Noli Galang, the famous Filipino graphic designer associated with the editorial group of Johnny Gatbonton. The family lived in Manila after Noli came home with Johnny’s group from Hong Kong. After Noli’s untimely death a few years ago, Nima and her family moved to Singapore.
Valdez fancies himself as a seafarer more than a mountaineer. By May, he plans to lead a team of 40 or so adventurers in a sea voyage to China, on board three wooden replicas of the ancient balangay. The voyage will be timed to mark the 600th anniversary of the voyage to China of Sultan Paduka Batara of Sulu and 300 of his followers in 1417. On that voyage, the Sultan was welcomed by the Ming Emperor, but he fell ill and died on his way home. He was buried in the city of Dezhou,320 kilometers south of Beijing, in the eastern province of Shandong. Valdez hopes to persuade PDU30 to join the last mile of the voyage, as his balangay approach China’s shoreline.
Valdez’s project began seven years ago when his group of 40, in three balangay, set sail from the southern corridor of Tawi-Tawi through the waters of Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with China as their ultimate destination. However, due to a sudden change in the monsoon weather and the desire of his crew to be reunited with their families at Christmas, they turned back after being out at sea for 17 months. This time, Valdez is convinced they have a strong historic motivation to finish their voyage. Aside from marking the 600th anniversary of the Sultan’s journey, it could jump-start the creation of a Department of Maritime Affairs, Valdez said.
The OFW Bank
On the setting up of an OFW Bank, this has long been over-discussed. The plan is to convert the Philippine Postal Savings Bank with its 31 branches into an OFW Bank servicing the needs of all OFWs. The bank will be a listed company with an authorized capital of P3 billion, and a subscribed capital of P2 billion—P1 billion to be provided by Landbank and P1 billion open for subscription to OFWs who may want to buy shares. The Arroyo administration started working on it, but was eventually overwhelmed by the technical details. Under B.S. Aquino 3rd, Jojo Binay became passionate about it, but was in no position to implement it. Now DU30 wants to do it.
But numerous experts, including one former staff of mine when I was in the Senate, are skeptical about the thrust of the project. They do not think such a bank is needed if its only purpose is to create one more remittance channel for the $28 billion coming yearly from the OFWs. For them, the OFW market is already oversaturated with cheap remittance channels trying to cut each other’s throat. Saudi Arabia alone is dominated by Al Rajh Bank and Arab National Bank telemoney tied in with several Philippine banks. Aside from a myriad door-to-door remittance service of so many cargo companies, new entrants are linking up hordes of pawnshops in the country, offering cheaper rates; some of them are transmitting via computer and text messages.
According to them, an OFW Bank should respond to the real needs of the OFWs and their families. These include: 1) “hassle-free loans” at lower than market rates, which can only be made possible if billions of OFW funds are deposited in it; 2) higher yielding savings and time deposits (than savings banks) and easier accessed higher-yielding investment instruments like Retail Treasury Bonds (RTBs), which are practically inaccessible to OFWs; 3) start-up loans for reintegrating OFWs into micro-business and livelihood projects; 4) investment literacy program for reintegrating OFWs, as part of the bank’s menu of services.
These seem to me among the most reasonable ideas which the DU30 administration could quickly put to work, if it wants to liberate and prosper the OFWs