Burlington, Iowa: The November 18-19, 2015, APEC Economic Leaders Meeting in Manila being the biggest international gathering President B. S. Aquino 3rd will preside over before he leaves office on June 30, 2016, Malacañang is understandably pulling out all the stops to ensure its unqualified success. Aquino cannot afford to risk the safety and comfort of any of the 20 presidents, prime ministers and chief executives who will be attending the summit, so he is trying to transform Metro Manila, at least superficially and for a few days, into what it is not.
But he has a funny way of doing it. He wants to please the guests at the public’s expense.
In the past, when Imelda Romualdez Marcos built the Philippine International Conference Center and related facilities as a venue for important international conferences, she also built and whitewashed walls along the route from the Manila international airport to the heart of the city, and plastered them with state art in order to give the scenery a badly needed aesthetic lift.
She could not wish away the age-old urban blight which the Marcos administration had inherited from the past, so she tried to dress it up a little bit. Her critics were flabbergasted. They likened it to the cardboard villages which Prince Potemkin reputedly built for Catherine II on her visit to the Ukraine and the Crimea in 1787, which had come to be known as the Potemkin villages.
After Imelda Marcos, Metro Manila administrator Bayani Fernando put up his own version of the village as part of his urban renewal project. This gave the shanties on river banks and creeks in Marikina and elsewhere a more cheerful and welcoming look. It obviously raised the morale of those living in the shanties and looking at them from outside.
Fernando is now out of office, but some other people may have taken over his project. This, however, doesn’t seem to figure in the preparations for the APEC summit. Potemkin has taken a different course–the wretched slums four decades ago have given way to sparkling casinos where high-rollers from Hong Kong, China, Malaysia and Indonesia throw away their millions.
For this month’s event, President B. S. Aquino 3rd’s primary concern is the monstrous city traffic. He wants to vaporize the beast as though it never existed. The last time he spoke publicly about traffic congestion, he called it the “sign of progress,” which the public should be thankful for and not complain about. Now he wants to get rid of it. But it has become such a monster that not even Houdini or David Copperfield could make it vanish even for a moment.
Aquino also apparently worries about possible collisions in the sky, so he wants the air traffic reduced. He wants to cut down the flight arrivals and departures during the summit, the exact opposite of what the Department of Tourism has been trying to do for so long and so hard to increase the volume of international tourists. From Salt Lake last week to Burlington this week, I have met quite a few who said they had long planned to visit Manila during the season, but were quite shocked to learn that Philippine Airlines, the national flag carrier, had cancelled 96 international flights and 115 domestic flights because of the APEC summit. Some of them had already bought their roundtrip tickets.
How now are they to know whether, as the DOT says, it’s really “more fun in the Philippines?”
From Nov. 17 to 20, all government offices and schools will be closed, and government services shut down, except for the most indispensable public services, and those related to security and safety, health and emergency preparedness, and APEC-related activities. No trucks will be allowed on the road, and therefore no cargoes will be transported from the piers, certain thoroughfares will be closed to private motorists, no-fly zones will be instituted all over Metro Manila at certain periods during the summit. Needless to say, the US 7th Fleet will be patrolling nearby waters, or an aircraft carrier will standing by in Subic, courtesy of the US president.
Nov 18 to 19 will be special non-working days, even for daily wage earners who do not get paid if they do not work. This would be the first negative economic achievement of the summit. Should a sizeable number go to bed without food, just because they were laid off their daily work by the great economic summit?
In other words, everyone in the nation’s capital will be on holiday but forced to stay at home, while twenty-one world economic leaders–US President Obama, China’s President Xi Jinping, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, New Zealand Prime Minister John Key, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Mexican President Enrique Pina Nieto, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Long, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Vincent Slew, and our own B. S. Aquino 3rd–talk of “building inclusive economies, and building a better world.”
Everything is being hyped to make it appear that the government is out to put its best foot forward. But these moves related to traffic and air travel have nothing to do with the legendary Filipino hospitality; they merely reveal the government’s lack of capability to host anything this big without interrupting or interfering with the regular rhythm of social life. All because of incompetence and lack of preparedness. Since last December, APEC meetings at various levels have been held in Makati, Clark Freeport in Angeles, Boracay, Cebu and Iloilo without any noticeable hitches. And they have already covered considerable ground.
These include three senior officials meetings, one finance ministers meeting, one trade ministers meeting, one small and medium enterprises ministerial meeting, one senior disaster management officials forum, one high-level policy dialogue on food security and the blue economy, etc. But the 21 leaders summit has turned out to be much bigger than those in charge had earlier imagined.
This is not helped by the fact that, for completely unexplained reasons, the Secretary of Industry Gregorio Domingo, who was supposed to be the principal action man for the summit, unexpectedly resigned irrevocably in mid-September, a month before the event. He was mercifully prevailed upon to delay his departure until after the summit, but his resignation has shaken the morale of the people in charge of the conference.
It is the second time the Philippines is hosting the APEC Summit in nearly 20 years. But I do not recall the Ramos government having to go through any of the present issues when it hosted the first APEC summit in Subic, Zambales in 1996. As Senate Majority Leader at the time, I recall sitting with Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and US Secretary of State Warren Christopher at dinner at the Manila Hotel, and they both expressed extreme satisfaction with the arrangements for the summit. The event did not at all interrupt or interfere with the normal life of Filipinos.
Why should it happen now, when our ability to do things was supposed to have improved (considerably, we are told) under Aquino’s “daang matuwid”?
I do not suppose I am alone in asking this.
Whitewashed walls decked with people’s art have failed to hide the country’s grinding poverty in the past. How could Aquino expect to hide the plumb inefficiency and incompetence of his government behind his decision to superficially and temporarily ban air and road traffic for the duration of the summit? The summit is taking place on the eve of a presidential election, which only the most gullible and naive expect to deliver believable results, given the highly objectionable Smartmatic-PCOS-OMR automated voting system, and the oversupply of nuisance candidates, among other things.
Will none of the foreign dignitaries or the independent traveling press bother to ask what has Aquino done all these five (now going on six) years to prepare for this summit? If they hear of anything as stupid and outrageous as the live bullets being planted on the hand-carried luggage of some old lady travelers and innocent overseas Filipino workers arriving at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, will they not wonder how the government expects to cope with the security needs of twenty heads of state and government, regardless of some US nuclear warship standing by in Subic or some nearby waters?
Serious global economic problems and opportunities will engage the APEC summiteers. But even more serious political problems could surface among the major participants. How would Aquino, as host, ensure that the political undertow does not overwhelm the economic agenda of the conference? Will Russia’s disagreement with the United States over Syria blow up in this conference? Will China’s quarrel with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, or Aquino’s maritime quarrel with China for that matter, shadow any of the deliberations?
It is not totally insignificant that the summit is taking place after the UN tribunal at the Hague has decided to arbitrate the maritime conflict between China and the Philippines upon the latter’s initiative, and China has rejected the tribunal’s decision and declared it would not accept the results. Some street demonstrations are expected to greet Xi Jinping because of this, and Aquino just might use the occasion to inject his own sentiment on the subject.
It would not surprise if he calls for adherence to international law as a starting point for political and economic cooperation among nations and governments. He is unpredictable and spontaneous enough to do this. He did not hesitate to reproach Pope Francis for his problems with some Catholic bishops when he welcomed the Supreme Pontiff to Malacañang during his recent apostolic visit to the Philippines.
But to be able to do this, he will have to overlook the fact that there is a standing call from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention for him to release from illegal custody his immediate predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who has been in jail on highly questionable charges for almost as long as he has been in Malacañang. Her continued detention without trial or being found guilty, violates international law, according to the UN human rights group.
Aquino has the rare ability to excuse himself from the most outrageous offense from which he will not countenance others to be excused, if they commit the same. So he will demand that China obey the UN tribunal, even though he will not obey the UN himself on something that really costs him nothing but pride. It will be his duty not to allow this issue to divert the APEC leaders’ attention from the main agenda of the summit.