WE have reached the stage where, like all hosts of multi-national events (sports as well as politics), we Filipinos must assess whether our recent hosting of the 31st Asean Summit and the East Asia Summit was worth all the trouble and expense.
We must suck up the news that the event cost a cool P15.5 billion to stage and that we must hope for its return in the form of benefits to the nation and the economy.
The positives should have been manifest to the world, but for the lazy coverage of the event by international media – and their appalling emphasis of the trivial and their near total neglect of real crisis and problems in Southeast Asia. For an institution that habitually lectures the world on liberal and democratic values, the media showed no discernment of the important discussions that were really taking place, and the significant agreements that were approved by the heads of state and government. As polemicist Christopher Hitchens has suggested, on arguments about democracy, self-determination and pluralism, Asians have “a lot more to teach than to learn from them.”
Fixating on Trump and human rights
The media fixated on whether or not President Trump would take up or challenge President Duterte on the issue of human rights in the Philippine war on drugs. In the run-up to the summit, this was already a story in itself as some politicians and international NGOs sought to direct what Trump should do.
Once the summit was off and running, however, Trump ignored them all. As a consequence, the media highlighted the most trivial happenings that they could find such as:
1.Trump’s disorientation during the traditional Asean linking of hands to show solidarity.
2. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calling the Filipino barong Tagalog, “a silly shirt.”
3. When Trump did not oblige requests to badger DU30 about human rights, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada tried to grab attention for himself by claiming that he discussed human rights with Duterte. The man has a reported fondness for gimmicks. He bills himself in his country as a feminist. He boasts that “poverty is sexist.”
Trudeau’s exertions in Manila had the boomerang effect of highlighting the 2,500 tons of garbage (in 50 containers) that Canada has docked in Philippine ports for two years now, and which it has refused so far to take back home. Now, Trudeau is on record as pledging to work on Canadian legislation for the repatriation of the garbage.
Amazingly, the media avoided mention of the real humanitarian crisis in Southeast Asia today – the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar – wherein some 600,000 people have been affected, with tens of thousands having lost their lives, as the Rohingya people were forced out of their home region and subjected to what the United Nations has described as “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing.”
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi faced fresh global pressure in Manila to solve the crisis for her nation’s displaced Rohingya Muslim minority, during her meeting with UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Secretary Guterres told the Nobel laureate that the displaced Muslims who had fled to Bangladesh should be allowed to return to their homes in Myanmar.
“The Secretary General highlighted that strengthened efforts to ensure humanitarian access, safe, dignified, voluntary and sustained returns, as well as true reconciliation between communities, would be essential,” a UN statement said, summarizing comments to Suu Kyi.
Guterres’ comments came hours before Suu Kyi sat down with Tillerson on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila.
Washington has been cautious in its statements on the situation in Rakhine, and has avoided outright criticism of Suu Kyi.
Supporters say she must navigate a path between outrage abroad and popular feeling in a majority Buddhist country where most people believe the Rohingya are interlopers.
At a photo opportunity at the top of her meeting with Tillerson, Suu Kyi ignored a journalist who asked if the Rohingya were citizens of Myanmar.
The horrible facts of the Rohingya crisis are well-known. More than 600,000 Rohingya have flooded into Bangladesh since late August, and now live in squalor in the world’s biggest refugee camp.
The crisis erupted after Rohingya rebels attacked police posts in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, triggering a military crackdown that saw hundreds of villages reduced to ashes and sparked a massive exodus.
The Burmese government insists military action in Rakhine is a proportionate response to violence by militants.
Following its first official investigation into the crisis, the army published a report this week in which it cleared itself of any abuses. However, it heavily restricts access to the region by independent journalists and aid groups, and verification of events on the ground is virtually impossible.
Suu Kyi, a former democracy activist, has been lambasted by rights groups for failing to speak up for the Rohingya or condemn festering anti-Muslim sentiment in the country. Her supporters say she does not have the power to stop the powerful military, which ruled the country for decades until her party came to power following elections in 2015.
On a one-day visit to Myanmar yesterday, Tillerson called for a credible investigation into allegations of human rights abuses against the Rohingyas. Tillerson met with Suu Kyi again in the Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw, and held separate talks with the head of the armed forces, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.
At a joint news conference with Suu Kyi after their meeting, he said he was deeply concerned by “credible reports” of atrocities committed by Myanmar’s security forces. “Scenes of what occurred are just horrific,” he said.
But he ruled out “broad-based economic sanctions against the entire country,” saying the US would consider individual sanctions against people found responsible for the violence.
“If we have credible information that we believe to be very reliable that certain individuals were responsible for certain acts that we find unacceptable, then targeted sanctions on individuals may very well be appropriate,” he said.
Suu Kyi was forthcoming in her talks with Tillerson and others during the past few days about the steps that need to be taken to improve the situation, including plans for the voluntary repatriation of Rohingya.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged up to 117 billion yen ($1 billion) of development aid to Myanmar in his meeting with Suu Kyi.
While world leaders wrung their hands, thousands of Rohingya remained stranded in Myanmar, on beaches around the mouth of the Naf river, hoping to find a boat to make the short, sometimes perilous crossing to Bangladesh.
Compared to the Rohingya crisis, the alleged human rights crisis in the Philippines that has arisen from the drug war has little documentation. Duterte has stopped cold many of his critics by telling them to “investigate first.” He has even offered to embed UN personnel in Philippine anti- drug operations, and give the UN an office to operate in the country.
Adding insult to garbage-dumping
To sum up, the Asean summits overall have been a big plus for the Philippines and for President Duterte personally – in terms of prestige and influence.
But I submit that their lowest point was giving Trudeau the chance to “add insult to garbage-dumping.” Now, Philippine statecraft must strive to force him to honor his pledge to lead Canada in taking back the garbage.
Trudeau’s remarks were calculated. He flouted President Duterte’s admonition to state guests to lay off the human rights issue during the summits. Trudeau wanted to provoke an angry retort from Duterte – something similar to what he told Barack Obama.
This is of a piece with Trudeau’s leadership of the Liberal Party in Canada. No doubt, the opposition liberal party in the Philippines egged Trudeau to raise the hackles of DU30.
Better than an expletive, the country’s foreign service will do better now to raise a stink about Canada’s garbage in every international forum where we happen to sit with Canada – this until all the 50 containers of garbage are taken out.
Beyond not accepting aid with conditions, let us also say, we will not accept aid with garbage.