Tuesday, May 15, 2012

We love our country, too, stupid

Last Friday’s (May 11) “global protest” by Filipinos at home and expat Pinoys abroad against China’s bullying tactics in the South China Sea turned out to be more “local” than widespread judging by the measly number of people who attended. Even the “hakot” crowd of President Noynoy Aquino’s Akbayan Party-list supporters could only muster close to 300 souls in what was expected to be a big protest before the Chinese consulate in Makati City in Manila.

Abroad, the one-hour noon protest in the U.S. and Canada was so disappointing that the organizers were quick to blame those who did not participate for their lack of patriotism, prompting an organizer from Toronto to say that he’ll “puke” the next time he sees members of so-called nationalist groups in Toronto like the Knights of Rizal and the Rizal Society of Ontario show their allegiance to the Philippine flag during the annual Independence Day ceremonies.
Filipino-American protesters denounce China's bullying of the Philippines during
 their lunch-break  picket  at the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C.  Photo by
 Eric Lachica of the  USP4GG. Click link to view "Protest by the Underdog: Low
Turnout in Toronto at  Rally Against China,"

The protests in the U.S. and Canada were organized by the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance (USP4GG), a group closely identified with President Noynoy Aquino and known to be supporters of U.S. State Secretary Hillary Clinton. One of the leaders of the USP4GG, Fil-Am lawyer Loida Nicolas is an older sister of Imelda Nicolas, chairperson with the rank of a cabinet secretary of the Commission for Filipino Overseas, an agency of the Philippine government responsible for promoting the interests of expatriate Filipinos abroad and strengthening their ties with Filipino communities overseas. The Department of Foreign Affairs clarified however that the protests were a purely private undertaking and not sanctioned by the Philippine government.

There were reports of heated exchanges among the Filipino-Americans who attended the protests in the U.S., decrying the low turnout and blaming their fellow Filipino countrymen for being cowards in willing to give up their territories without a fight. Similarly, in Toronto, the few people who showed up were disgusted and questioned why the protest was so poorly organized. The protest organizers, however, put the blame on the failure of the community to meet the test of nationalism when it really counted.

The Toronto spectacle was a dud for obvious reasons.

First, the Scarborough Shoal issue or the bigger dispute in the South China Sea between the Philippines and China to begin with was a non-starter and the attempt to draw the attention of the international community to alleged Chinese aggression and “creeping invasion” was misguided. At the heart of the ongoing row between the two countries is ownership of the disputed rocks or islands. In other words, the question is who has sovereign title and this issue is unresolved, yet the Philippines claims that China has invaded its territories.

The Philippines has asked the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea (ITLOS) to intervene as an arbiter but China already made it known to the Philippines that it will not agree to U.N. arbitration on the ground that the Philippines’ claim has no legal basis. Parties to an international dispute have the right to decline arbitration. So, why take the issue to the streets when it’s not going to matter anyway? There are other alternative ways to resolve the impasse like multilateral talks involving the two countries together with the other ASEAN nations who also have competing interests in the South China Sea. It’s just a matter of persuading China to take this route instead of bilateral negotiations, or one-on-one country talks. There are precedents to this type of multilateral negotiations between countries caught between conflicting territorial sovereignty claims.

Second, the organizers of the protest do not have a clear understanding of the legal issues regarding the dispute. Perhaps, they have grasped the issue of territorial sovereignty but only have a faint appreciation of the basis of the Philippines’ claim. To most of them, including the few who were convinced to attend the protest, it was enough that the Philippines is geographically closer to the Scarborough Shoal, about 124 nautical miles from the island of Luzon, compared to the distance of the disputed area to the nearest Chinese mainland coast which is about 472 nautical miles. Nobody tells them, and even if someone did, they would not probably accept that proximity bears no weight on sovereignty ownership because sovereignty over islands is established by legal relations rather than physical proximity.

A Toronto protester interviewed and caught on video stated that the intrusion of the Chinese military into the Scarborough Shoal was completely illegal and that was the reason why they were demonstrating. Sounding like he truly understood the legal issues involved, he argued that the shoal and all the islands in the South China Sea belong to the Philippines as they were delineated in the Treaty of Paris, the basis for the sale of the Philippines by Spain to the United States in 1898.

The reference to the Treaty of Paris was unfortunate and misleading. The maps provided by the Philippines to support its claim did not include the Scarborough Shoal, or Huangyan Island to the Chinese, as part of the territory and sovereignty of the Philippines as defined under the Treaty of Paris. This argument was used before by the United States against the Netherlands in the Island of Palmas Case to reinforce its claim that the island was ceded by Spain to the U.S. under the Treaty of Paris, and even submitted that the island was more contiguous to the Philippines. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in 1928 decided in favour of the Netherlands ruling that in order to establish sovereignty, discovery must be followed by a continuous and peaceful display of authority or some degree of effective occupation.

The point being made here is without a clear and thoughtful understanding of the legal issues involved, the protest organizers would find it very difficult to persuade others to join. Legal issues should not be left to charlatans to explain.
A Hong Kong protester who supports Chinese sovereignty over the Scarborough
Shoal burns Philippine and US flags. Photo courtesy of AFP/Antony Dickson
Third, the protest organizers were hoping there would be a spontaneous reaction to the issues in the South China Sea by simply putting a website or actually a blogspot similar to this where people can follow the dispute on the Internet. This is insufficient. People must be organized and mobilized, and the issues discussed, so people would be committed to the cause. The protest organizers are hoping against hope that many will join the demonstration after visiting their website and would instantly be aroused by their love of country, that they would not allow its territories be invaded and taken away from them without a fight.

Thus, when people did not show up in great numbers, it was ridiculous and rather insensitive of the protest organizers to call them cowards and to mock their patriotism. As if the only people who were patriotic that day were those who attended. The protest was held for one hour during the noon break. Did the organizers expect people would be driving by to honk or get out of their cars to join those already marching on the street? What if they couldn’t leave work or they were too far away? So, these people were unpatriotic and did not love their country as much as those who attended the protest? What if they did not believe or agree with the protest? Were they not entitled to their opinion, too? Unpatriotic individuals have no right to disagree now?

Lastly, the protest was being used not for the purpose of informing the community of nations about China’s bullying tactics, but apparently for a different ulterior motive. It is becoming clearer now that the United States’ government would like to restructure its military strength in Asia and the Pacific, so the USP4GG protests are being used to drum up the necessity for the U.S. to reinstate its presence in the region by drawing attention to China’s aggression. The Philippine government under Noynoy Aquino is by all means complicit in this scheme, since its cooperation is tied up to foreign assistance from the U.S. It is also not too remote to speculate that the Aquino government could have promised some of the leaders of the USP4GG with one or two senatorial spots in the administration’s ticket in the 2013 elections.

One clear lesson from the uneventful protest last Friday is this: the patriotism of expat Filipinos abroad or even at home cannot be measured simply by their attendance or absence in political demonstrations. Love of country is more than an on-the-spot outburst of bravado or a token one-hour act of patriotism, it is instilled and nurtured through a deeper understanding of the real causes people are committed to support and to die for.

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