Oops! I did it again!

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on August 13, 2008

Ideally, governments should LEARN from their mistakes

Earlier this year, veteran journalist Barry Wain writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review criticized the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo for a deal with China and Viet Nam that opened the South China Sea to joint seismic study by the three countries’ national oil companies. Wain called the deal “unequal and surreptitious,” and accused the administration of breaking ranks with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in making “breathtaking ” concessions to China.

Under the terms of the agreement, the Philippines agreed to open areas of its continental shelf not claimed by either China or Vietnam, giving legitimacy to China’s “legally spurious ‘historic claim’ to most of the South China Sea.” Wain’s disclosure of the terms of the agreement resulted in outrage in Manila. A principal reason for that outrage was the deal’s covert terms, which provided that the “agreement and all relevant documents, information, data and reports” were to remain confidential during its three-year period of validity, and for another five years following its expiration.

Many observers wondered what the administration was negotiating away Philippine sovereignty for in exchange. Indeed, outrage over the seismic study agreement was quickly overshadowed by another deal signed at the same time for the now junked $329 million national broadband network. Despite deeply negative reaction to these deals and historic negative public approval, the administration was accused of negotiating away its sovereignty again last week, this time in the form of a “Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain,” granting autonomy, mineral and other rights, and legal authority to practice Shariah law to Muslims in a wide swath of Mindanao and other southern islands.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal (and AsianPundit) journalist and Johns Hopkins adjunct professor Brett M. Decker suggested that the only way to explain this latest agreement might be as a “ploy to consolidate her (Mrs. Arroyo) own hold on power,” suggesting as in the South China Sea case that the deal involved more than the initially obvious objective of ending a 40-year-old insurgency. And like that earlier deal, this one was again hidden from public view, with the administration arguing that its negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front deserved the same protection from public scrutiny that negotiations leading to international treaties are afforded.

For reasons that have already been well documented, the Philippine Supreme Court disagreed. It seems pretty clear that an agreement among Filipinos, even one that comes alarmingly close to granting secession from the republic to one of the parties, is not an international agreement. Now, the more important question for the Philippines is how many more times will this pattern be repeated in the run up to national elections in 2010.

But forget about the political and national sovereignty issue for a minute and consider that despite the opening of the Beijing Olympics and the outbreak of hostilities between Russia and Georgia in South Ossetia, controversy surrounding the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain continues to receive the attention of mainstream international media and analysts.

Decker alone has been interviewed on CNN, C-Span, and WNBC, and his column has been reprinted with permission by other publications numerous times. References to the Memorandum inevitably communicate its context and purpose: Islamic terrorism in the Philippines, an attempt to resolve a decades-old insurgency, and government bungling of the agreement as a result of the secrecy surrounding it and the failure to consult majority groups prepared to take up arms themselves.

The violence that followed the abrupt delay in the signing of the Memorandum is tragic on many levels. The obvious is the loss of human life, and the disruption of the lives of refugees fleeing contested areas. Given the relative political chaos prevalent around the region – Japan, Malaysia, South Korea, and Thailand are all undergoing political crises – another crisis in the Philippines might not have the negative impact it would in a politically stable region.

But armed insurrection is another matter, and the bungling of government’s reaction is an altogether different matter. I’ve often said that one of the Philippines’ principal hurdles to achieving positive visibility is that it doesn’t communicate its many positive attributes. Weeks like last week render that argument mute. No amount of positive communication will effectively negate negative publicity at this level.

It is fortunate in a democracy with a free press – even a struggling one – that government opaqueness can be brought to light, potentially stopping ill-conceived policies and agreements. However, if the Philippines ever hopes to achieve the positive image which in many respects it deserves, then government and its leaders must do a better job doing the right things right. Oops, I did it again gets old very quickly. Governments are expected to learn from their mistakes, not repeat them.

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