Yeah! That’s the ticket!

Michael Alan Hamlin

Posted on December 16, 2010

I’m reminded of the character played by actor and comedian Jon Lovitz, Tommy Flanagan, on Saturday Night Live in the late 80s. The inspiration is the cascading reasons put forward by authorities for the Philippines’ absence from the Nobel Peace Prize awarding ceremonies last week. The Flanagan character hated admitting to mistakes and shortcomings, and made up a succession of lame excuses for his misbehavior until one seemed to stick.

When one did, he would smile to himself, eyes darting rapidly back-and-forth, and sneer, “Yeah! That’s the ticket.” Of course, the latest excuse turned out to be just as suspect as those it succeeded, and the credibility-strained character returned to the never-ending struggle to come up with another. (For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Lovitz, he was the rival crooner to Adam Sandler in “The Wedding Singer,” a drug addicted restaurateur in two episodes of “Friends,” and a jingle writer in an episode of “Two and a Half Men.”)

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) seemed to subsume the Flanagan character as it sought in vain to explain why an administration with a legacy of human rights advocacy appeared to be protesting the presentation of the Nobel Peace Prize to 54-year-old literature professor Liu Xiaobo. Mr. Liu is serving an 11-year prison sentence in China for “state subversion.” His crime: Advocating freedom of speech and democracy.

This year’s award was the first time since 1936-when Nazi Germany prevented pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, detained in a concentration camp, from accepting his prize-that a laureate or a direct relative has not been present to receive the award. China follows other inauspicious precedents. Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee recalled them in last week’s ceremony.

The former Soviet Union stopped Andrei Sakharov from accepting his prize in 1975, and the communist government ruling Poland in 1983 prevented Lech Walesa from attending his awarding ceremony. Both men were advocates for civil liberties. The Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991, two years after a peaceful transition from communist rule in Poland. Mr. Walesa became president of Poland in late 1990.

Another shaky authoritarian government denied Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi the opportunity to personally accept the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Ms. Suu Kyi was recently released from nearly 15 years of mostly continuous house arrest following a shamelessly sham election crudely orchestrated by the military junta that has clung to power and exploited the country’s natural resources for two decades.

The junta grabbed power in 1990 when it refused to accept the outcome of “free and fair” elections which Ms. Suu Kyi’s party won by a landslide. Like the dangerously dysfunctional regime in North Korea, the junta owes its longevity to China’s benevolence.

During last week’s ceremony, Mr. Jagland said, “Many will ask whether China’s weakness, for all the strength that the country is currently showing, is not manifested in a need to imprison a man for 11 years merely for expressing his views on how his country should be governed.” But Mr. Jagland was really referring to China’s government and the increasingly insecure Communist Party that runs it.

China is an important trading partner and source of aid for the Philippines-albeit a magnet for controversial infrastructure projects-so if the DFA felt that it should decline the invitation to attend the ceremony-as 16 authoritarian and failed democracies also did-why not just say so? Well, it initially did off the record, acknowledging to reporters a reluctance to further annoy China’s government following a bungled hostage rescue in August in which eight Hong Kong tourists were killed.

When that excuse was met by a storm of criticism, the DFA denied that China had pressured the Philippines to snub the ceremony, and half-heartedly claimed that the Philippine Ambassador to Norway Elizabeth Buensuceso was inconveniently in Denmark last week. Stung by the unimaginative excuse, critics scored the DFA and the administration of President Benigo S. Aquino III for its lack of transparency.

Like Lovitz’s Flanagan character, the DFA soon came up with another suspect excuse. This time it was the sensitive nature of negotiations for clemency on behalf of five Filipino drug mules sentenced to death by Chinese courts. In a country where a literature professor is thrown in jail for more than a decade for expressing a desire for freedom of speech, a death sentence for drug running-serious anywhere-is especially horrifying in its finality.

But if that’s really the reason, why didn’t Flanagan-I mean the DFA-say so in the first place? Mr. Aquino’s father gave his life for democracy and human rights like freedom of speech. Surely this administration can come up with a better way to acknowledge his sacrifice.

(Michael Alan Hamlin is the managing director of TeamAsia and a Manila-based author. His latest book is High Visibility: Transforming Your Personal and Professional Brand . Write him at mahamlin@teamasia.com and follow him on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.). Copyright © 2010 Michael Alan Hamlin. All Rights Reserved.)

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