Duterte’s odd defense of Philippine sovereignty

“To undermine and treat the Philippines like a mattress to wipe with your feet… and you are a foreigner… that is something I will not… It is a violation of sovereignty.”

It’s something of a chore for Malacanang watchers these days to make sense of President Duterte’s public statements. It’s no help at all that he doesn’t like reading from prepared texts – but instead prefers to ad-lib on issues of the day, and refuses to police his language. The phrases I have quoted above are from his remarks during the change-of-command ceremonies of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) at Camp Aguinaldo last Wednesday.

No, it wasn’t Duterte’s visceral reaction to aerial surveillance photos published that same morning, April 18, showing two Chinese military transport planes on the the runway of the artificial island built by China on Panganiban Reef. (China refuses to recognize internationally recognized Philippine sovereignty over the reef, which lies 232 kilometers west of Palawan within the country’s 370-km exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.)

Two congressmen and a senator have urged the government to file a diplomatic protest against China over the apparent affront to our sovereignty, normally the first diplomatic step a sovereign state takes in such a situation. But that disturbing incident seemed not to be on Duterte’s mind at all.

Rather, he was venting against Sister Patricia Fox, a 71-year-old Australian missionary nun who has lived in the country for 27 years fulfilling her human rights mission, mainly among the poor farmers. On April 17 (the day before publication of the photos, and Duterte’s speech), Bureau of Immigration agents took Sr. Pat from her home and detained her for almost 24 hours, pending verification of her travel documents.

After her passport and visa were found to be valid, and there being no legal basis to detain her further, BI Commissioner Jaime Morente ordered her release. However, he required her to answer, within 10 days, certain allegations by the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA) Region 11 (Southern Mindanao) on her activities as a member of the International Fact-Finding and Solidarity Mission (IFFSM), which I wrote about in this space last week.

The NICA falsely accused her of joining an “anti-government rally” in Tagum City on April 7. No such rally took place. An IFFSM team, including Sister Pat, visited detained farmers at the city jail, carrying a tarpaulin banner that said “Stop killing farmers!” She explained to the BI legal officers that joining the IFFSM was part of her advocacy as a religious missionary to promote justice, peace, and human rights.

Before she was freed, I was able to visit Sister Pat. Along with some nuns and priests, I stayed with her for five hours until her release papers were completed. The custodial officer asked me and Jobert Pahilga (her lawyer), to sign the papers releasing her into our custody. I signed, gladly.

The media reported that presidential spokesperson Harry Roque subsequently admitted that the BI seemed to have made a mistake and “perhaps apologies are in order” but anyway she was quickly released.

Oddly, President Duterte devoted two-thirds of his rambling speech in Camp Aguinaldo to fulminating against what he alleged to be Sr. Pat’s “disorderly conduct.” Without citing any specific incident, he insinuated that she had criticized the military and the government on human rights, construing that as an insult on the Philippines and a violation of our sovereignty.

“Let me just state my case as a worker of government,” he told the audience of largely military officers and soldiers. “It was not the military who arrested the nun, the Catholic nun from Australia. It was upon my order, implemented by the BI. And I take full responsibility, legal or otherwise, for this incident,” he said.

Yet nobody had said that it was the military that arrested Sister Pat. Why did Duterte take pains to clarify that it was he who ordered her arrest and not the military? Was there a properly issued arrest order, in the first place?

Moreover, why did he needlessly emphasize that he alone, as Chief Executive, who gives the orders as to “who gets in and who goes out” of the country. “Not the Congress, not the Supreme Court. Ako, ako ang magsasabi (It’s I who will decide),” he stressed.

“I ordered her to be investigated, not deported at once, not arrested but to invite her to an investigation for a disorderly conduct,” he clarified. “You know in our laws, the Philippine laws provide that I can deport you or refuse you entry if you are an undesirable alien.”

Apparently stung by criticisms over his having extended martial law in Mindanao until the end of 2018, and threatened to declare martial law nationwide, the president blustered:

“Why would I need martial law? I can order your investigation, (or) anybody, six, nine, 36 hours for investigation purposes. It’s legal, especially if you shout there – sabihin mong mga military, mga taong-gobyerno mga gago (you say the military, government personnel are stupid). Who are you [to say that]? Just because you are a nun? You go back to your country and try to ponder the enormity of your problems.

“You come here and insult us, you trample with our sovereignty. That will never happen. I assure you: if you begin to malign, defame the government in any of these rallies there, I will order your arrest.” He added: “I have a duty to protect this country.”

Then he pointed out: “The only reason why she was released was she was not caught in flagrante delicto. Meaning to say, she was not caught during her berating the government.”

What needs to be proved is: Did Sister Pat ever berate the government? And does a foreigner’s berating the government constitute a crime?

The Ecumenical Bishops Forum (EBF), with whom Sister Pat has worked closely in the course of her mission, cites her case as “the most recent blow against church workers and institutions.” For the past 27 years, the EBF affirmed, “she has…worked hand-in-hand with farmers, supporting through her prayers and selfless service their struggle for land and life.”

Her plight “sends a chilling message to everyone,” the bishops lamented. “The [political] persecution of church people does not only reveal the sword of a despotic government that seeks to suppress the Church’s role as a moral compass of society. It is a demonstration of this administration’s noxious attempt to criminalize legitimate dissent. This serves as a prelude to more intensified state-perpetrated violence against those who work for peace, justice, and the promotion of human rights.”

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com.

Published in Philippine Star
April 21, 2018

Featured photo from the Presidential Communications Facebook page.

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