When diplomacy hurts home
CTALK - Cito Beltran (The Philippine Star) - June 19, 2019 - 12:00am

To say that the Duterte administration is bending over backward to contain or manage the brewing controversy from the maritime “hit-and-run” last week would be an under statement. The government is clearly trying its best not to let the matter get out of hand or let emotions get the better of us, or the Chinese. But after several days of crisis management, it seems that certain Cabinet officials have simply created the very thing they were avoiding. Things have soured to the point that even the fisher folks are reportedly asking “Whose side is the government on?”

For starters, the spokesperson in Malacañang responded to questions about the incident from the media like a boxer blocking and parrying blows instead of simply reading an official statement and ending it there. Instead of communicating the action plan of government, the talking head did a marvelous job of being the blocking force to all questions pertaining to the maritime hit-and-run. As a result, the media relied on other sources to piece the puzzle together and the government’s version was not properly conveyed or amplified through media.  

While it is correct not to let things get out of proportion, it is also very insensitive and disrespectful to the victims if government officials themselves overdo the damage control and end up trivializing the fact that a Chinese vessel rammed a Philippine motor banca and ABANDONED 24 crew members to sink or swim to safety or die in the dark. Whether on land or sea, it is a high crime to flee from the scene of the accident and not provide assistance regardless of whose fault it is. That is at the center of the controversy. Some patriotic lot may want something else but if anyone in government was paying attention, the fishermen and the boat owner simply wanted compensation for what they lost, to be able to get back to making a living ASAP, and to be protected from such hit-and-run incidents or harassment from Chinese vessels. Diplomatic concerns or protests never passed their lips nor were they asking for an audience with the high and mighty Cabinet members or the President.

Yes, we should not let the maritime hit-and-run turn into an international incident or be  “exaggerated” as a couple of Cabinet members have said on TV and radio interviews, but the fact that an entire Cabinet cluster and 5 Cabinet members: Panelo, Cusi, Locsin, Piñol and Nograles joined forces and turned into a chorus singing “it’s not a big deal”,  “it’s an isolated incident” or “we need facts” showed that it was Malacañang that was making a big deal of it all while trying to water down a fire they were unwittingly feeding and keeping alive. Worst of all it gave the wrong impression that the government was protecting Filipino-Chinese relations over the fishermen’s cause.

From what I know, the designated spokesperson or contact on the matter was suppose to be Secretary to the Cabinet Karlo Nograles. But the rest of the chorus could not contain themselves and started giving interviews and spitting out their own assessment or opinion on the matter. It was also strange that the crewmembers were being split up and interviewed in different places by different officials. The strangest of them all was how Department of Energy Alfonso Cusi ended up in Mindoro interviewing and investigating the crewmembers of the motor banca that got sunk. As I write this column, I still haven’t figured out why the second richest Cabinet member became the “Imbestigador” on the ground. Sadly, Secretary Cusi’s attempt at pursuing the truth backfired and offended a couple of fishermen who felt that their version of the incident was being challenged and doubted. As a result our correspondent on the ground reported that several crewmembers decided to disengage and go back home to their village.

Sec. Cusi might have done better if he simply went to Mindoro with a ton of cash and bought a new banca for the victims so they could carry on making a living. Instead, it is the Chinese Chamber of Commerce and the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry who’ve stepped up to shoulder the cost of repairing the damaged fishing vessel. As for Cusi’s setback, I have spent many years with fishermen particularly in Palawan and I have learned that with them there are no filters, and in the things that matter, their word is their bond. People who place their lives at risk in the middle of the sea don’t play games and make up stories, so when someone challenges their integrity and truth, they walk away and it’s their way of telling you that: “You are not worth talking to.”

As far as this blunder of errors is concerned, the whole matter could have been easily put to rest by IMMEDIATELY addressing the fishermen’s needs. No need for diplomatic protests. The DFA or Malacañang could have invited the Chinese Ambassador to discuss the matter the same way they discuss funds and projects that are a billion times more expensive. Ultimately, some diplomatic social responsibility projects could be launched and then the whole story could be put to bed as the players lived happily ever after. All this I learned is now being undertaken by the Cabinet cluster involved. 

In summary, President Duterte did the right thing by not commenting on the matter because it was not a “national” interest issue. His Cabinet members talked themselves silly and made the President look suspiciously silent. Too many cooks spoil the broth and with all of them working independently of each other, they turned an “incident” into a “crisis.” The President was right, the Cabinet went wrong.

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Email: utalk2ctalk@gmail.com

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