China Executes Filipino Drug Mules

The execution of three convicted Filipino drug couriers in China Wednesday as Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III stood powerless to stop the event underlines a deep divide between the region's reigning power and one of its chronic underachievers.

Aquino sought to accommodate the Chinese government on a variety of issues in an effort to save the three but his inability to do so is an insult and highlights his naiveté. It was almost certain from the very start that the Chinese were going to carry out the executions.

In effect the message to the Philippines and the rest of the region is simple: China will do what it wants.

With seemingly the entire country praying vainly for the deliverance of the three convicted overseas workers, Sally Ordinario-Villanueva, Ramon Credo and Ellizabeth Batain were all executed by lethal injection — Batain, 38, in Shenzhen, Ordinario-Villanueva, 32, and Ramon Credo, 42, in Xiamen. They joined the long trail of some 1,500 to 2,000 people who are executed in China every year. In 2009, the last year for which Amnesty International provided figures, China executed more people than the rest of the world combined.

"Our government has taken every available opportunity to appeal to the authorities of China for clemency," Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a prepared statement. "In the end, however, the sentence was imposed."

The executions end a months-long saga in which Vice President Jejomar Binay rushed to China to plead for the sentences to be commuted and at least succeeded in getting them delayed. In addition, the Philippines boycotted the Nobel Prize ceremony in Norway in which Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Peace Prize. In what was widely regarded as related to the death sentence cases, Manila also enraged Taiwan by sending alleged Taiwanese scamsters preying on Chinese investors in the Philippines back to China instead of Taiwan.

That isn't to say that the Philippines was wrong in attempting to save the lives of the three. Easy-going Filipinos, who want to believe the best of everyone, especially those who pray for forgiveness, have bumped up against an opaque totalitarian Chinese state that can be and often is brutal when it comes to life, not only of foreign criminals but its own people.

Punishment is about repentance and asking for forgiveness in the Philippines. In China, it is about punishment. Whatever its many faults, the Philippines is a country that* honors life enough to respect forgiveness and to accept that people make mistakes rather than one that is prepared to grind up three small people as some kind of example to others because that is what the rule book says.

Noynoy should have got tough with China, even if it would not have saved any lives. He ended up looking small and making his country look small in the process. On a national level, the Philippines reinforced its weak image.

On a human level, however, it is certainly hard not to be moved by the words of Villanueva asking that someone look after her children and saying she would become an "angel" for her family. That these three and countless others who ferry drugs across borders for a fee as people who either wittingly or unwittingly did something stupid, is beyond question. It is also beyond question that more will follow. More than 500 Filipino men and women are already in foreign jails on drug-related cases, Foreign Ministry spokesman Edward Malaya told Agence-France Press. Some 227 of them are in Chinese jails alone.

With nearly 10 percent of the Philippines population of 99 million working overseas, it is inevitable that many get into desperate trouble. In particular, as menial jobs vanish in the global recession and opportunities fail to materialize at home, more and more Filipino women are resorting to smuggling drugs as mules.

When they are caught, Filipinos seem to always react in astonishment. The first assumption is that the offender is innocent – and if not innocent, worthy of forgiveness. After all, this is a country where Ferdinand Marcos and his family could loot the treasury of billions of dollars and his wife and children are in Congress. In 1995, when Singapore executed a maid named Flor Contemplacion for murdering a fellow Filipino maid and a four-year-old Singaporean boy, her coffin was paraded through the streets of Manila in front of thousands of onlookers and then-President Fidel V. Ramos declared her a heroine.

That is in stark contrast to China, which refuses to be moved by countless international appeals to eliminate the death penalty and the criticism of Amnesty International and a huge number of other nongovernmental organizations.

Live local television coverage for the past several days in the Philippines portrayed a nation gripped by remorse for these three unfortunate people, a kind of passion play of suffering and hopelessness. We are poor. We suffer for our families. We are victims.

The sentiment has not made the Philippines a power in the world nor allowed it to realize its potential. In many ways such sentimentality, easily exploited by the media and politicians, has been a drag on the country's ability to rise above the morass of poverty and feudal rule.

But one has to admit that such feelings are deeply humanizing. It is difficult to escape the deep impression that their country actually cared for these three workers, even if, ultimately, the government proved too powerless or naive to do anything to stop their deaths.

It would be hard to imagine China showing the same concern for three of its citizens in a similar fix.

*Corrected 30 March 2011