Philippines’ Duterte Knuckles Under to Kuwait

A depressing feature of the Duterte administration in the Philippines is big talk and muscle-flexing followed by rapid retreat in the face of real opposition. The man who once promised to jet-ski to the Scarborough Shoal to protect from Chinese development was soon kowtowing to Beijing over every issue involving Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea.

China at least is a major power, Kuwait is tiny country almost wholly dependent on almost two million foreign workers to support its rich 1.3 million nationals. Even by the miserable standards of the Middle East, Kuwait is notorious for ill-treatment of the huge army of domestic helpers, many from the Philippines.

Last month the Philippine embassy in Kuwait, long used to receiving abused helpers seeking refuge, decided on a more pro-active policy. Feelings were running particularly following the discovery that a helper, Joanna Demafelis, had been killed and left in a freezer. Her body was only discovered about a year later in an empty apartment. A Philippine labor official had been asked in December 2016 to investigate the fact that she stopped sending messages home. But apparently his case load was too huge to follow up.

She was one of 200 or so Filipinas to die each year in Kuwait for health reasons, suicide or unknown causes. President Rodrigo Duterte responded by banning further hiring of helpers destined for Kuwait, and though this didn’t affect the 250,000 workers already there, Duterte suggested it would be patriotic to return home.

The new activism included the organization by the Philippine embassy in Kuwait of rescue squads to bring in helpers who were being abused and unable to make their own way to safety in the embassy. This must have been approved by Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, and possibly by Duterte himself, as the government sought to show how determined it was to protect overseas workers. The rescue teams came partly from Manila.

So keen was the embassy staff to show off its exploits that a video surfaced showing a rescue in progress. Kuwait’s government exploded at what it called an illegal action deliberately carried out by embassy staff. It expelled the Philippine ambassador, recalled its own from Manila and arrested some of the participants in the rescues.

At this, the administration’s tough guy pretentions crumbled. An official apology was issued and soon Duterte was suggesting that the employment ban would be temporary. It could be lifted once the two countries had negotiated an agreement for the better protection of Philippine workers.

Local opinion was divided. Some felt embarrassed at what they saw as crude behavior unbecoming the Philippines and contrary to its own beliefs in sovereignty, so much emphasized by Duterte in his rejection of foreign criticisms of his murderous campaign against alleged drug sellers and users. Others, such as former ambassador Rigoberto Tiglao, poured scorn on Kuwait, as a tiny country reliant entirely on foreigners who should go home and let the Kuwaitis clean their own toilets. This robust sentiment was doubtless shared by millions, but probably not by the families of those who relied on remittances from the oppressed and abused workers in Kuwait and elsewhere.

The bottom line however was that Duterte and his men displayed their lack of cojones by not standing their ground. And the Kuwaitis showed an arrogance ill befitting a medieval state of the idle rich who were rescued by western power from the clutches of Saddam Hussein in 1991.

This must have been approved by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, perhaps even by President Duterte himself, to prove tough-guy credentials on behalf of the overseas workers, a naturally sensitive and emotional topic.

It involved the creation of teams in Kuwait to launch rescues of abused helpers held almost captive by their employers.

But the bottom line was that when push came to shove, so to speak, it was Duterte who got shoved and backed down.