Why the Philippines Snubbed Liu Xiaobo

Among the dozen or so nations that heeded Beijing's call to boycott the ceremony in Oslo, Norway awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to imprisoned Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo last week was the Philippines.

The Philippines?

Is this not the home of the famous "people power" revolution in 1986 which overthrew the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in 1986? Is the current president, Benigno Aquino III, not the son of the martyred democracy icon Benigno Aquino?

What is the Philippines doing in the company of such exemplars of democracy as Cuba, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela? Why is it the only Asian country besides Vietnam and Sri Lanka to snub the awards ceremony for China's most famous advocate of multi-party democracy and human rights?

The Philippine Foreign Ministry maintained that the country's ambassador to Norway, Elizabeth Buescuceso, was out of the country attending to "counselor business" and that her absence from the ceremony did not constitute a deliberate boycott. That answer wasn't very persuasive, especially to human rights organizations, which heaped criticism on the government.

One person close to the presidential palace said that "We did not want to further annoy China." What would he mean by that? True, Manila is in the doghouse with the Chinese world because of the fallout of a botched hostage taking incident in Manila last August that left eight visitors dead.

A dismissed police officer took over a tour bus filled with more than 20 Hong Kong tourists, holding the tourists hostage for hours demanding to be reinstated. When the police finally attempted to storm the minibus, the hostage taker let loose, killing the eight Hong Kong passengers.

Hong Kong went into a frenzy of mourning – flags were lowered to half staff, black borders were placed around newspaper headlines, people protested outside of the Philippine consulate-general, some of the tens of thousands of Filipina maids working in the territory were ostracized. The Hong Kong government temporarily banned further visits and ordered those already in the Philippines to return home.

Beijing, being Hong Kong's protector in matters relating to foreign affairs, felt compelled to enter the fray too. Its foreign minister loudly denounced the Philippines and demanded an investigation. President Aquino ordered the investigation and promised to share the results.

The Chinese were further irritated when at the hostage taker, Ronaldo Mendoza's funeral, his coffin was draped with the Philippine national flag, as if he were some kind of hero.

In defending his decision, Aquino said he had sent a letter to the Chinese government seeking clemency for five Filipinos sentenced to death for drug trafficking, according to Manila news reports. The Foreign Affairs Department said the death sentences were under review by China's highest court. If clemency is granted, the sentences could be commuted to life imprisonment.

However, the drug traffickers and the hostage incident probably weren't the only reasons for Manila's avoiding the Nobel Prize Ceremony. It so happens that Gen. Ricardo David, chief of staff of the Philippine Armed Forces, was in Beijing about this time negotiating a major arms deal, the first such deal between the Philippines and China.

The exact type of weapons and the total value of the sale, assuming there was a price tag, were not immediately known, but it was said to be "very substantial." The Philippine military chief was thus holding talks with his Chinese counterpart at roughly the same time America's Admiral Mike Mullen was speaking with his South Korean counterpart.

The Philippine armed forces are poorly equipped and overextended in fighting both a longtime communist insurgency and a Muslim separatist insurgency on the big southern island of Mindanao. The country is a formal ally of the United States, but military aid has been skimpy, especially since the Americans were forced to withdraw from the Subic Bay Naval Station and Clark air base in the midst of Filipino nationalist sentiment.

"This will start an influx of logistics coming to us from mainland China," said a Philippine army spokesman. "The Philippine Armed Forces really lack funds and equipment, and it is ready and willing to accept equipment and much needed resources from any donor country. This includes China."

The irony of the arms sales were not lost on many in the country since the weapons and logistic supplies provided by Communist China will be used partly to fight the Communist New People's Army. But then China today is into making money, not making revolution.

It was, of course just one more example of the quiet struggle between the US and China over influence in Southeast Asia, and shows that even countries like the Philippines, with its close historic ties and formal treaty, are not .immune to Beijing's "soft power" blandishments.