As Arnell Ignacio of the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration put it, “if you will violate [the laws of Kuwait] anyway, don’t take a video and post it.” He was referring to the double diplomatic whammy caused by acting Assistant Foreign Secretary for Public Diplomacy Elmer Cato who posted videos of a covert Philippine Embassy operation in the Viber group of journalists covering the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the drumbeating by government blogger RJ Nieto whose posting of the videos conveniently publicized the Filipino embassy personnel involved — so that the Ministry of Interior in Kuwait was easily (and promptly) able to order their arrest. The Kuwaiti foreign ministry handed two diplomatic notes to our ambassador. A nocturnal conference between the Kuwaiti ambassador and President Duterte led to the diplomatic equivalent of acknowledging the problem isn’t one that will easily be sorted out — not least if one makes reference to the Kuwaiti press that the incident has become a domestic political issue over there.
The problem isn’t the rescue of abused overseas Filipino workers when it is done in cooperation with local authorities. The problem is when the embassy mounts rescue missions on its own, which it does in cases where the embassy notifies the authorities of a problem but no action is taken within 24 hours. The very fact that the embassy has publicly stated that there are failures on the part of Kuwaiti authorities — and that there is video evidence of Filipinos in diplomatic vehicles engaging in rescues — has highly offended the Kuwaitis, with some members of parliament demanding that our ambassador and other embassy people be deemed persona non grata, a term that will be familiar to our own authorities in Davao. As the lofty pronouncement from MP Adel Al-Dhamkhi stated: “We are a state of institutions and we must put an end to repeated abuses from the Philippines side.”
To give a sense of the way domestic politics is playing out in Kuwait, the comments of another MP, Talal Al-Jalal, are quite vivid. He describes our ambassador as a “very unpopular and unwelcome person.” He added: “We will not accept anyone infringing on our sovereignty under any pretext, and the excuse of the Philippine ambassador who showed his actions is uglier than that of sin.” The seriousness of the situation is shown by the change in certainty about the President’s previously expected visit to Kuwait after Ramadan to witness the signing of an agreement on the safety and working conditions of OFWs. The hardliner MPs are demanding that the agreement be postponed or even scrapped. This is significant because, as Doug Bandow pointed out in a commentary in 2016, half of the assembly is controlled by the opposition and MPs can force the resignations of ministers. Now the Palace says the visit may or may not happen, as the President is trying to cut down his foreign travels. This is a face-saving precaution.
As is generally the case, as the elephants fight, everyone else in the grass scrambles for cover. When the President, after all his tough talk on Kuwait, called on his countrymen to apply for amnesty, the original response was reportedly muted: 5,000 OFWs could have applied but by the first deadline, April 12, only 512 did. The amnesty was extended to April 22, but Kuwait has gone ahead in seeking workers from Ethiopia to cover what its government called a “deficit” of workers due to the Philippine ban on deployments (Ethiopia, for its part, says deployment will take place only after an agreement on workers’ rights is signed). As it is, to Filipinos intent on seeking employment in Kuwait, an official ban is meaningless as there are other ways to enter the country.
The grisly murder of Joanna Demafelis had certainly placed the Philippines on the moral high ground when it comes to Kuwait. As the Kuwaiti official decision to seek new sources of workers to replace Filipinos shows, however, their willingness to address legitimate Filipino concerns has limits (ironically, possibly including concessions to respect the rights of Ethiopians whose nationals have had their fair share of being treated horribly). Now, efforts to build cooperation for the benefit of both countries are on the back burner because of the fame-whore culture of the administration’s social media cowboys and the braggadocio of our own diplomats.