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Dithering Harry

How curious that Harry Roque was behaving as though he were speaking, or lawyering, for China in its continuing claim to almost the entire South China Sea. It was only in 2015 when he helped file a complaint at the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights against China for disrespecting the rights of Filipinos at Panatag Shoal, their traditional fishing ground.

Now, a mere three years later, he seemed to think nothing of denying that the Chinese coast guards’ confiscation of the catch of Filipino fishermen at Panatag constituted harassment; he even called it “maliit na bagay”—a trivial matter—to be allowed to rock the boat of PH-China relations.

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Did Roque imagine ever taking such a stance when he first sallied forth as a human rights lawyer? (“Sallied forth” fits this man who has a flair for the dramatic. Recall him rushing from the courtroom to the toilet, seemingly on the verge of vomiting, when photographs of the murdered and mutilated victims of the 2009 Maguindanao massacre were presented. Recall as well his eyebrow-raising threat, when his appointment as President Duterte’s spokesperson was announced, to hurl not only screams but also hollow blocks at critics.) At what point did he get tired of tilting at windmills, shift his eyes from the prize—and decide to settle for a planned slot in the administration’s Senate slate, along with, among others, a purveyor of fake news?

At his Monday press conference, flanked by three of the fishermen from Masinloc, Zambales, to whom he extended legal assistance in 2015, Roque pronounced last month’s Chinese confiscation of Filipino fishermen’s  catch “unacceptable.” He said: “That is why we informed the Chinese [that] we will not allow fish to be taken from our fishermen.”

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But, meanwhile, it was “maliit na bagay”—and “not a policy of China,” as he said he was assured when, apart from Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, he, the spokesperson of the President, “spoke to” Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua about the matter. He also said an exchange of cigarettes, instant noodles and water for fish was being made.

In general terms, his language came across as dithering and dismissive of the case of the confiscated catch, as though it were a tempest in a teapot. At a certain point, he cut off a reporter who was asking many questions and, in his estimation, was trying to make “a documentary out of my press conference.”

In the video aired by GMA 7 last week, Filipino fishermen are seen watching as Chinese coast guards  inspect containers of their haul and then make off with the choice catch. Fisherman Rommel Cejuela was quoted in reports as saying that China was in control of Panatag Shoal — which lies off the province of Zambales and well within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone — but was allowing Filipinos to fish there. Cejuela contradicted himself in saying that Chinese coast guards were not harassing Filipinos at Panatag but were “insistent [on] getting some of our catch.” Ambassador Zhao subsequently said Filipinos were able to fish at the shoal out of China’s “goodwill.”

Surely the terms should rankle. Allowed to fish. In control of Panatag Shoal. Out of China’s goodwill. Even the halfway attentive observer would be sufficiently moved to ask why Malacañang, considering its patented “siga” stance vis-à-vis most other issues, is taking all this bullsh*t.

Filipinos have fished in Panatag (or Bajo de Masinloc) for generations. The Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in 2016 that China’s sweeping claim to the South China Sea is not grounded in international law and violates the Philippines’ sovereign right to fish and explore for resources in the West Philippine Sea. Why is Malacañang claiming that China’s brute treatment of Filipino fishermen is a trivial matter, as though thoroughly unnerved, or unmanned (or perhaps mindful of Janet Malcolm’s belief that “hypocrisy is the grease that keeps society functioning in an agreeable way”)?

On Thursday, reacting to Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio’s warning that the Philippines would lose its legal rights to fish at Panatag if it agrees to China’s “goodwill” bit, Roque mouthed strong language: He called the confiscation of the catch “fish thievery,” “pangingikil,” “pangongotong.”

Now he’s talking. Let’s see what he says next.

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TAGS: Harry Roque, Inquirer Commentary, Maritime Dispute, panatag shoal, Rosario A. Garcellano, Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea, West Philippine Sea
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