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Locsin and other small men

/ 05:07 AM June 18, 2019

When 22 Filipino fishermen almost died at sea after a Chinese vessel rammed their boat inside the West Philippine Sea on June 9, the initial reaction of the strutting, slur-happy, jetski-riding officials of the pugnacious Duterte administration was either to (a) doubt the fishermen or (b) do nothing.

This was a big scandal — the first time that China has sunk a Filipino fishing boat since the maritime disputes in the Spratlys began, the most violent act since China refused to honor a three-party agreement in 2012 to withdraw vessels from Panatag, or Scarborough Shoal, certainly the largest Chinese provocation since the arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in 2016. And what did the officials who like to talk tough and dirty, to talk a big game, do? They acted small.

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The country needed forthright voices to denounce the deliberate sinking of the boat and the calculated abandonment of the fishermen; the nation needed defenders, not necessarily to stand tall against the Chinese bully, but simply to make a stand. Instead, we got Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who despite all his customary bluster is actually a small man, physically, and acts small, figuratively.

Among his first contributions to the lame government response was to suggest, out of the ocean blue, that the sinking of FB Gem-Vir 1 was not a collision, but an allision. He tweeted: “It’s presumably an ‘allision’ or bumping of two vessels one of which was stationary. Ramming is another thing altogether requiring proof of intentionality.” This was supposed to be a display of easy erudition, I guess, but its net effect was to suggest a way out for the Chinese. He has since, he said, “fired off” a diplomatic protest, but he responded to the Chinese Embassy’s entirely noncredible press statement with an apparent open-mindedness he does not bestow on long-standing Philippine allies or ordinary Filipinos.

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“Interesting. That’s China’s take and it is a free world; it can say anything it wants. We say what we want because it is a free world for us too; but in our case we speak from the law of the sea. But still everyone’s free.” Quick to take offense from other Filipinos who call him out on Twitter (hey, it’s a free world), but when the Chinese embassy releases an insulting version of events that alleges the presence of other Filipino fishing boats, with the Chinese captain feeling “besieged,” all this Twitter bully who freely insults people can manage is “Interesting.”

It is certainly of interest to Filipino citizens to know who exactly Locsin represents. A foreign secretary who says “Fuck the international community” does not truly represent the country who was present at the creation of that community.

Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo is another man who acted small when the country needed defenders. He was, in the first place, never a credible spokesperson for the President; the presidential palace mistakes his capacity to string words together like a lawyer as an effective substitute for policy explanation. As I have said elsewhere, between the President and his spokesperson, we can see the difference between a bullshit artist and a bullshitter. Panelo says things which, like the Chinese embassy statement, no reasonable person would believe: “The President does not lie.” “The President is a cautious man.” “The President makes calibrated statements.”

His statements on the ramming have been dictated by two needs: to offer an out for President Duterte, from whom we have not heard a word, and to not offend Beijing. Indeed, his declaration that the presidential Palace is waiting for the Chinese investigation to be completed raises the question: Who is this spokesperson speaking for?

But the President himself has remained silent — nine days after the ramming took place (on Philippine-Chinese Friendship Day, thank you very much), and six days after it first came to light with a forthright, indignant statement from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Panelo says the President is only “waiting for the facts to set in” (a curious choice of words, as though facts were malleable and needed time to fix)—but this is the same President who has threatened to go to war against Canada over trash, and spoken intemperately about the United States.

The basic facts are clear, and even admitted by Beijing. A Filipino fishing boat was rammed by a Chinese vessel. This happened near Recto, or Reed Bank, in the country’s exclusive economic zone. The fishermen were abandoned at sea (regardless of what the embassy statement said, it admits as much). Vietnamese fishermen rescued them. So what is the President and his tough-talking officials waiting for? Each day that passes reveals just how small they really are.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: FB Gem-Vir 1, john Nery, Newsstand, Recto Bank incident, Reed Bank incident, Rodrigo Duterte, Salvador Panelo, Teodoro Locsin Jr.
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