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Trap of its own making

/ 11:22 PM June 06, 2012

The question has to be asked: For how long will the Philippine government maintain its “strategic silence” vis-à-vis the civil conflict in Syria, which gets bloodier with each carnage reported, the latest being the killing of 108 people, including 49 children and 34 women, in Houla on May 25? The death toll in the 14-month-old conflict is reported to have climbed past 10,000, but the Philippines continues to keep to a see-hear-and-speak-no-evil mode. In fact, it was the only one absent when the United Nations Human Rights Council composed of 47 member-countries met on June 1 to discuss a resolution expressing condemnation of the massacre, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch. This “empty chair” is worse than the Philippines’ abstention from past UN votes on Syria, Human Rights Watch said.

Witnesses and activist groups have blamed the massacre in Houla on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, including militiamen from his Alawite minority sect. Assad has denied that his government was responsible and said “armed terrorists” had attacked Army positions and killed the 108 civilians, but evidence has apparently shown “a clear government footprint.” A resident, who hid in his home during the massacre, later told The Associated Press that the gunmen, known as shabiha (government thugs), “went after the women, children and elderly” in the farming villages of Houla, an impoverished area in Homs province. He found it difficult to describe what he had seen: “The images were incredibly disturbing. Women, children without heads, their brains or stomachs spilling out.”

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And yet the Philippines would not add its voice to expressions of outrage from many other UN member-countries. Earlier in the year it did not take part in a UN Human Rights Council vote deploring “the brutal actions of the Syrian regime” and seeking unimpeded access by humanitarian agencies, and in a UN General Assembly vote endorsing an Arab League message for Assad to stop the deadly crackdown on protesters or step down. Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario then said the Philippine government had sought the Syrian government’s help in the repatriation of Filipino workers from that country and, thus, could not vote for the UN resolution. He invoked the “welfare of our people” as the Philippine government’s “primary concern.” And then this shocking massacre happened, for which the UN Security Council unanimously rebuked the Syrian government on May 28, saying evidence had shown that tanks and artillery were used against the civilians despite a ceasefire forged on April 12. Explaining once more on May 31 the continuing silence of the Philippine government, Del Rosario said it was still “focused on the safety and welfare of several thousands of our people that remain [in Syria].” He had earlier said that “as long as we have overseas Filipino workers there who need help,” the Philippine mission in Damascus would stay put (as opposed to the expulsion of Syrian diplomats by other countries in a coordinated move against Assad).

As many as 1,567 Filipino workers have been brought home from Syria, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs. But it’s unfortunate that most of those remaining in that country, estimated at more than 8,000 and comprising mostly undocumented domestic helpers, appear loath to accept the DFA’s offer of repatriation, indicating that they would rather take their chances in that strife-torn country than return to certain unemployment at home. It would seem then that the Philippine government is caught in a trap of its own making: unable, or unwilling, to voice outrage at the killing of children in a country where Filipinos clutch at the knife’s edge in an effort to earn a pittance that they would otherwise not make at home.

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But for how long can this pragmatic diplomacy hold, and is it a guarantee that it will protect Filipino lives?

No, the Philippines cannot maintain its “neutral” mode. Ironically, it is now effectively siding with China, who, like Russia, has expressed wariness of foreign, specifically Western, intervention, and insisted that the Syrian people should be left alone to resolve the problem. The Philippines has to break free of its enforced helplessness and find its voice. As it exerts all efforts to bring its people home and generate the employment opportunities that will make them stay, it should stand with the global community that does not countenance the murder of innocents. One act should not preclude the other.

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TAGS: Houla massacre, Philippines-Syria relations, Syria, Syrian conflict, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad
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