The Aquino administration, often at the receiving end of public scorn for its long list of blunders and failings over the last five years, found itself in rather unfamiliar territory in the immediate aftermath of Indonesia’s stay of Mary Jane Veloso’s execution. The 11th-hour request of President Benigno Aquino III to Indonesian President Joko Widodo to reconsider the case of “a certain Asean citizen” appears to have been appreciated by many Filipinos; that, at least, appears to be the underlying reason for the deeply disapproving mood that exploded all over the airwaves and social media when Veloso’s family came home and let loose a fiery stream of statements denouncing the administration, and Mr. Aquino specifically, for alleged inaction and neglect. The turn of events was remarkable: Overnight, where once a great many had expressed sympathy for and commiseration with the family for Veloso’s plight, that same many turned on the family for its seeming lack of graciousness, and the administration was, for once, seen as the object of unfair, disproportionate denigration.
There is strong basis for the complaint that the state has been a chronic laggard in protecting its overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) even as it continues to pursue the wholesale export of labor as a central plank of the economy. The total number of Filipinos facing the death penalty abroad currently stands at 88—34 in Malaysia, 28 in Saudi Arabia, 21 in China, two in the United States, and one each in Indonesia, Kuwait and Thailand. That may be a relatively low number against the vast backdrop of some 10 million Filipino workers scattered all over the planet at present, but as the case of Mary Jane Veloso has shown, every Filipino worker’s life endangered abroad triggers a tsunami of emotional and sociopolitical reactions in the home country.
More often than not, the OFW at risk is, like the average Filipino, a product of a poor background, forced to work abroad because of the lack of employment opportunities at home. Some—like Veloso who had no proper working papers when she went first to Malaysia and then to Indonesia on the back of a promise to be given work as a housemaid—end up victimized twice over by wily recruiters who may also be part of a larger criminal syndicate dealing in human trafficking or drug smuggling, and who use desperate, clueless individuals as unwitting couriers, as what appears to characterize Veloso’s case.
Despite some improvement in the Philippine economy, there is no indication that the exodus of Filipinos leaving for work abroad will slacken anytime soon, given the endemic economic inequalities still prevalent in the country. The cushioning, pump-priming power of the remittances OFWs send home to their families will remain a powerful narcotic dissuading successive administrations from revisiting this decades-old brain-drain policy. While it is a crucial crutch that has helped keep the country afloat, it has also led to a welter of unexpected complications, from families torn asunder to hapless single mothers like Veloso languishing in foreign prisons.
Is this administration doing enough for OFWs, the Philippines’ so-called modern-day heroes? A closer look at the five-year Veloso saga, just to take the most immediate case, indicates a number of lapses and missteps. The administration’s appeal to Indonesia to let Veloso live so she can testify against the criminal syndicate behind her supposed recruiter should raise the question: It had five years to apprehend the suspect and, thereby, perhaps shorten Veloso’s stay on death row. Why did it not do so?
Yet it doesn’t appear to be a case of complete, callous neglect, as Veloso’s family members and the militant groups around them have so strenuously insisted, and that fact is what undergirds the sudden turnaround in the public mood, which now thinks that the administration, in a rare instance, has lent some significant help. Public pressure might have had a lot to do with Mr. Aquino’s personal appeal to his Indonesian counterpart, however belated. But if overwhelming popular sentiment was that important a component in keeping Veloso alive, it’s even more important at this critical juncture to keep that public sympathy alive because she remains only on reprieve and has not been exonerated.
Unfortunately, the scorched-earth rhetoric, the take-no-prisoners language, that has emanated from the Veloso family and its backers couldn’t have helped any.
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