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Passion and Powerlessness

By A. LIN NEUMANN

JAKARTA—The execution of three convicted Filipino drug couriers in China on Wednesday — in the face of futile appeals from the Philippine president — underlines a deep divide between the region’s reigning power and one of its chronic underachievers.

President Benigno Aquino III sought to accommodate the Chinese government on a variety of issues in an effort to save the three; his inability to do so is an insult but also highlights his naivete.

It was almost certain from the start that the Chinese were going to carry out the executions.

In effect, the message to the Philippines and the rest of the region is simple: China will do what it wants.

Seemingly the entire Philippine nation prayed in vain for the deliverance of the trio — Elizabeth Batain, 38, in Shenzhen, and Sally Ordinario-Villanueva, 32, and Ramon Credo, 42, in Xiamen — who were executed by lethal injection.

They joined the long trail of an estimated 1,500 to 2,000 people who are executed in China every year. 

According to recently released figures from Amnesty International, China executed more people than the rest of the world combined in 2010.

Looking small

“Our government has taken every available opportunity to appeal to the authorities of China for clemency,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said in a prepared statement. “In the end, however, the sentence was imposed.”

The executions end a months-long saga in which Vice President Jejomar Binay went to China to plead for the sentences to be commuted.

In addition, the Philippines boycotted the Nobel Prize ceremony in Norway in which Chinese activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Peace prize. In what was widely regarded as related to the death sentence cases, Manila also enraged Taiwan by sending alleged Taiwanese scammers, who had been preying on Chinese investors in the Philippines, back to China instead of Taiwan.

Noynoy should have gotten tough with China, even if it did not end up saving any lives

That isn’t to say that the Philippines was wrong in trying to save the lives of the three. Easy-going Filipinos, who want to believe the best of everyone, especially those who pray for forgiveness, have bumped up against an opaque totalitarian Chinese state that can be, and often is, brutal when it comes to life, not only of foreign criminals but its own people. Punishment is about repentance and asking for forgiveness in the Philippines.

In China, it is about punishment. Whatever its many faults, the Philippines is a country that honors life enough to respect forgiveness and to accept that people make mistakes. Noynoy should have gotten tough with China, even if it did not end up saving any lives.

He ended up looking small and made his country look small in the process. On a human level, it is certainly hard not to be moved by the words of Villanueva, who asked that someone look after her children and said she would become an “angel” for her family.

On a national level, the Philippines reinforced its weak image. That these three and countless others who ferry drugs across borders for a fee, wittingly or unwittingly, did something stupid

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is beyond question. It is also beyond question that more will follow.

Desperate times

With nearly 10 percent of the Philippines population of 99 million working overseas, it is inevitable that some will get into desperate trouble. In particular, as menial jobs vanish in the global recession and opportunities fail to materialize at home, more and more Filipino women are resorting to smuggling drugs as mules.

When it happens, Filipinos seem to always react in astonishment. The first assumption is that the offender is innocent – and if not innocent, worthy of forgiveness. In 1995, when Singapore executed a maid named Flor Contemplacion for murdering a fellow Filipino maid and a 4-year-old Singaporean boy, her coffin was paraded through the streets of Manila in front of thousands of onlookers. Then-President Fidel Ramos even declared her a heroine.

That is in stark contrast to China, which refuses to be moved by countless international appeals to eliminate the death penalty. Local television coverage for the past several days in the Philippines portrayed a nation gripped by remorse for these three unfortunate people, a kind of passion play of suffering and hopelessness.

We are poor. We suffer for our families. We are victims. The sentiment has not made the Philippines a power in the world nor allowed it to realize its potential. In many ways such sentimentality, easily exploited by the media and

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politicians, has been a drag on the country’s ability to rise above the mire of poverty and feudal rule.

But one has to admit that such feelings are deeply humanizing. It is difficult to escape the deep impression that their country actually cared for these three workers, even if, ultimately, the government proved too powerless or naive to do anything to stop their deaths.

It would be hard to imagine China showing the same concern for three of its citizens in a similar fix.

(A. Lin Neumann is a senior adviser of the Jakarta Globe)

CATEGORY: Commentary, Foreign Affairs, Voices
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  1. in the first place, the president of china dont have the power similar to the phl president who can grant executive clemency to any criminal.so those appeals, even international appeal do not have any value.in china, it is very hard to politicize their supreme court. sad to say, their situation is really the opposite version here in the philippines.

  2. “Seemingly the entire Philippine nation prayed in vain for the deliverance of the trio — Elizabeth Batain, 38, in Shenzhen, and Sally Ordinario-Villanueva, 32, and Ramon Credo, 42, in Xiamen — who were executed by lethal injection.”

    Count me out.

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