Exciting Times

by Jose Ma. Montelibano


Yes, it has truly been an exciting week that has been tackling key issues that can change the course of our history. Three major concerns have been happening simultaneously that can set the tone of our immediate future and change the flavor of national life way beyond that.

First is Scarborough Shoal, also known as the Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc. This is just a reef, but it has rich fishing grounds around it, and has long been used for shelter during inclement weather by Filipino fishermen. It would not matter so much except that the reef is so near Philippine shores but being claimed by China who is so much farther. Scarborough has been a bone of contention for six months and threatens to be a spark for more than just diplomatic confrontation. China has cordoned it off and has stationed three ships to make sure that Filipino fishermen cannot enter and fish there. In the words of one former Foreign Affairs official, China has de facto control over Scarborough Shoal.

De facto control is tantamount to a successful invasion where Philippine sovereignty is concerned. If the Philippine government will send Navy or Coast Guard ships to escort Filipino fishermen so they can fish in the Scarborough Shoal area as they have always done, then an armed clash becomes an instant possibility. Any casualty will lead to emotional outbursts here and in China, and war drums will echo in the horizon. The only reason why this has not yet happened is because the Philippine government has been bending its back to allow diplomatic efforts to resolve the dangerous issue. The government does not want a violent confrontation as a matter of principle – and as a matter of practicality.

We have accused China of bullying us from its extraordinary superiority in size, population and military resources. In turn, through their media reporting to Chinese citizens, the Philippines is accused of grabbing Chinese territory. There has been a great improvement in the trading of accusations and belligerent language, but that is easy for China to do because it has de facto control of a contested area. In other words, victors can afford to be magnanimous. Meanwhile, Filipinos bite their tongue in humiliation. We pray that diplomacy can solve the problem but we face the prospect of sending our own ships and risk their sinking by a much stronger force. Our humiliation may drive our government and military to an option that will cost us not just an arm and a leg but, literally, thousands of lives.

A seemingly unrelated development will deeply impact the scenario of Scarborough Shoal and other islands which we claim as ours and the Chinese claim as theirs. I refer to the newly-forged peace agreement with Muslim secessionists.  This is not only a welcome development, this is an awesome shift from a long-drawn armed conflict which has caused more than 100,000 deaths and many more hundreds of thousands of families displaced, disrupted, and shoved into refugee camps. The toll has been very costly in all fields and has generated hate between Filipino brothers. The peace agreement is another blessed opportunity for healing and for the rapid development of Muslim Mindanao. It also allows the Philippine military to focus on defending our territory from foreign interlopers.But increasing our capability to defend our islands from China and other claimants is brings us closer to armed confrontation and war. When we had next to nothing and had to just cringe and bear it when we were being bullied, we may soon have enough military equipment to fight back in a skirmish but never enough to win a war.

We can speculate that China will not necessarily go on an all-out war and send troops to invade the Philippines, but it can simply take over Scarborough Shoal and the Spratlys by sending its navy and air force to take these territories. Since these territories are unmanned and largely undefended, China can expand its territory without a shot. We then bear the burden of re-taking what we believe is ours. Government may have no choice but to do it if Filipinos become determined to fight and die for the motherland.

Then, we have a hot issue in the newly-signed Cyber Crime Law or RA 10175. Originally intended to protect our young from prostitution and pornography over cyberspace, a last-minute insertion introduced cyber libel into the picture and we now have a new anti-libel law to boot. This has caused a howl among netizens which now number about 40 million. More than a howl, however, is a worse reaction – fear. At this day and age, in a world that is growing more cyber and where tens of millions more Filipinos are expected to use the Internet in the next few years, there are eerie accusations of a martial law environment. It is also gaining sympathy and support from international institutions and groups who claim that the Cyber Crime provisions on libel are against international agreements wherein the Philippines is a signatory.

The controversy over RA 10175 will only get worse because it is emotionally-charged. The harder government will insist on maintaining RA10175 the way it is, the more massive the resistance will be, and the more international it will get. That is the nature of cyberspace – it has no borders and require no visas. And an international controversy which will find support from the global audience will be the only negative force of magnitude that can darken what it already a bright and optimistic Philippine horizon. Thankfully, the Supreme Court ruled quickly and decisively enough on petitions for a TRO by granting it. The TRO opens options and avenues for more reasonable discussions, even debates, and can result in a consensus between lawmakers and netizens. Or pride and the arrogance of power can aggravate the controversy and elevate it to a conflict between the government and its boss.

Always, at the tipping point of change, there is disruption, even turmoil. And the elections can make everything powder dry.

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