POSTSCRIPT / March 20, 2001 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Why must GRP face NDF, MILF as equals?

WE should immediately stop tagging our panels negotiating with the National Democratic Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as the “GRP” or the Government of the Republic of the Philippines.

In this high-profile political process wrapped in propaganda, labels are very important.

By calling our team the GRP and naively engaging the NDF and the MILF as equals, we are in effect conceding that these rebel groups have government status, or something akin to that.

Having gone into these deliberately prolonged talks as the GRP talking not to insurgent Filipinos but to another de facto government, we have unwittingly given the other side a status of belligerency.

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READ more carefully the official statements of the NDF, and you will discover the insurgent group already claiming a status of belligerency. Keeping quiet about that public claim, the Philippine government is presumably accepting it.

By failing to officially make the point clear and by continuing to deal with them as the “GRP,” we are firming up their claimed status. Soon it would be too late to change the labeling and the world perception of the negotiating parties.

We cannot belittle this detail, because the high-level talks (held in various world capitals to draw global attention) are clothed in propaganda. The subtle nuances of language and presentation are not lost on the attentive world.

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WHY do we go to the negotiating table at this point as the GRP and committing the entire top-level political authority of the Republic?

Imagine the government — meaning that structure encompassing all its three essential branches – talking on equal footing with a bunch of insurgents who are openly and violently engaged in the overthrow of the state!

It is recklessly out of proportion to come in with a “GRP” panel committing at this stage not only the Executive, but also the Legislative and the Judicial branches of the entire government.

We carelessly leave ourselves no more space to maneuver backwards in case we have to.

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IN war, on the battlefield as it is at the negotiating table, we must have contingency plans for a possible retreat. This is not bad faith, but plain common sense.

Even in boxing, something most bystanders would understand, we lead with jabs and probing punches instead of surging in at the opening bell with all that we’ve got — unless we’re sure we could score a knockout within seconds in an all-out assault.

If we have to face equals at the negotiating table, we should bring in a panel representing only the Executive department and label it as such. Having a panel consisting of Dutchmen and their pals parleying with the “GRP” is a mismatch in their favor.

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WHEN negotiating with a foreign power, say the great United States of America, it is usually only the Executive that does the talking. Congress and the Supreme Court are left out for a good reason.

This gives us ample space for maneuvering. If a treaty results from the negotiations, it is subject to ratification by the Senate (it’s not even the entire Congress!). After ratification, we still have enough room for the legal contingency of raising the matter before the Supreme Court.

* * *

BUT in our talks with the NDF and the MILF, it is immediately the GRP or the entire Government of the Republic that is ranged publicly before the insurgents, some of whom are not even Filipinos!

It seems we have completely lost our sense of proportion.

We should send over only the equivalent of who is on the other side. Looking at them, we dare say that we should send over a Cabinet-level team officially representing only the Executive department.

We should also insist that everybody on both panels, including advisers and kibitzers inside the room, must be Filipinos. Anybody who is Dutch or non-Filipino should be out.

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BETWEEN the NPA-NDF communist insurgency and the secessionist campaign of the MILF in the South, the latter is the more serious problem.

The MILF is able to hold strategic areas over long periods and is thus able to claim, arguably, the vital element of territory if they are to claim being a separatist state later. In contrast, the NDF has no controlled territory to speak of.

The MILF and the Moro National Liberation Front before it were able to secure substantial aid and inspiration from Middle East countries with which they have religious links. In contrast, the NPA-NDF campaign is an orphaned movement. Its aging leaders are still clinging to communistic illusions even as the source of their inspiration has long disintegrated.

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BY this time, we should have wakened up to the propaganda value to the NDF of our holding talks in foreign capitals. These high-profile talks abroad are part of their road show calculated to catch the eye of the world.

It has been argued that we have been talking to Filipino insurgents in various capitals, that other liberation fronts also hold talks in foreign venues. So? That’s no valid argument for perpetuating an obvious propaganda error.

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AMERICANS are familiar with this Filipino weakness for junkets. We usually start by having the US panel come over to start negotiations. At some predictable point, Washington suggests that the venue be moved to the US of A. With studied reluctance, we agree (especially if its spring over there).

Pity this bleeding nation naman. Cut out the junkets. Let’s hold the discussions among us Filipinos on matter of urgent concern for Filipinos right here in the Philippines.

Deny the insurgents the propaganda value afforded them by talking on the world stage. And let’s not call our panel GRP.

* * *

OVER at the Department of Tourism, the biggest problem facing Tourism Secretary Richard Gordon is the product itself.

Gordon is one of the top salesmen in government captivity, but selling the Philippines as a tourist destination could be that tough even for this super salesman.

If you were the usual tourist who normally counted your remaining money before retiring for the night, why would you come over to Manila? What has the place got to offer for your limited dollars?

If you’re European, for instance, why fly to Manila halfway around the globe when you can cut your travel time, land in, say, Bangkok and spend almost half of what you would spend in the Philippines? Not to mention your risking life and limb in Manila.

What is there in the Philippines that is not found in Thailand and its neighbors? Sunsets, rice paddies, beaches, entertainment, churches? Indochina has them all galore for half the price.

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OUR most loyal visitors are our balikbayans. In 1997, when we scored the highest arrivals ever at 2.2 million, about 40 percent of those warm bodies were actually homecoming Filipinos.

What happened in 1997 and 1998? After chalking up the biggest arrivals in 1997, the number dropped the next year. From a rise of 8.45 percent, arrivals dropped to a negative 3.29 percent in 1998.

While balikbayans pad statistics and help give the illusion of demand, their number disturbs the database for planning. The stay of the average tourist appears longer than it actually is, because homecoming Filipinos stay longer.

Also, many balikbayans stay with their relatives and do not contribute their commensurate dollars to the hotel and restaurant industry compared to foreign tourists.

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THE promotions efforts of the DoT, the tourism industry, the airlines and our missions abroad will fall flat if the destination itself — this country — is not prepared.

We fix the destination, we clean it up and make it attractive and competitive (our hotel rates are too high compared to the competition), and tourists are more likely to come over.

It is useless, for instance, for Philippine Airlines and other carriers serving Manila to advertise themselves and their services if travelers are not inclined in the first place to fly to the Philippines.

The first order of business then is to prepare our home before we even think of inviting guests.

* * *

BUT can Gordon spruce up and prepare the place? No, by himself, he cannot. He is just a tourism secretary. He is not even the President of the Philippines. Even granting he were President, while that would help, still that would be no guarantee for success.

Considering his inherent limitations, especially his lack of funds to do all that he has to do nationwide, the best tack for poor Gordon is to pick a few showpieces and work on them. Hopefully, when these pilot touristic models click, they could then be replicated elsewhere.

We have not talked to him, but we think Gordon is in the right direction focusing on Intramuros as an initial magnet for tourists landing in Manila.

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INVOLVING all affected parties — including City Hall, the schools in the vicinity, the Intramuros Administration, restaurant owners and even the squatters crammed in the walled inner city — Gordon & Co. has gone full speed cleaning the place, lighting it up, accentuating its allure, making it more inviting.

In short, Intramuros as a model tourist spot easily accessible to the hotels is being made more tourist-friendly.

If you’ve seen Intramuros before, maybe even savoring its stench and stepping on human droppings in the ruins or having your bag snatched, you might experience some pleasant surprises when you next visit on a walking tour.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 20, 2001)

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