POSTSCRIPT / March 7, 2013 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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From Sabah, change subject to Atimonan

CHANGING THE TOPIC: Malacañang released yesterday the National Bureau of Investigation report on the killing last Jan. 6 of 13 individuals at a checkpoint in Atimonan, Quezon. The NBI said the incident was a rubout, not a shootout.

The report – with a recommendation that criminal and administrative charges be filed against policemen and soldiers involved in the killing – pushed farther from public attention the discussion over Filipinos being massacred in Sabah.

Changing the subject may not be the intention in the release of the NBI report, but that is the effect.

The span of attention of the Filipino public is notoriously short. Even the local media, after some time, start looking for new red-hot topics when a long-running headline subject starts to drag.

* * *

RUBOUT, NOT SHOOTOUT: The rubout angle in the Atimonan incident contradicts the initial assessment announced by Malacañang and the Philippine National Police. Disbelief by an incredulous public prompted a deeper probe into the shooting.

Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said President Noynoy Aquino reviewed and agreed with the findings and recommendation.

Quoting from a 64-page executive summary on a top of the five-inch thick report proper, Valte said the NBI investigators found that the victims were summarily executed and “all indications point to a rubout.”

The President has ordered the filing of multiple murder charges against the policemen and soldiers who participated in the shooting that left 13 individuals dead, including suspected jueteng kingpin Vic Siman.

Among those on the carpet are relieved Calabarzon Police Director James Melad, Superintendent Hansel Marantan, Inspector John Paulo Caracedo, and Senior Police Officer 1 Arturo Sarmiento.

* * *

REBUFF: Hindi pa ba nakahahalata si Pangulong Aquino?

President Aquino and his foreign secretary had appealed to the Malaysian government for “maximum tolerance” in dealing with Filipinos in Sabah who have been resisting efforts to capture or expel them.

Malaysian forces, on orders of Prime Minister Najib Razak, responded by raining bombs, rockets and sniper fire on suspected pockets of Filipinos led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin, younger brother of Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram III.

It seems the Malaysian premier was hardly listening to his Philippine counterpart, who strikes us as still hoping that Najib will be, like him, ambivalent even when national interests are at stake.

* * *

SNOBBISH AIR: The Philippines looks pathetic having its mercy ship, loaded with relief goods and service personnel, still anchored at the Malaysian border off Borneo while waiting for the green light from Kuala Lumpur to attend to Filipinos in distress in Sabah.

Najib does not trust even official humanitarian missions of the Manila government? How is that?

The insulting snobbish air of the Malaysian leader does not speak well of the supposed amity of immediate neighbors and fellow founding-members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Even with the Philippine claim on Sabah getting in the way of normal relations, at the government-to-government level there should be ways of going around such irritants.

* * *

ELECTION FACTOR: One factor affecting Najib’s handling of the Sabah issue is the coming Malaysian national elections.

Like President Aquino who has been campaigning for a 12-0 Senate sweep for the Liberal Party coalition ticket in May, Najib is fighting to keep his coalition’s tenuous hold on Parliament in the 13th general elections to be held no later than June 27.

Najib’s Barisan Nasional coalition holds a majority of 140 seats it won in the 2008 elections versus the 82 seats of the opposition Pakatan Rakyat led by Anwar Ibrahim (who often comes to Manila on private visits). The BN’s 140 seats fall below the two-thirds vote required to amend the Constitution

Najib is hard pressed to explain his government’s failure to check the incursions of Filipinos, some of them armed, into Sabah. The opposition is also railing against the violence that had displaced residents of once quiet villages.

* * *

DIRECTON: Najib is giving top priority to his domestic political concerns. That, rather than heeding the timid appeals of Philippine authorities who are themselves looking confused over the flareup of fighting involving followers of the Sulu sultan.

Premier Najib’s handling is understandable. Why should he go out of his way to solve President Aquino’s problems — if that would mean losing votes for his coalition?

Aggravating Malacañang’s problems is the apparent lack of a principled direction. President Aquino must first tell his countrymen what he wants and where his heart is.

The difficulty of presidential spokesmen in giving clear-cut statements is sometimes traceable to, aside from their lacking sufficient background on the subject, the fact that their boss himself does not seem to have a clear vision regarding Sabah.

Spokesmen sometimes end up second-guessing the President and passing on information that the Malaysian side feeds to Malacañang without first validating these against Philippine sources.

* * *

71% DISAPPROVE: A footnote to the Sabah discussion is the ongoing PhilSTAR online survey asking readers “Are you satisfied with the way the government is handling the Sabah situation?”

Results as of yesterday: 71 percent of readers do NOT approve of the Aquino administration’s handling of the Sabah situation. Only 26 approve of it.

With such a lopsided trend, it was not surprising that something intervened to prevent the PhilSTAR site from taking more votes.

It was not asked in the survey, but I dare say that the public disappointment was mainly born out of a perception that President Aquino seems to be tiptoeing around Malaysia, as if afraid to displease Kuala Lumpur.

The administration also gives the impression that it is not keen on pursuing the Sabah claim, is not doing enough to prevent violence in Sabah, and is not assertive enough in putting forward the Philippine position on the issues.

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 7, 2013)

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