New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark may have been “impressed,” but it’s not likely that most Filipinos were.

Here was the most authoritarian leader the Philippines has ever had since Ferdinand Marcos declaring , albeit indirectly, the members of Burma’s ruling military junta “forces of authoritarianism,” and demanding the release of oppositionist Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest.

Alone among all the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Gloria Macapagal Arroyo made that statement last Wednesday during the summit of Asean leaders which was also attended by the representatives of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea. She also warned that the Asean Charter faced non-ratification unless Aung San Suu Kyi was released.

If that sounded like a warning, forget it. Mrs. Arroyo signed the Charter anyway, as did the rest of the Asean leaders. What she did was to pass the buck to the Philippine Senate, which has to ratify the Charter to make it binding. Be that as it may, the likelihood is that, after the usual song-and-dance in which various personalities will pretend to be concerned over human rights among the Asean nations, particularly Burma, the supposedly historic Charter, including its mandate to create a human rights body, will pass the Senate.

Mrs. Arroyo claimed to have been pleased by the inclusion of “language in the Charter that advances human rights and democracy,” and that’s exactly what the Charter does: pay lip service to human rights by listing it only as a specific issue below the concern for sovereignty and non-interference.

What’s wrong with sovereignty and non-interference? Nothing. They’re grand principles every self-respecting country must honor, and respect for them should be the basics of state-to-state relations.

Except that, if anyone’s thinking that this will be invoked when, say, the US Ambassador to the Philippines mouths off again on domestic issues ranging from the arrest of CPP founder Jose Ma. Sison to the Glorietta 2 blast, or threatens to halt the “training” of Philippine troops unless a rapist is transferred to her custody, he or she would be mistaken. Instead, these will be invoked whenever any country, or the United Nations for that matter, criticizes or comments on the human rights records of, or the human rights situations in, Asean member countries–including, perhaps specially, the Philippines.

A report containing recommendations to this effect has in fact come to light via the Associated Press, which on the same day that Mrs. Arroyo hurried home supposedly to look after the victims of typhoon “Lando” saw print in the major dailies.

The report recommendations emphasize that the human rights body the Asean Charter is committed to establish should not intervene in human rights issues in Asean member-countries, but on the contrary should protect them from foreign interference. “Foreign interference” presumably refers to statements, comments, criticisms as well as other acts relating to human rights issues in each country not only by non-Asean countries but also by each Asean country about another.

But would, say, intervention by the United Nations in the human rights situation in an Asean country constitute “foreign interference”? Apparently it would, if we’re to judge from the cancellation, under pressure from the Burmese delegation, of a briefing by UN Special Envoy Ibrahim Gambari on the human rights situation in Burma early this week Gambari was supposed to have conducted for the Asean leaders and their guests.

Are the Asean leaders so afraid of Burma then? Not necessarily, although certain business interests in such countries as Thailand and the Philippines do have reason to fear the wrath of the junta.

What they’re afraid of mostly is the yet to be established Asean human rights body’s not stopping with Burma. If that body once founded were to address human rights issues in Burma, who knows where it will stop? Will it go on to say something about the human rights situation in Singapore? Malaysia? Brunei? Vietnam? Cambodia?

The Philippines?

The human rights record of the government of the country where Mrs. Arroyo currently holds puzzling sway has been criticized by various countries including Japan, New Zealand, the United States and the European Union, as well as by the UN and international human rights groups like Amnesty International and the Asian Human Rights Council.

The truth is that the countries above have not gone beyond motherhood statements and have continued to pump foreign aid into the coffers of the Arroyo police and military that’s responsible for the extra-judicial killings, abductions, torture and sundry other human rights violations straight out of the martial law period.

But the Arroyo government has also been trying its best to convince these hypocrites to shut up, anyway, because they might end up convincing others to weigh in. Not that words are of any value to the various regimes that have driven the Philippines into penury for decades. (Marcos dropped the word “democracy” often but saw to it that no one could express himself freely without spending at least a night in jail, for example. And Fidel Ramos, during whose watch Burma became an Asean member, did not hesitate to declare that Burma would eventually “democratize.”)

Like “development,” “transparency,” and “good governance,” “human rights” is just another word to the Arroyo regime, which is why it seemed so bold in calling the Burmese junta authoritarian and demanding the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Filipinos have after all been calling Mrs. Arroyo and her coterie of police and military generals and shady politicians authoritarian as well as corrupt for years, and where has it got them but nowhere?

The supposition that Mrs. Clark was “impressed” by Mrs. Arroyo’s statements came from the Philippine delegation, which thus inadvertently exposed Mrs. Arroyo’s ploy of relying on the good old trapo (traditional politician) tradition of using words to impress listeners without really meaning them. The junta shouldn’t fret. They’re just words.


Luis V. Teodoro

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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