Tuesday, May 21, 2013

What was behind the Philippines’ Pre-election Murder of a Taiwanese Fisherman?

     Only four days before a hotly contested mid-term election in the Philippines, crewmen from a Philippine Coast Guard vessel fired 45 machine-gun bullets into an unarmed Taiwanese fishing boat, killing Hung Shih-cheng, a 65-year-old fisherman.  Philippine President Benigno Aquino III immediately claimed that the shooting was an accident, that his government had no reason to apologize, and vowed to protect Philippine “sovereignty”—without mentioning that the Philippines has no clear sovereignty over the area in question.   According to the voyage data recorder, the murder was committed in an area where the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of both nations overlap, and in which area the Philippines has refused to negotiate a fishing agreement.
     Rather than negotiate with Taiwan directly, Aquino said he would negotiate with China, not even acknowledging the existence of Taiwan’s national government.
     Aquino, a third-generation political princeling, has accused Taiwanese of muddying the waters by calling it murder.  Under international law, it was murder.  Any time a death occurs as a result of a felony being committed, the law sees it as first-degree murder.  Under international law, the Philippine Coast Guardsmen committed a felony by peppering the unarmed vessel with machine-gun bullets.  They committed yet another felony by leaving the scene of the crime rather than render assistance to the stricken survivors.
     Let’s look at the background of events.
     The Bashi Channel is a narrow waterway where the exclusive economic zones (EEZ’s) of both Taiwan and the Philippines overlap.  The Philippines will not formally negotiate fishing rights in the area, supposedly due to the Philippines adherence to a “One China Policy” in which Taiwan is presumed to be part of the Peoples Republic of China (Red China).  Actually, that’s a lie; they won’t negotiate fishing rights with Beijing or other nations either. 
      A Philippine spokesman said that, in the matter of the recent killing, they would negotiate only with the Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO), an agency of Chinese Beijing. 
     Under international law, a coast guard or naval vessel under challenging a boat or ship in contested waters is permitted to fire a warning shot over the bow of the challenged vessel.  Instead, the Philippine Coast Guard vessel opened up on the fishing boat with a withering barrage of .30 caliber machine-gun fire.  It’s uncertain how long the attack continued, but Taiwanese news reports say that the boat had 59 bullet holes in it, some 45 of which were entry holes.  At least 24 bullets were fired into the cabin, where four crew members had taken refuge.
     Bullet trajectories as determined by Taiwanese authorities are depicted below.  Click for higher resolution.

     The Philippine government gave contradictory excuses for the shooting.  On the day after the killing, they said the fiberglass fishing boat’s operators were trying to ram the Coast Guard vessel and that the Coast Guard gunners were deliberately firing at the boat to disable its engine.   The Ilocos-class Coast Guard vessel, at 35 meters (114 feet), was six times the size of the fishing boat.  The fishing boat's engine, of course, would not have been in the crew’s quarters in the forward cabin.   Furthermore, Taiwanese forensic investigators found no sign that the fishing boat had rammed anything.  

   One Philippine spokesman claimed that they were trying to disable the engine while the fishing vessel was trying to escape.  Apart from the logistics of firing into the forward end of a fleeing vessel, international law forbids firing at a fleeing vessel unless it’s a warship in time of war.
     Next, Philippine officials came up with an equally risible excuse: They said that the Coast Guard vessel’s gunners had accidentally shot the fishing boat—45 times.
     Although Philippine government spokesmen claimed they would investigate the event, they indicated that Taiwanese investigators would be unwelcome.  A few years ago, Taiwan and the Philippines signed an agreement providing for joint investigations of incidents such as this.  To date, the Aquino regime has refused Taiwan’s requests for a joint investigation, and they haven’t shared information with Taiwanese investigators.  Taiwan, in contrast, has shared their findings with Philippine counterparts.
     What has become of the Filipino investigation? I have vainly searched Internet news for information on their supposed investigation.  To date, I have seen no news of witnesses have been interviewed or statements made by investigators (if they exist at all); and the whole matter of an investigation seems to have been dropped down a memory hole.
     Not one to let a good crisis go to waste, Aquino (in the third generation of a politically elitist dynasty) and his political allies spent the remainder of the mid-term election campaigns thumping their chests over the shooting incident.
     Aquino’s political allies made clear gains in Monday’s mid-term elections.  At stake were 12 of 24 seats in the senate, all 229 seats in the house, some 18,000 local elections, and the question of whether Aquino would be a lame duck for his three remaining years in office. 
     As it is, Aquino’s party increased their number of senate seats from 4 to 13, made clear gains in the house (at this writing, the exact number is unknown), and in local elections. There’s nothing quite like an international crisis to pull an endangered politician’s chestnuts out of the fire. 
     If the international crisis was contrived for political gain, why did Aquino’s party select Taiwan as their foil?  After all, they also have sovereignty spats with Vietnam, China, Malaysia, and Brunei; and China has been the most provocative threat to their claims.
     China is too big and powerful for the Philippines to threaten.  Vietnam, Malaysia, and Brunei are too small and weak to be made foils for a show of nationalistic machismo.  Taiwan, recognized by only 24 countries worldwide is isolated from the pack; and Taiwan is rich enough and powerful enough—but not too powerful—to make a suitable foil in a machismo contest. 
     Furthermore, Taiwan has a reputation for labor abuses against Southeast Asian—including Filipino—laborers and caregivers.  Salt was further rubbed into old wounds after Taiwanese envoy Jackie Liu was arrested on charges of defrauding her two Filipina housekeepers.  She had signed a contract promising to pay them US$1,240, but she paid them only US$450 a month.  She could have been charged with human trafficking, embezzlement, and abuse; but after three months in the Fort Leavenworth penitentiary (she could have gotten five years) she was deported to Taiwan, where charges against her were dropped due to “lack of evidence.” 
     Liu was accused of fraud in foreign labor contracting because her Philippine -housekeeper, who was hired to work 40 hours per week and receive a monthly salary of US$1,240, in fact had to work six days per week, 16 to 18 hours per day and received a much lower salary.  (LINK) 
     At the time of her arrest, Liu said she didn't understand what the fuss was all about.  “It happens all the time in Taiwan,” she was quoted as saying.  Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested Liu’s arrest, claiming that Liu had diplomatic immunity because she was carrying out her “authorized functions.”  She was stripped of her titles because she had “damaged our nation’s image,” rather than because she had done something evil. 
     Other details of this scandal and surrounding issues may be found here, here, here, and here.
     In short, Taiwan makes a handy whipping boy for political demagogues and has even contributed to the problem.
     To my surprise, political demagoguery in this matter is as scarce in Taiwan as they are plentiful in the Philippines.  As much as I hate to say anything good about Ma (“The Bumbler”) Ying-jeou, I must admit that he has done everything right in this crisis.  Even those who, only a month ago, were campaigning for his recall have suspended their campaign for the time being.
     In all this justifiable anger against the Philippine government, there is blessedly little anger against Filipinos themselves. 
     Several decades ago, I lived in the Philippines for four months, and all my neighbors were Filipinos.  I came to know the best of them, the worst of them, and those in between.  Here in Taiwan, I have come to know and admire many more of them.  The people of the Philippines are the salt of the earth.  
     Their leaders, however, like the political leaders of most countries, are little more than glorified gangsters.  Throughout the history of the world, most countries have been ruled by criminal gangs; and most gangster governments have been ruled by criminal psychopaths.
     I served in the United States Navy for over three years, and I came to know sailors from other countries as well.  By nature, people accustomed to obeying orders are unwilling to risk a firing squad by committing cold-blooded murder. Even the American atrocities at Abu Ghraib came as a result of pressure from very high in the American government.  Likewise, in the murder of Hung Shih-cheng, orders to violate international law had to have come from someone very high on the chain of command.
     As of this writing, Aquino has offered no real apology (just a lame excuse that it was all an accident), no offer of compensation to the family of the murdered fisherman, and no sign that he would welcome a joint investigation of the crime.
     Only international pressure can force the Aquino regime to conform to civilized norms.  Taiwan can display moral suasion by protecting the rights of Filipino caregivers and migrant workers on Taiwanese soil.  The laws to do so are already in place.  All they lack is the will.

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