The President of the Philippines in Brussels
Last night I met the president of the Philippines, Benigno S. Aquino III. During his two day visit to Belgium, he was invited by the Egmont Royal Institute for International Relations for a conference on the theme: « Philippine relations with the European Union: Shared values and prospects for cooperation ».
Not only admirers
Welcomed by the « Nonoy, shame on you », shouted out by militants at the entrance, the theme of the evening was set, at least for Sophia and Johan from the Intal Brussels Philippines group and I.
We begin by registering and we take the few documents that were available for the guests on the table at the entrance. What a surprise to discover the titles: « Stop Torture » and « Time for President Aquino to tackle the Philippines' dirty, open secret ». An Amnesty International officer had asked if she could put some documentation on the table, without a lot of hope of getting a positive answer….Ok, we weren't alone!
Serving his people
Mr. Aquino begins his speech. He starts by saying that the Philippines have always appreciated Belgium and the fact that it was always there to give a helping hand throughout the last century.
As corruption and negativism qualified his predecessors, according to him, he declared he, on the contrary, is dedicated to "serve his real boss, the Filipino people". Did we get it all wrong?
Although it wasn't exactly the theme of the conference, he repeats that his government's slogan is "no to poverty", that "the government is on the people's side", and that "every peso goes to the Filipinos". Ok, it's true; sometimes he had some difficulties in reading his speech. Speech he discovered at the same time as us apparently.
Praises about his policy
He also talked about all the benefits of his government, practices that are very criticised by our partners, such as the conditional cash transfer programmes that help families in the very short term but do not improve the health and education systems, to name but a few, nor the health insurance PhilHealth, so expensive that it is often unaffordable for the Filipino people, who thus have even more difficulties in accessing basic health care.
He continued by saying that the Filipino people had to have faith and find within them the optimism necessary. It seems that they would need to go and fetch it very very deep within, given that the political assassinations keep increasing.
He talks about Haiyan and takes the time to thank us for our help. It is true that he was busy working out how to privatise the damages, by offering the affected areas to big commercial companies in order for the rebuilding to serve other agendas as well.
He then moves on to the cooperation with Europe, saying that it is a humane tie that unites us and that we complement each other, "we can each compensate for the weaknesses of the other". We could maybe make him discover the freedom of social movements in Belgium?
He concluded by saying that Human Rights protection is fully part of his policy.
The protection of human rights
It could have ended there. But in Belgium, the freedom of expression still exists, and it is very naturally that the director of the Egmont Institute asks us if we have any questions for the president. Johan, co-manager of the Brussels Philippines Group goes for it: "I am glad to hear that the protection of human rights is fully part of you government's programme because the numbers are not correct: 204 activists killed, 208 others imprisoned, 21 cases of enforced disappearances … since the beginning of your mandate! What is your view on this?" The President answered back "the situation was worse before" (this line should surely bring some comfort to the families of the victims…) and he continued "we should first think about the reason of these assassinations. A journalist could be assassinated for other reasons than his investigation work."
Why had we never thought of it?? It would then be some sort of coincidence that all these people have something in common: the promotion of a different vision than the one of the Filipino government, a vision where the Filipino people are truly the ones to decide, the bosses as he puts it…
And it is not over yet
He also answered to another question about the economic partnership agreement, ensuring us of his will to accelerate it. This is not really something we are looking forward to, when we see the social damages such a policy would give rise to…but this is another story!
Thanks Sophia for the translation!