Blindsided by allies

We cannot question the right of governments to warn their citizens of the dangers they may face when they travel to particular places abroad. Indeed, the failure to warn, especially when warranted, makes a government vulnerable to possible class suits by their citizens.  But, if these governments are our friends, then the safety of their citizens who are our guests is as much our concern as it is theirs.  And we assume they feel the same way about the security of our own people.

Given these premises, it seems the height of rudeness for the United States, Britain, Australia,Canada, New Zealand, and France to issue warnings about imminent terrorist attacks in thePhilippines without bothering to share this information with our government.  It is as if, after enjoying our hospitality, and even as they continue to live with us, they are telling their nationals to avoid coming here — without letting us know exactly what the matter is.  How are we supposed to take this?

Let’s imagine the reverse.  It would certainly have been, to say the least, insensitive if, in the aftermath of 9/11, our Department of Foreign Affairs issued an advisory against travel to the United States.  Having been at the forefront of the so-called global war on terrorism, countries like the US and the UK may wish to believe they have better information than anybody else, including the host government, about an impending terrorist attack against a specific country. But, if they are our friends, and we are partners in a common effort against terrorism, aren’t they supposed to share the information with us so we could advise our own citizens to take precautions? Surely, there is a lapse in diplomacy here.

The US advisory declares: “The State Department warns US citizens of the risks of terrorist activity in the Philippines, particularly in the southern Philippine islands of Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago. Terrorist attacks could be indiscriminate and could occur not only in the southern islands but also in other areas, to include Manila.” The British travel advice echoes the same line: “There is a high threat from terrorism throughout the Philippines.  Attacks could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travelers. Such places could include, but are not limited to, airports, shopping malls, places of worship, etc.” The almost uniform language in which these advisories are cast prompts one to suspect they are drawn from a common source.

I am less worried about the impact of such travel warnings on Philippine tourism than on what they imply about the current state of international relations.  If President Aquino was not previously alerted about the issuance of these travel warnings, which is why he is now reduced to having to find out for himself when he meets with the heads of states in the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Japan, I would say our foreign office is either not doing its work or it is being completely ignored by the major foreign missions in Manila.  Either way, the implications are alarming.

The Philippines took a huge stake in the US-led war on global terror when it decided to send troops to fight on the side of the “coalition of the willing” that America cobbled together to lend legitimacy to its invasion of Iraq. That war, which reduced an entire nation to rubble and killed more than a million innocent Iraqi civilians, has been found to be based on the wrong assumptions.  On top of this folly, we acceded to the incorporation of the domestic conflict in Mindanao as a component of the global war on terror by allowing US troops to participate in forays against Muslim Filipino insurgents.  Today, as we wake up to the one-sided character of the Visiting Forces Agreement, seeking its re-negotiation if not its abrogation, we find ourselves suddenly bombarded by heightened warnings of imminent terrorist attacks.  Is this just a coincidence, or a cynical way of softening public opinion?

We, Filipinos, are, of course, accustomed to ignoring advisories against travel to strife-torn places likeIraq or Afghanistan.  We have a high threshold for risk.  The more dangerous a destination is, the more attractive it seems to become as a place of work. And these days only a few Filipinos travel abroad for any reason other than to find jobs.

Ours may be a poor country, but it remains one of the safest places in the world, especially for foreigners.  The fabric of everyday life is intrinsically fragile.  But this is true everywhere.  A temporarily deranged person can pop up anytime from anywhere, brandishing a weapon or a grenade, commandeers a tourist bus or shoots everyone who crosses his path.  An incident like this can happen as often in the US and the UK as in the Philippines. Yet, for all the violent crimes we regularly read in our newspapers or hear in the early evening news, we go through the routines of daily life with little thought of the danger that lurks in every corner. Maybe we should be more security-conscious.  But, the serenity we exude is not entirely foolish or naïve.

We may often think we have become an uncaring people, but, in fact, civic consciousness remains alive in a lot of Filipinos.  We are attentive to what happens to people in our presence regardless of whether we know them or not.  We stop to help people in emergency situations.  We take risks to volunteer information that may be useful to the authorities.  Police visibility is no doubt important to maintaining peace and order, but in the end, it is the spirit of community that makes a place safe.  And that is true for the world as a whole as it is for a country.