DAVAO CITY (04 July) — LISTEN ALL! –Elder statesman Fidel V.  Ramos is at it again! And  somebody ought to listen ! This time, he called on everyone to put at the “backburners” the issue of the Spratly Islands. “What’s the big deal?” he asked referring to the on-going not-so-friendly exchanges  in the media between the Philippines and China over the disputed atolls.

He skipped the whole morning vigil at daughter Jo’s wake last Thursday morning and spoke at a German ministry project review forum at the ADB headquarters at Ortigas. The BIMP EAGA (Brunei- Indonesia- Malaysia- Philippines East Asian Growth Area) cooperation framework was his brainchild and undoubtedly he could not miss an event such as this.   Germany’s GIZ (formerly GTZ) convened the day-long event to take stock at its BIMP EAGA assistance and support project. I attended it, although I am now already in the private sector due to the fact the GTZ project got underway while I was still doing BIMP work. Unfortunately, the project has come to an end with Thursday’s closure.

TODAY’S ENEMIES — “We should put sovereignty and territorial issues in the backburners,” FVR forcefully said as he recalled that he founded BIMP EAGA during his presidency about 16 years ago precisely to seek communality with neighbouring countries and in the process threw to the backburners the issue of Sabah specifically with Malaysia. By doing so, the Sabah issue with Malaysia became a “non-issue”.  According to him, the preoccupation of everyone now should be to work for enduring peace and sustainable development. He hinted at the futility of saber-rattling and unnecessary media exchanges on the Spratlys that exacerbate the situation rather than help bridge gaps.

This tough talk will lead everyone to nowhere. “Take it from me. There will no longer be any global or regional conflict in the scale of World War 1 or World War II or the likes of Vietnam. The common enemies now of nations are international terrorism, natural calamities, endemic diseases, hunger and starvation, lack of education, the effects of climate change, etcetera. So, what’s the big deal?” he boomed. Earlier, FVR said the way forward was to “de-militarize” the Spratlys issue, meaning our Armed Forces should not figure at all join in the “ball game.” Looks logical coming from one like him!

TOSSING IN THE AIR – I was seated with Business Council Chair Vic Lao and I whispered that I was waiting for FVR to throw copies of his speech in the air. And yes, he did. As I predicted, he “threw in the air” copies of his prepared speech and spoke extemporaneously, another “trademark FVR” act. For those of us who have listened to him deliver speeches in the past, we are no longer surprised when at some point in his speech, he would stop reading the prepared text, then thank some technical people for helping him prepare a long, 72 or so pages of speech, then announces: “To make my speech short and spare you another two to three hours of listening, I will send this up to where it belongs”. Then he dramatically tosses the papers in the air and hurriedly adds: “You can download it from your favourite webpage”.  He then continues with his speech, spiced by anecdotes and recollections. (I suspect he must have a spare copy left on the rostrum.)

MODERN ARITHMETIC –He spoke of the modern-day arithmetic. He said: “Today, 1 + 1 is no longer equals 2.  It can be equals 3 or 5 or better still 11. Today’s synergy and convergence coupled with the fast clip development of information technology, give us a new arithmetic. That’s the way things now go and if you remain with the traditional 1 + 1 equals 2, then you are left behind.”

WARLORD BAPA ALI –Well, FVR was not all spewing heavy stuff. He lightened the morning meeting with his anecdote about the late Mindanao political kingpin, Congressman Ali Dimaporo. FVR was chief of the Philippine Constabulary then when Lanao “warlord” Bapa Ali invited him to witness the surrender of thousands of firearms by groups and clans in Lanao at that time. Ali showed to him more than 2,000 firearms by saying: “General, in accordance with your instructions, I confiscated these firearms from all the warlords. There are no more armed warlords left in Lanao , (a long pause…) EXCEPT ME!” Naughty him!

MORE THAN FOUR WIVES –In the same event, FVR recalled that he was also enthroned and proclaimed “Sultan of Karomatan”, an honorary royal title. But then Bapa Ali took time to emphasize and remind him: “Respect the number 4, General.”  Although FVR confessed that he had an inkling about what he meant, he pretended he could not understand what “Respect No. 4” was all about. The Maranao kingpin then took the effort of pointing out that since he (FVR) was already crowned honorary Muslim, he was reminded that he was NOT ALLOWED to take more than four wives. This is against the Koran. Just maximum four.  Those who have MORE THAN FOUR WIVES are considered no longer Muslims, Bapa Ali  warned.  So what are they? They are called Christians!  True? Never mind!

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BIMP EAGA AND SABAH – FVR’s move of putting the Sabah issue with Malaysia in the backburners through the BIMP EAGA was good. It worked. The two countries interacted and engaged each other in enhancing trade, tourism and investments. Work was done in removing, or in many cases, minimizing or simply knowing and understanding the barriers that somehow impeded what was, centuries ago, a free flow of people and goods in this neighbourhood of islands. If we go back to history, before governments came into being, our forefathers were already traversing across the narrow seas freely interacting with each other in borderless fashion. They were “interconnected”.  But when governments came, things radically changed. The borders were closed. Rules on customs, immigration, quarantine and security (CIQS) were imposed. Internal laws of individual countries contained and restricted everyone. The BIMP EAGA concept was to get the sub regions, especially those that were “connected” before to somehow “go borderless” again. That was the reason behind the effort called “harmonization of CIQS” amongst the BIMP members, although we are still far from fully achieving those goals.

“PHANTOM RESURRECTED” — Everything was well and good. Until one day, the “phantom” that was supposed to be tucked away suddenly reared its ugly head. FVR’s dream of making the Sabah issue a non-issue was somehow shattered.  We suddenly woke up from that dream. All because some bright boys at the Manila foreign office recklessly tinkered with it.

I cannot forget that incident. I was already press secretary in Malacanang sometime in 2008 when in one cabinet meeting President GMA’s attention was called about an exchange of communication where the issue of Sabah in the BIMP EAGA activities cropped up. I was dumbfounded. I was focused in my work in the palace and BIMP EAGA developments were not always in my radar screen. What’s happening, I asked our BIMP staff in Davao. To make the long story short, I found out that some “bright boys” at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) made a big fuss about the phrase “Sabah, Malaysia” in the draft agreement that was to formalize the creation of the coordinating office for all the four countries called “facilitation center” which was already headquartered in Sabah.  All these years, we were all happily, nonchalantly doing our BIMP work, not even minding about the address “Sabah, Malaysia”.  Something unusual was happening, I thought.


UNDERMINING BIMP–I hastily called for a meeting at DFA. Very coincidentally, the “Little President”, Executive Secretary Ed Ermita was out of the country on some official mission then and I was designated “OIC” for a few days. (For my epitaph when I’m gone, you can please include the title “Former Little President” although it was good only for a few days. Hahaha! ) Yes, the meeting went at DFA and yes, I was angry. That was the only instance I can recall that I blew my top while in an official meeting, ever. I listened to one “DFA bright boy” explaining that using “Sabah, Malaysia” in the document would undermine our Sabah claim! My god, it was a shocker. We had been using that phrase or address in many documents, minutes, letters, etc for years. And now, in the nick of time when we were to sign an important document, they were making a big fuss about it and in an “undiplomatic” manner. They could have managed those official reservations in some diplomatic way.  The Malaysians, who were also trying to adroitly manage the issue, of course were forced to also officially dig in when the matter came to the fore.  Sorry, but the guys at DFA were ignorant at the very essence of BIMP EAGA as envisioned by the four countries’ leaders, FVR foremost. By doing so, DFA itself resurrected the “phantom” and dug it up from the backburners and brought it up front. Worse, they came up with another bright but ridiculous solution: move the facilitation center OUTSIDE of Sabah so we avoid using the address “Sabah, Malaysia” in the document. Crazy indeed! They didn’t even know what they were talking about.

BURY IT — That” faux pas” undermined the BIMP EAGA spirit to its core. And up to this day, we are suffering from it. The formalization document is still gathering dust and cobwebs waiting to be signed. It effectively stalled BIMP EAGA!  The phantom will continue to hound us for some time unless we again creatively and decisively “bury it”.  And sorry to mention this but the GIZ project at BIMP EAGA that we closed last week, although with milestone achievements, was formally closed with that unfinished business still to be done.

THERE’S WAY FORWARD. –“Maybe it’s going to happen at some future time,” I heard GIZ’s Peter Richter sigh when I whispered to him that Germany was leaving with some unfinished task at hand. But I guess there is a way forward, no doubt.  I did a little bit of intervention myself before I left my BIMP work.  I crafted a proposed provision to be inserted in the pending agreement to remedy the situation. That proposal is still pending but some diplomatic back channeling will do some good. But first, let’s keep those DFA guys from doing more mischiefs. We should not leave them to their wile to play around with their bureaucratic games and spoil our initiatives and gains in Mindanao. ([email protected])