CRUCIBLE: Politics of Supplication. by Julkipli Wadi

In politics, what is being asked is usually answered if the need of the supplicants fits with the interest of the one asked. While assistance may appear like charity sometimes, it is not necessarily extended out of generosity. In most cases, it’s given by the giver in lieu of an intended or calculated payoff that can be used either in immediate or some future time. If assistance doesn’t meet the interest of the giver such supplication would, in most cases, simply ends in deaf ear. Even then, to ask or to beg is the easiest way to get what one  desires whether it is actually realized or not. And supplication begged from others can become a bad habit or serious cultural disease, if it is habitually done to the extent of putting one’s dignity and self-respect at stake.

A few years ago, the relation of the Philippines with the United States was little more than “supplicatory” where there was some degree of mutuality between military and development assistance extended to the Philippines by the United States in lieu of approval extended by Philippine government allowing US soldiers to station themselves whenever and wherever they want to in the country.  As the relationship was perceived to be more beneficial to the Philippine government after receiving much windfall from the United States in lieu of the latter’s support on President Bush’s international war on terrorism, President Arroyo could not help but show gratitude to President Bush by sending him a letter of thanks few days before he exited from the White House.

Malacanang must have known that Democrats, unlike Republicans, have different kind of political litany; hence, prayers by faithful supplicants from Third World countries like the Philippines must also change accordingly. While the litany under President Bush was generally couched by the mantra of war on international terrorism, the rhetoric was expected to become different with President Obama at the helm. For Malacanang’s supplication to be heard, it’s not enough that President Arroyo catches President Obama in some unexpected meeting like in such historic National Prayer Breakfast. Such a tactic of chance encounter would not help. Instead, Malacanang should have studied well the new tone of Obama’s foreign policy. While Malacanang went gaga when President Obama’s eventually called up President Arroyo about the Visiting Forces Agreement, that call was not an answer to Malacanang’s supplication. Rather, it’s a rationally calculated move by a foreign power working for its geo-political and economic interest in the country. No supplication was answered then – except probably the reiteration that US military and economic assistance hinges on the Philippines’ continued support on the Visiting Forces Agreement, given the debacle over Cpl. Smith’s rape case.

Instead of sobbing over President Obama’s snobbery of President GMA, Malacanang should have recognized President Obama’s policy of rapprochement with the Muslim world as a thrust of new RP-US relation by catapulting even hypocritically the legitimate demand of Moros in Mindanao if only to project Philippine’s lukewarm concern on the plight of Muslims in the Philippines. A few months ago, for instance, a confluence of developments in the United States and the Philippines has elicited jittery feeling on Ambassador Willy Gaa, the Philippine Ambassador to the United States.  Responding to reports of alleged “failure of the Philippines to meet military aid conditions set by the US government,” the Ambassador was triggered to respond “that the US government has not made any statement that the Philippine government failed to meet any of the three conditions earlier set by the US government on its military assistance to the Philippines.”

A glimpse of the website of Philippine Embassy in Washington reveals that the Philippine government is indeed serious in projecting a positive image about the U.S military training exercise in the Philippines and the economic development engagement and humanitarian assistance particularly in Mindanao. As Ambassador Gaa boldly expressed the Philippine government “maintained close engagement with the US Department of State and the US Congress, particularly in ways by which ou
r two countries can cooperate to effectively address this issue.” While such foreign policy defensive stance on the part of the Philippines is necessary, it is short though of what the new foreign policy thrust of Obama presidency particularly the imperative of reaching out to the Muslim world.

When President Obama reached out to Indonesia and Turkey, the thrust is to reify shared values of cultural pluralism and common tradition of secular democracy between the United States and some Muslim countries. The Philippines would have reason to anticipate Obama’s recognition considering the historical affinity of both the U.S and the Philippines notwithstanding their shared values of pluralism, secularism and democracy including the presence of substantial number of Muslim minority in Mindanao where the United States has been showing considerable recognition these past years.

Incidentally in late January this year, the Philippine Council on Islam and Democracy (PCID) capped its national ulama conference by inviting U.S Ambassador Kristie Kenney to talk before a group Muslim religious personalities hailing their role and their organization and even facilitated the sending of the PCID-initiated letter of the ulama to President Barack Obama as a response on the latter’s inauguration address particularly his message: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”  In the letter, the Philippine ulama presented six major “supplications” to the new government of President Barack Obama (e.g., U.S engagement with ulama through dialogue; resolution of the Palestine problem; support of the Mindanao peace process and Moro self-determination; implementation of the 1996 the GRP-MNLF Peace Agreement; and, rehabilitation and relief assistance in war-torn areas in Mindanao).

The Philippine government, instead of becoming pro-active with Muslim issue in the south, was projected to be on the defensive by the PCID-initiated ulama’s letter. Incidentally, like Philippine supplicatory politics towards Washington, the letter of the newly-organized Philippine group of ulama is reflective of the numerous letters sent by Moro traditional leaders to U.S Presidents since the Sulu and Zamboanga Petitions in 1921 including among others the infamous Dansalan Declaration in 1934 that were simply thrown into dustbin of history by the White House.

It bears mentioning though that the latest communication responded, thus far, by the White House was the letter of the late Moro Islamic Liberation Front Chairman Salamat Hashim to then President George W. Bush where the latter answered with usual calibrated but ambivalent response reiterating U.S government’s respect on Philippine sovereignty while recognizing the Moros’ political rights. It shows that the White House only takes a Moro letter seriously when U.S interest is at stake and when there is a respectable party behind such letter worthy of being dealt with some degree of mutuality and reciprocity unlike fly-by-night groups with their laundry list of wishes merely pursuing expedient, suppliant politics.  

It is pretty clear when President Obama favored Indonesia and Turkey as a showcase of new U.S thrust to reach out to the Muslim world and bypassed other Muslim countries and authoritarian regimes in the Arab world including supplicant country like the Philippines despite the presence of Muslim minority, it is because present U.S foreign policy must be based on self-respect and mutuality – not on worn out, habitual politics of supplication. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is an Associate Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines Diliman)