The fatal shooting of a crewman on a fishing boat that set sail from Taiwan’s Siaoliouciou (小琉球) by Philippine Coast Guard personnel remains a topic of heated discussion across Taiwan.
This is not the first dispute that Taiwan has had with the Philippines over fishing rights in waters south of Taiwan. Overfishing and exploitation of marine resources over many years have plunged fishing grounds far and near into an ecological crisis, making life hard for Taiwanese fishermen. The death of crewman Hung Shih-cheng (洪石成) in the incident raises questions about what role the governments of Taiwan and the Philippines have been playing in all this.
The unfortunate incident has given President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) unpopular government an opportunity to intensify the conflict in the name of national sovereignty, imposing a list of 11 sanctions on the Philippines. As to the government of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, its handling of the incident has been inconsistent as it muddles through the crisis. As the two governments exchange accusations, the issues that ordinary people really care about, like punishing those responsible, investigating the truth of the incident and working out how to develop fisheries while safeguarding the ecology of the seas south of Taiwan, are being drowned out by rhetoric about national sovereignty. These issues are displaced by misplaced nationalism and will eventually to be set aside and forgotten.
For the past few days, every TV broadcast on the issue seems to feature the government and the pan-blue and pan-green political camps speaking in unison about the need to uphold Taiwan’s national dignity, while giving the media free rein to stir up animosity against the Philippines.
Only more recently have they started urging Taiwanese not to take out their anger on Philippine nationals in Taiwan.
Following the government’s lead, some hotheads have called for war, while others have called for a boycott of Philippine products. There have even been newspaper reports of attacks against innocent Philippine migrant workers.
Taiwan’s attention-grabbing media have broadcast footage of entertainers making sarcastic comments about how poorly governed the Philippines is, while program hosts describe the Philippine government in vulgar terms.
All of a sudden, everyone has noticed that several Philippine politicians and officials who had been involved in corruption scandals reappeared on the Philippine political stage during mid-term elections that were marred by numerous violent incidents and suspicious power cuts.
In the minds of many Taiwanese, all this goes to show what a “rotten” country the Philippines is.
However, even if all these accusations were true, should Taiwanese not offer sympathy to the people who have to live under such a government? Philippine migrant workers are ordinary working people, just like the fisherman who was killed. Nationalist emotions cannot bring Hung back to life, just as they cannot solve the hardship or improve the fates of Philippine migrants or any other working people.
As the government and media stir up anti-Philippine sentiment, exposing the muddle-headed populism of media in Taiwan, the National Communications Commission has merely submitted to this tide of nationalism and has done nothing to rectify the media’s behavior. If this situation continues, even more regrettable incidents may continue to happen.
Nationalism casts a powerful spell. It sets “the nation” above everything else, allowing politicians to focus the public’s will on asserting what they portray as the nation’s dignity and the national interest. Whenever a country faces a crisis of domestic policy, the nationalist strategy since time immemorial is to find a scapegoat and declare war to unify the country in hatred against a common enemy.
The war that the US launched against Iraq just 10 years ago is a recent example and a lesson that should be heeded.
Nationalistic sentiments are inducing Taiwanese to forgo their planned trips to the Philippines and have convinced shops to stop selling products from the Philippines. Politicians have their own motives for letting such things happen, but what good does any of this do for ordinary people? How will it make people’s lives any better?
The Ma administration has been making a lot of noise about the current dispute. No doubt, its posturing is based on delusional self-importance and a haughty disdain for the Philippines. However, the reality is that Taiwan has been treading water for a long time and has fallen far behind international trends.
This shouting match is probably not going to quiet down for a while yet. Progressive forces in Taiwan must make their voices heard, so that Taiwanese will not unwittingly dance along to the politicians’ tune. It would be better if Taiwanese used this opportunity to learn more about the country from which many of the nation’s migrant workers come, and about what kind of a life people live in the Philippines. Above all, the lesson that people from both countries really need to learn is how not to let politicians lead them by the nose.
Lorna Kung is spokesperson for the Union of Excluded Immigrants and Unwanted Citizens.
Translated by Julian Clegg