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Panalo na, naging bato pa! How PH officials self-destructed versus Kuwait

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By Kala Peño

Riding high on the public outrage triggered by the discovery of Filipina maid Joanna Demafelis in a freezer and the resulting deployment ban ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines stood on a moral high ground vis-a-vis Kuwait just a little over a week ago.

By all accounts, the Philippine side enjoyed the leverage as it kept up its investigation on widespread reports of abuse and maltreatment by Kuwaiti employers of Filipino overseas workers.

Why this was beneficial for Filipinos:

– The Philippine government was well positioned to apply diplomatic pressure on the Kuwait to step up labor protection for Filipino domestics.

– The deployment ban and subsequent departure of thousands of Filipinos threatened to leave Kuwait with a “deficit” in domestic workers, forcing officials to consider recruiting more nationals from Ethiopia, according to Agence France Presse.

– On April 1, a Kuwaiti court sentenced Demafelis’ murderers to death by hanging, helping ease tensions between two countries.

– As tensions cooled and relations grew warm again, it was clear who could set the terms for a planned Philippines-Kuwait pact extending protection to 260,000 Filipinos in Gulf State.

The Filipino diplomats were doing so well. Public approval was off the charts. Politicians were trying to worm their way into the picture for publicty.

Then two video clips changed it all.

On April 19, the Department of Foreign Affairs posted videos showing a dramatic “rescue mission” of Filipino workers from their employers by embassy officials. One clip features a Filipino woman apparently running from her employer’s house and jumping into a waiting vehicle. Another shows a worker running away from a construction site and speeding off in a black sport utility vehicle.

The clips were accompanied by a DFA press release, part of which read: “These teams are dispatched in response to information received from the distressed Filipinos themselves or from members of the Filipino Community.”

The videos initially did not catch much attention.

Then at 4:07 p.m. of April 19, blogger Thinking Pinoy shared them on his widely-read Facebook page with the heading, in big bold letters: “GANUN PALANG KATINDI ANG PAG-RESCUE NG DISTRESSED OFWS?”

Soon, the post caught fire.

It became clear that Kuwait had known nothing about the operation at all. Naturally they were outraged.

On April 25, Kuwait expelled Philippine Ambassador Renato Villa from the country and declared him a persona non grata because of “undiplomatic acts by Philippine embassy staff.”

Kuwait’s Foreign Ministry said the “rescue mission” had been done without permission and breached the country’s sovereignty. Three Philippine embassy staff members were reportedly arrested for taking part in the operation.

In a matter of days, the balance of power had fully shifted to the Kuwaiti side, leaving Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano shell-shocked and red-faced.

Here’s the Philippine response:

On Thursday, the Philippines expressed “strong surprise and great displeasure” at the Villa’s expulsion. It also objected to the detention of four embassy personnel and the issuance of arrest warrants against three members of its diplomatic staff.

Cayetano, in a press briefing in Singapore where he was attending a regional summit, claimed that there were no “covert operations.” He insisted the mission was not illegal and had been coordinated with local authorities except for life-or-death cases.

“We still did not break Kuwaiti law by knocking. We did not go into the houses. We did not take the law in our hands,” Cayetano said.

As Philippine diplomats scrambled to fix the rapidly escalating situation, one person found himself on the defensive.

On Thursday morning, Thinking Pinoy blogger RJ Nieto took to Facebook to defend himself from accusations that his sharing of the DFA video had basically triggered the firestorm.

No, he’s not to blame because he wasn’t even the first to share it, Nieto said. He noted the Philstar website posted the clip six minutes ahead of him.

“So no, I did not ‘leak’ the video. I simply shared what’s already freely available online,” Nieto declared.

“Do I regret sharing the video? Not even, because I think that people have the right to information that affects their lives. With most Filipinos having OFW family members, I believe it’s just right for them to learn about the real plight of OFWs,” he said.

Said one netizen on Twitter: “By uploading a video that caused a diplomatic row with the government of Kuwait, the obnoxious RJ Nieto confirmed that the name of his blog – Thinking Pinoy – is an oxymoron.”

The comment drew 192 retweets and 754 likes.