MANILA, December 9, 2010 (AFP) – The Philippines on Thursday defended its decision to skip the Nobel peace prize ceremony for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, as rights groups accused it of succumbing to bullying from China.
The decision by one of Asia’s most vibrant democracies to stay away from Friday’s event in Norway comes as it seeks to build stronger military and economic ties with communist China.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Eduardo Malaya said the Philippines would not be represented at the ceremony because the country’s ambassador to Norway was away on a consular mission.
“Our ambassador to Norway has a scheduling conflict,” he told AFP.
A spokesman for President Benigno Aquino gave the same reason, but two senior government officials admitted that the Philippines had boycotted the ceremony out of fear of angering China.
China reacted furiously to the decision by the Nobel Committee to award this year’s peace prize to Liu, who was jailed for 11 years last December on subversion charges after calling for reform of one-party communist rule.
It repeatedly warned governments around the world that ties would be harmed if they attended the ceremony.
“We do not want to further annoy China,” said a senior diplomat at the Philippines’ foreign affairs department who asked not to be named.
A presidential palace official also said Aquino “did not want another irritant” in his government’s ties with China.
The Philippines has been working hard to repair diplomatic ties with China following the botched ending of a bus hijacking incident in Manila that left eight Hong Kong tourists dead in August.
The Philippines is also seeking to buy military hardware from China — the nation’s armed forces chief, General Ricardo David, is in Beijing this week on a procurement mission.
China has become an increasingly important trade partner for the Philippines.
Bilateral trade has been expanding at double-digit pace since the 1990s, with China now the Philippines’ third largest trading partner following the United States and Japan.
China’s ambassador to Manila, Liu Jianchao, thanked the Philippines on Thursday for its decision to skip Friday’s prize ceremony.
“We appreciate the understanding of the Philippine government. Every country has the right not to attend the event,” Liu told reporters.
Human Rights Watch said it was “shocked and disappointed” at the Philippine decision, especially as the country had always been a leading supporter of Myanmar’s democracy heroine Aung San Suu Kyi, herself a Nobel laureate.
“The Philippines prides itself on its democratic values, which is why it is shocking to see this government turning its back on Liu Xiaobo’s non-violent struggle for free expression in China,” said Elaine Pearson, the group’s deputy Asia director.
“By declining the invitation to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Philippines is failing to live up to its promises to promote human rights in Asia.”
Lawyer Harry Roque, chair of the Manila-based Center for International Law, also expressed outrage.
“We should not have allowed China into bullying us not to attend the ceremony. This is an abdication of our moral duty to the world as the source of people power, of liberal democracy,” Roque told AFP.
“That was a regrettable decision, because in effect what we did was to support an affront on freedom of expression.”
Vietnam and Afghanistan are other Asian nations to have declined to attend Friday’s ceremony in Oslo.
By Jason Gutierrez