No, this is not a new movie version of Erich Maria Remarque’s classic, All Quiet on the Western Front. It is an unsolicited suggestion for a movie on the dramatic rescue of abused overseas Filipino workers in Kuwait, in case the Department of Foreign Affairs wants to produce it and make a touchy diplomatic situation worse.
Of course, I’m being facetious.
For the record, I agree with Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano that the Philippine government is duty-bound and morally bound to rescue OFWs who desperately need help. No matter what Migrante or the Kuwaiti government says, in an emergency situation, emergency measures may have to be taken.
That having been said, I think that the diplomatic row resulting from the incident could have been minimized, if not completely avoided, if it had been handled more Kuwait-ly, to quote a punster — in other words, more discreetly, with no social media exposure.
Coming to the rescue of nationals in distress and mounting clandestine missions that have violated the laws of countries involved have been the theme of several Hollywood movies in recent years, among them, Seven Days at Entebbe, Zero Dark Thirty, and Argo.
The Entebbe film, which had a recent remake, was about hostages held at the airport in Idi Amin’s Uganda who were rescued by Israeli commandos. That truly deserved and got worldwide exposure, to the utter embarrassment of the Ugandan dictator and certified madman.
Zero Dark Thirty was about the intrusion of US special forces — SEAL Team Six — into Pakistani territory to assassinate al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden. The US did not inform or seek permission from Pakistan, in spite of the obvious violation of that country’s territorial sovereignty, because of the highly secret nature of the mission and concerns that certain quarters in the Pakistani government were al Qaeda sympathizers.
However, at the risk of ruffling Pakistani diplomatic feathers, president Barack Obama decided to publicly announce the result of the mission because the world was eager to hear about Osama bin Laden’s extermination. Pakistan, naturally, protested and the US made a lame statement of contrition, but both countries appreciated the importance of maintaining good diplomatic relations in spite of the violation. Thus, after the usual noises, the issue was laid to rest.
Argo was about a CIA clandestine mission to extract six American diplomats from Tehran, following the seizure of the US embassy by Iranian students in 1979. Fifty-two other Americans were held hostage in the embassy for 444 days. The six diplomats had managed to avoid capture and had found refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador. But they had to be spirited out of Iran as soon as possible.
CIA agent Tony Mendez, assigned to rescue the six, conceived a fantastic scheme that required setting up a phony film production company, ostensibly preparing to shoot a science fiction movie on location in Iran, and creating false identities for the Americans as Canadian film production personnel.
The caper succeeded. But the US made no announcement of the results and kept the operation secret for decades. It was only declassified in 1997 — 18 years later. Operation Argo was subsequently made into a movie starring and directed by Ben Affleck. The film won the Best Picture Oscar in 2013.
The mission was kept so secret that even the conferment of CIA’s highest award, the Intelligence Star, on Tony Mendez was also kept under wraps.
The rescue was also attributed to the Canadian government (which had to close down its embassy in Tehran). The US took no credit for it.
As can be seen, different circumstances required a different handling of the post-event narrative of the three daring missions. Operation Argo was kept a secret, in spite of having all the elements of an action-and-suspense-packed story because making it public would have endangered the lives of the 52 Americans being held hostage by the Iranians.
We wonder if it ever occurred to the DFA officials that they would put the thousands of OFWS in Kuwait at risk when they decided to tell the world about their own rescue operation. Couldn’t they have restrained themselves from posting their heroism on social media for the sake of the remaining OFWs?
We understand that there are some 5,000 OFWs who “lack proper documents,” as well as over a hundred thousand legal Pinoy workers in Kuwait. Who knows what the Kuwaiti employers and the Kuwaiti government itself may do to them as a result of the embarrassment they may have endured (even if deserved), as a result of the social media posting going viral.
It was bad enough (even if necessary) that Kuwaiti law was violated, but posting the video on social media for the world to see was like rubbing salt on a wound.
While we should appreciate the heroic efforts of Ambassador Renato Villa, Philippine envoy to Kuwait, and his staff to save our fellow Pinoys, and while we should encourage the continued militancy of the Department of Foreign Affairs and their overseas posts to ensure the welfare of the OFWs, we believe that something can be learned from Operation Argo.
On a trip to Bern, Switzerland, back in 2004, I learned about similarly heroic efforts of Filipina-Europeans to aid OFWs, mostly women, who were being abused by their employers. I was shown a video entitled, Breaking the Silence, about how Filipina domestics had been rescued from the homes of abusive foreign diplomats. The video was produced by Annie Misa Hefti, a Filipina-Swiss and one of the leaders of Babaylan, the Filipino Women’s Network in Europe. As a result, I invited Annie to present the video at the 3rd Global Filipino Networking Convention held in Cebu in early 2005.
Because the incidents all happened in Switzerland, no risks for other OFWs were involved. And making the abuses widely known was a necessity.
I also met Filomenita “Nitnit” Mongaya Hoegsholm, one of the leaders of Babaylan Denmark. She and I have been in touch of late concerning the disturbing plight of Filipina au pairs in Denmark. On a forthcoming trip to Copenhagen, I am arranging to meet with the Babaylan group to discuss this and to write about it.
I’m sure there are many stories of our countrymen and Philippine diplomats doing much to protect our distressed Filipinos overseas. These tales need to be told.
But, in some instances, prudence is the better part of valor and discretion is preferable to public acclaim, even if genuine heroism is displayed by those concerned.
I think the Kuwaiti rescue was one of those instances.
For the sake of those left behind, it would have been best to have remained Kuwait — uh, I mean, quiet — on the Middle Eastern Front.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.