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Envoy to Panelo: What if China suspects OFWs of spying, too?

/ 06:15 AM August 18, 2019
Envoy to Panelo: What if China suspects OFWs of spying, too?

Zhao Jianhua —GWYNETH BIÑAS

MANILA, Philippines — Do Filipinos suspect that Chinese workers in the Philippines are really spies? Well, the Chinese can think the same way about overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in China, too. But let’s perish the thought that the  thousands of our nationals working in your country and yours working in ours are security threats.

That was the message from Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to Malacañang after Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana raised concerns about the presence of Chinese-manned Philippine offshore gaming operation (Pogo) sites near military and police camps, according to presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo.

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Lorenzana earlier said that Pogo workers could easily shift to spying activities.

He had recommended that the Pogos be moved away from the camps to hubs where finance and immigration authorities could monitor them, a plan already being pushed by  gambling regulator Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (Pagcor).

While the presence of Chinese gaming operations near military camps was a legitimate concern, Panelo on Saturday said “maybe the problem is we are too security conscious.”

Envoy to Panelo: What if China suspects OFWs of spying, too?

Salvador Panelo

“Ambassador Zhao sent me a text. He said, ‘What if we also think that your overseas workers are also spying on us. What can you say about that?’” he said.

Zhao’s point could be that the Philippines should not harbor such thoughts, Panelo added.

Earlier, Puwersa ng Bayaning Atleta Rep. Jericho Nograles and other lawmakers called for a House inquiry into the proliferation of Pogo sites, citing potential national security and labor problems.

‘Sensitive’ issues

Nograles said there might be “sensitive” security issues regarding Pogos located close to military and police headquarters—Camp Aguinaldo (Armed Forces of the Philippines); Camp Crame (Philippine National Police); Camp Bagong Diwa (PNP National Capital Region Police Office); Fort Bonifacio (Philippine Army); Villamor Air Base (Philippine Air Force); and the Philippine Navy headquarters in Manila.

Bayan Muna Rep. Carlos Isagani Zarate said the concerns were “very valid because China has the means and capacity” to use the Pogo sites for military and political purposes.

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Nograles also said some Filipinos called and wrote him about their observations that Chinese Pogo workers looked more like military men than gambling call center agents.

Legitimate concern

Quoting National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon, Panelo said with the Pogos being where they were, the authorities knew where to find these Chinese workers.

“That is a legitimate concern, but you know, Secretary Esperon said it’s better that we know where they are instead of not knowing where they are,” Panelo told reporters at an event of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc.

Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr., AFP chief of staff, on Friday said he was unsure whether the military had been consulted on the security considerations in the location of the Pogo sites as these were established before he assumed his post in December 2018.

He said, however, that policymakers needed to discuss their development plans with national security officials so that the military or police could provide insights into the “security aspect” of government projects.

Threat assessment

Madrigal said the Armed Forces has conducted a “high-low” threat assessment of the presence of Pogo sites near and around military camps. He did not say what the results of the assessment were.

“Without being paranoid, of course, we can always [assess the] possibilities — what [scenario] is most probable, most dangerous. We provide all these information,” he said in an interview. He did not elaborate.

DOJ chief backs Pagcor plan

Madrigal said the AFP’s task was only to provide information alongside the economic considerations, over which, government has to strike a balance.

The defense establishment always advocates that “development and security should come together,” he added.

Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra on Saturday said he supported plans by Pagcor to relocate Pogos and their workers to self-contained hubs.

“If a Pogo hub means something like an ecozone, I don’t find the idea objectionable,” Guevarra said in a statement. “As long as the Chinese strictly obey our laws and ordinances, respect our customs and traditions, and do not take away jobs that Filipinos themselves can do, I am not alarmed at all.”

Lacson: Defense concerns valid

“Our own countrymen migrate by the hundreds of thousands to other countries, but no one has expressed any serious concern at all,” he added.

But Sen. Panfilo “Ping” Lacson, a former PNP chief, shared Lorenzana’s apprehensions and said the defense chief raised a valid concern about the Pogo sites.

“Physical and other forms of security concerns should always be our top priority especially in this day and age of incredibly fast-moving technology, not to mention the recent incursions in the West Philippine Sea and the massive presence of Chinese nationals in the country,” Lacson said in a text message.

Regarding the reported multiple incursions by Chinese warships into Philippine waters, Panelo said that it would be President Duterte’s decision to raise this issue with President Xi Jinping during his visit to China later this month.

“But I suppose taking that up would be also important because as Mr. Lorenzana said … the incident has been repeatedly done and therefore is becoming an irritant,” Panelo said. “We want to know, really, why they are passing through here.”

Lorenzana said the Chinese actions were “annoying.” —With a report from Melvin Gascon and Jerome Aning

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TAGS: Chinese workers, Delfin Lorenzana, PH-China Relations, Philipine offshore gaming operation, POGO sites, Salvador Panelo, Zhao Jianhua
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