By Hannah Torregoza, Reuters and the Associated Press
The Philippine government was urged on Thursday to “prepare for the worst” and immediately set up a contingency plan and activate the hotlines to ensure that Filipinos working in Hong Kong would be safe amid the protest actions in the city.
As tensions continue to escalate in Hong Kong from the string of anti-government protests, and with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army deploying troops to its border, Senator Nancy Binay said the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the Philippine Overseas Employment Agency (POEA) should act quickly to ensure the safety of Filipinos working there as soon as possible so they do not become casualties.
Hong Kong braced on Thursday for more mass demonstrations through the weekend, with the weeks-long crisis escalating after pro-democracy protests forced the cancellation of nearly 1,000 flights this week and world leaders urged calm.
China reiterated on Wednesday that Hong Kong’s protest resembled terrorism and more street clashes followed ugly and chaotic scenes at the airport two days ago, when protesters set upon two men they suspected of being government sympathizers.
Police and protesters faced off again on the streets of the financial hub overnight, with riot officers quickly firing tear gas as their response to demonstrators hardens.
Ten weeks of increasingly violent confrontations between police and protesters have plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
The protests represent one of the biggest populist challenges for Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012 and show no immediate signs of abating.
US President Donald Trump tied a trade agreement with China to a humane resolution of the protests that have disrupted the city for the past 10 weeks, even suggesting that he was willing to meet Xi to discuss the crisis.
“I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi (Jinping) wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” Trump said on Twitter.
The US State Department said earlier it was deeply concerned about reports that Chinese police forces were gathering near the border with Hong Kong and urged the city’s government to respect freedom of speech.
It also issued a travel advisory urging citizens to exercise caution when visiting Hong Kong. China has frequently warned against what it regards as outside interference in an internal issue.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian called on Hong Kong authorities on Wednesday to renew talks with protesters to find a peaceful solution, while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged China to handle the protests with tact.
Hong Kong’s Airport Authority said normal flight operations would resume on Thursday but heightened security would remain at the city’s international airport.
It said on Wednesday an application for protests to be held in the terminal must be made in advance with a “Letter of No Objection” from police.
Protesters have expressed remorse after a peaceful sit-in turned violent at one of the world’s busiest airports earlier this week.
It was not yet clear whether the violent clashes had eroded the broad support the movement has so far attracted in Hong Kong. The protests have also hit the city’s faltering economy.
Business and citizens groups posted full page advertisements in major newspapers to support the government and denounce the violence.
The Chinese Securities Association of Hong Kong said the city’s international reputation would be seriously damaged if the violence and unrest were not stopped as soon as possible.
The head of Macau casino operator Galaxy Entertainment, Lui Che-woo, urged talks to rebuild a harmonious Hong Kong.
The protests have affected the neighboring Chinese territory of Macau, with some visitors avoiding the world’s biggest gambling hub amid transport disruptions and safety concerns.
Several protests were planned across different districts of Hong Kong from Thursday, including a teachers rally, and one organized by animal lovers upset that their pets were being tear-gassed. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized million-strong marches in June, set another protest for Sunday.
Protesters are still pushing for authorities to listen to their five requests, which include the complete withdrawal of a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent for trial in mainland Chinese courts.
The protests grew out of opposition to the extradition bill into wider concerns about the erosion of freedoms guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” formula put in place after the return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Their other demands include a halt to descriptions of the protests as “rioting,” the dropping of charges against those arrested, an independent inquiry, and the resumption of political reform.
Prepare for the worst
“Hindi na siguro kailangan pa ng gobyerno natin na maghintay bago pa lumala ang krisis sa Hong Kong (I hope the government does not wait for the crisis in Hong Kong to escalate before doing something),” Binay said.
“Umaasa akong may plano na ang DFA at POEA sa pagtitiyak ng safety ng mga OFW natin (I am hoping that the DFA and POE has a plan to ensure the safety of our OFWs),” she stressed.
“Kailangan meron (There should be) designated point person for this particular case, at sana may ready hotline, social media channel, or any alternative for OFWs and their families to be able to contact each other should communications be down,” she pointed out.
The senator recalled that during the 2014 pro-democracy protest, the Hong Kong government shut down telecommunication networks, leaving all mobile communications paralyzed.
Binay also urged authorities to touch base with Macau in the event that a mass evacuation is required even though it is still not certain whether Macau would be affected by the protests.
“Pero baka magandang i-explore din ang possibility na gawing exit point ang Macau kung lumala man ang sitwasyon, (But it’s good to explore the possibility to use Macau as exit point if the situation worsens),” she said.
Binay also said it would be prudent if the Philippine government arranged and coordinated with Filipino communities and organizations based in Hong Kong regarding immediate action and evacuation plans should the political situation worsen.
“We have a sizable Filipino community in the city, close to 200,000, kaya humihingi tayo ng ayuda sa mga organized Filipino communities sa Hong Kong maging sa mga NGOs na tumutulong sa mga OFW na makipag-ugnayan at makipagtulungan sa ating konsulado (That is why we are asking for assistance from organized Filipino communities in Hong Kong even with non-government organizations that help our OFWs to coordinate with our consulate),” she said.
“No one should be left behind if things take a turn for the worse,” she appealed.
The legislator also assured Hong Kong-based OFWs that the government is ready to extend help.
“Kung lumala pa -huwag naman sana- ang krisis sa Hong Kong at kakailanganin ng repatriation, umasa po kayo na tutulungan kayo ng pamahalaan lalo na sa usapin ng trabaho, (If the crisis in Hong Kong worsens—which I hope doesn’t—and there is need for repatriation, be assured that the government is ready to help in terms of jobs),” she said.
Stricter entry procedures
Philippine Airlines (PAL) reminded all passengers entering the Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) that they are required to show their passports and itineraries and/or boarding passes while airline staff is required to present their airport permits or company IDs.
Cielo Villaluna, PAL spokesperson said this latest directive which took effect on Wednesday, August 14, is part of the increased security measures being implemented by the HKIA authorities to control access into the HK airport premises.
All airport access points are manned by Hong Kong Aviation Security and the local police together with airline staff and ground handling agents to assist in the screening process.
In view of the tightened security measures and access control into the passenger terminal building, HKIA authorities advised all airlines to cease ticket sales at Hong Kong International Airport.
Passengers who wish to book / purchase flights out of the Administrative Region may do so by booking online via www.philippineairlines.com, calling PAL Reservations Hotline at (+63 2) 855 – 8888, and visiting the PAL Ticket office in Hong Kong at Room 305, East Ocean Centre, 98 Granville Road Tsim Sha Tsui East Kowloon, Hong Kong (852) 2301 9350. (With a report from Ariel Fernandez)