Widodo in Philippines as fate of death row Filipina lingers

Widodo in Philippines as fate of death row Filipina lingers
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo

MANILA - New Indonesian President Joko Widodo arrives on his first state visit to the Philippines Sunday, as the fate of a Filipina facing execution for drug smuggling in his country hovers over planned talks.

Widodo, on the last stop of a three-nation trip after visiting Malaysia and Brunei, will meet with Philippine President Benigno Aquino on Monday with the pair expected to sign several agreements, the presidential palace in Manila said.

However, his visit comes as the Philippines tries to prevent the execution of a female national facing death by firing squad in Indonesia after being convicted of smuggling heroin.

A spokesman for Aquino, Edwin Lacierda, said the leaders would discuss drug trafficking but did not say if they would address the case of the woman, who has not been publicly named.

"We are in discussions to further work out cooperation in various areas of mutual interest and concerns, such as migrant workers, technical-vocational skills upgrading, the combatting of trafficking of narcotics, and (for) educational visits," Lacierda said.

China is also likely to be on the agenda, analysts say, with Indonesia regarded as having a potentially pivotal role in calming rising tensions between Manila and Beijing over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

In August, then-president-elect Widodo told Japan's Asahi newspaper that Indonesia, which has better bilateral ties with China than the Philippines, stood ready to act as an intermediary.

"Indonesia has the gravitas to be the champion of peace in the ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations). Widodo can also be our partner in our efforts to improve relations with China," Wilfrido Villacorta, a former Philippine ambassador to ASEAN, said.

"Even if Indonesia is not a claimant country (in the South China Sea dispute), it has always been playing the role of a convenor of important discussions on the issue since the 1980s," said Villacorta, now an international relations specialist at De la Salle University in Manila.

The Philippines signed a maritime border accord with neighbouring Indonesia in May 2014 that has been hailed as a model for peacefully settling territorial disputes.

Last month, Widodo, who has disappointed rights activists by voicing support for capital punishment, angered several countries by allowing the execution of six offenders on drug charges last month, including five foreigners.

The Catholic-majority Philippines does not have the death penalty.

The fate of Filipinos abroad is a political hot potato in a country where 10 per cent of the population is forced to seek work overseas.

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