MANILA, Philippines — President Benigno Aquino III said the Philippines did not send a representative to the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring a jailed Chinese dissident because of his efforts to spare Filipinos on death row in China.
Aquino said in an interview published in the Philippine Sunday Inquirer that his envoy's absence at the ceremony in Norway on Friday did not mean his government is not championing democracy and human rights.
"Our interest (is) to advance our citizens' needs first," he told the newspaper in his first comments since human rights activists criticized the Philippines' decision to boycott Friday's ceremony with China and 16 other countries.
China was outraged at the award for democracy advocate Liu Xiaobo, demonizing him in state media and portraying the Nobel as a Western propaganda tool to undermine China. It sought to persuade and pressure other countries to not attend the ceremony, and nearly all the boycotters were close China allies and trading partners.
Chinese Ambassador Liu Jianchao has said his government did not pressure or influence the Philippines.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo also said that Manila's move should not be interpreted as "taking sides with China."
He told reporters Thursday that his government remains "clear and consistent to its fight for human rights," citing its campaign in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for the release of Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's pro-democracy leader. The military junta there released her from a lengthy detainment last month.
Aquino said he already sent a letter to the Chinese government seeking clemency for five Filipinos sentenced to death for drug trafficking.
The Foreign Affairs Department said the death sentences were under review by China's highest court. If clemency is granted, the sentences could be commuted to life imprisonment.
The Philippines has no death penalty, while China executes more prisoners than any other country and applies capital punishment to a range of crimes.
Aquino also said that the Philippines was seeking a "closure" with China over the killings of eight Hong Kong tourists during a hostage crisis Aug. 23 in Manila. The police response to the hostage-taking was widely criticized as inept, and it damaged the countries' diplomatic relations.
Aquino said Vice President Jejomar Binay was expected to meet with Chinese officials next week to discuss the results of the investigation into the hostage deaths.
China has been investing in the Philippine economy, particularly infrastructure projects, but the two countries are also facing off in the hotly disputed South China Sea islands, where the United States is promoting the peaceful resolution of territorial disputes.