Shocked or scandalized you may be by President Duterte’s alleged insult against US President Obama, this incident, as well as his earlier unflattering remarks against the American ambassador, marks a momentous break from the past.
In our history as a Republic, Duterte would be the first President to declare to the world, “I will not be America’s boy in this part of the globe.”
Duterte made it clear that his outburst was not just an emotion of the moment, but reflects his view of our country’s place in the global scheme if things: “The Philippines is not a vassal state. We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States. We are not the lapdogs of the US.” Was there ever a Philippine President who tried to even make such a hint?
Undiplomatic Duterte’ statements may be, his view of the US is totally different from those of all previous Presidents, who were either ideologically brainwashed to have the American worldview (as a West Pointer President I think was), or believed there was no other pragmatic foreign policy possible except to be subservient to the US, the sole superpower in this planet.
I had a first-hand experience of our subservience to the US when former President Gloria Arroyo asked her small circle of advisers, which included me at that time, to discuss whether to join the US demand that we join the absurdly named “Coalition of the Willing” that supported the American invasion of Iraq in 2002. I had thought it was a no-brainer, since the US was claiming it needed to invade Iraq because that country was developing “weapons of mass destruction.” Such claim seemed to me then, and was proven to be correct by subsequent developments, to be a total lie.
Probably because I had been journalist and then a spinmeister as Arroyo’s spokesman, it was easy for me to “smell” that the Americans were lying. The term “weapons of mass destruction” was a propaganda phrase that created terrifying images of a Hiroshima kind of nuclear devastation in which hundreds of thousands were killed in the blink of an eye. Yet the US was actually referring to chemical and biological weapons, as there was no way for the Iraqis to have nuclear, deliverable weapons at their disposal in 2002.
Decision already made
We debated the issue for hours, with only myself and one other Cabinet member insisting that we could not support a war based on a fabrication. During a coffee break, though, very late in the evening, a foreign affairs official who represented then secretary Blas Ople in the meeting, pulled me aside and told me: “The decision has already been made, let’s not waste our time.” It was then I realized why Ople wasn’t in the meeting: I was told he also opposed the Iraq war but had to go along with the decision. I walked out of the meeting, of course.
After that, however, Arroyo declared later her foreign policy that was a departure from those of previous Presidents, one, she diplomatically said, that would have to recognize the economic and political realities in our part of the world. Everyone, especially the Americans, of course, knew she was referring to the fact that the People’s Republic of China had grown phenomenally that it had become the superpower not only in Asia but the third (or even second) superpower in the world. Arroyo had seen that China would, in a few years time, be our biggest economic partner, which it in fact did in 2012.
Arroyo had cozied up to the Chinese like no other Philippine President ever had. Diplomats in 2000 were talking in amazement how Arroyo and the conservative Chinese President Jiang Xemin seemed like long lost friends singing their hearts out using a karaoke aboard the presidential yacht.
I believe that one way or another — perhaps by providing the Yellow Cult with their PR and propaganda expertise or by tapping her cellphone — the US contributed much to making Arroyo so unpopular, she couldn’t get her candidate win in the 2010 elections.
Arroyo was getting too much Chinese ODA, and, horror of horrors, she let the Chinese telecom giant ZTE —which evolved from China’s Ministry of Aerospace and still had state equity — bag the contract to build the backbone for the country’s broadband, that surely would have made our internet speeds today a lot faster, and probably allowed a third telecom player, owned by the Chinese, in the country. Check the makers of your modem, cheap cellphone, and portable wi-fi devices sold by Globe and Smart: If it’s not made by ZTE, then by its competitor, Huawei.
US worried over ZTE
The Americans, of course, were worried that the Chinese could put some software or device that would allow them to tap all communications on the internet, including those of lazy ala Hillary Clinton diplomats. At that time also, the US still had fantasies that its Motorola and its other telecom firms would still be able to recover to be globe’s suppliers of telecom equipment.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd dismantled all goodwill Arroyo built up with the Chinese, as if following the US “pivot to Asia” policy.
Can you think of any more pro-American Philippine ambassador to the US than Jose Cuisia? How can he not be pro-American when he has spent much of his working life as an executive of the American AIG-owned PhilAm Insurance, and even when he was ambassador, remained employed there, and was even the chairman of the firm distributing Chevrolet cars in the Philippines? Can you think of any other Philippine foreign affairs secretary more pro-American than Albert del Rosario? His wealth had been due to his businesses with the First Pacific Co., Ltd. (where he was a director for many years), which is 45 percent owned by Indonesian magnate Anthoni Salim, and 20 percent by US mutual funds?
Check out my columns on how we lost Panatag Shoal, which was the reason given by Aquino and del Rosario when we filed the Arbitration Case against China on its territorial claims in the South China Sea. You would be convinced that the Americans expertly played Aquino so that the Philippines would file that case against China over their claims in the South China Sea —and not Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam, or Malaysia, which had more resources to spend for such a case.
Ask any diplomat from Asean, and he will tell you that our reputation in the region is that we’re the US’ reliable stooge in the region, its loyal proxy even if we’ve been getting really lousy treatment from the Americans. Asean nations all believe it was the US that prodded (or hoodwinked) us into filing that case against China, and are very happy with it: It created a political obstacle to China’s expansionism in the region, even as Asean nations are so happy that they—especially Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia—can now convince China to give them more ODA, and encourage more Chinese investments and forget the Philippines.
Duterte’s rejection of the role as the American lapdog in Asia, though, is certainly fraught with dangers. Expect the Yellow Cult to beg the Americans for help to topple Duterte before he ends his term.
Lost in translation
I have described above Duterte’s insult against US President Obama as “alleged”, since I had listened to the President in that press conference before leaving the Philippines for his trip, and what I heard was also what the transcripts, as posted on the internet, show. The relevant parts are as follows;
Q: Sir, there have been concerns on extrajudicial killings, sir, and you will meet leaders. Any line of communication that we have prepared to address this issue in front of other foreign leaders?
Duterte: Extrajudicial killings?
Q: Yes, human rights.
Duterte: To whom shall I address myself and who will be asking the questions, may I know?
Q: Like Obama, sir.
Duterte: You know, the Philippines is not a vassal state. We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States. Alam mo, marami diyan, sa mga kolumnista they look up to Obama and the United States as if we are the lapdog of that country. I do not respond to anybody but to the people of the Republic of the Philippines. Wala akong pakialam sa kanya (I don’t care about him). Who is he? When, as a matter of a fact, at the turn of the century, before the Americans left the Philippines in the pacification campaign of the Moro on this island, there were about 6 million ang population ng Moro. How many died? Six hundred. If he can answer that question and give an apology, I will answer him …
You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Putang-ina, mumurahin kita diyan sa forum na iyan. Huwag mo akong ganunin.” (End of transcript. Emphasis added.)
It seems plain to me that Duterte wasn’t calling Obama a “son of a whore” as nearly all foreign reports reported, for two reasons:
First, it was prospective, that he would curse Obama in that planned forum if the US President raised the issue of judicial killings. It is not even clear if by “mumurahin kita,” he meant he would say “Putangina mo, Obama.”
Second, and more importantly, this is a case of lost-in-translation. Duterte didn’t’ say “Putangina mo, Obama” as he did during the campaign when he clearly said “Putangina mo, Papa.”
He simply prefaced his sentence with “Putangina,” which really translates, not into “son of a whore,” but is a stock exclamation of annoyance, with the meaning closer to “shit,” “fuck”, or the British “bollocks,” with which Americans or their Old World cousins habitually use to preface their sentences when agitated, even in the slightest way.