Interview with US Ambassador Harry K. Thomas by Lifestyle editor Thelma S. San Juan and Arts and Books editor Lito Zulueta:
We’ve seen you use your iPad and snap people.
I have an iPad and a Samsung. The beauty of it is that it allows me to post things instantly on Facebook and Twitter.
So you feel at home with social media?
Yes, very much so. Last week, thanks to Elizabeth (Meza, Cultural Affairs Officer, US Embassy) we went to Commune Café for social media day. We have to be comfortable with social media these days.
How do you know, as a diplomat, what to upload and what not to upload?
I think you want to upload anything your grandmother might like to see.
You think diplomacy has changed with social media? How has it impacted your work?
We’ve been doing the same things we’ve always been—getting to know people, talking to people, understanding—but social media allows you to reach a lot of people in an instant way. Say, even three or four years ago, you had to wait a few days for something to be posted, or in looking for the perfect angle for a shot; now we do it immediately.
Our diplomacy has not changed. Your job is to get to know people, to understand their language, culture. But think about this: In most countries, including the Philippines, half of the population’s under 30. They really engage in social media. So if you want to get to know them, understand their perspective, you have to go into social media.
What’s the downside of it, from your experience?
From my experience, at my age, there’s no downside.
I think the downside is with young children, teenagers, who post something that could haunt them for life, embarrass them, their families, when they’re just having a good time. And they’re doing things we did as children or young adults, but there were no cameras, no cell phones to capture that.
We all did things that were silly, that our parents would not approve of, but they were not recorded for posterity.
Are you Facebook friends with your daughter?
Yes, I am.
You’re not blocked?
She’s 24. When she was in college, she did not want me to be her Facebook friend. But I told her that I’m her dad, and clearly I’m going to be her Facebook friend. And if she put a couple of things on in college, I told her, take it off.
You did? Did she follow you?
She did! I was paying the tuition.
I’m very proud of her. She’s very much into politics, women’s issues, and very passionate. But I wanted to make sure that when she put something on Facebook, it would never come back to haunt her. People could think of some things you put on in an incorrect manner.
I love her, it’s my job to take care of her whether she’s 1, 24 or 50. She’ll always be my little girl.
If you don’t mind, what would a parent like you ask his daughter to take out?
Well, she had put some comments on some politicians that she didn’t like in things related to women’s issues in North Carolina, a southern state, and she’s very passionate about gay rights, and the state of North Carolina is not very ready for gay marriage.
She’s for gay rights.
Yes she is. So am I.
What are the major assistance efforts of the US where women’s issues and health issues are concerned?
Oxytocin (childbirth hormone essential in mothers). We lose about 11 women a day to infant mortality, childbirth. That’s about 4,000 women a year. And Oxytocin is applied to women, throughout the world, through drips, to prevent bleeding in the uterus. In Manila and in Cebu, it’s P40 a day, but in some provinces they can’t afford it.
We’ve come up with a system, thanks to Gloria Steele, our USAID director and a balikbayan in many ways, and this is a syringe that’s pre-packaged.
We’re waiting for Philippine FDA approval. If that approval comes, the Secretary of Health says he would like midwives to administer this after women give birth, and we would adhere clearly to his directives. But think, we can save (the lives of) 4,000 women a year. For something as simple as P40 a day.
In recent years, since your posting, what have been the key challenges facing Philippine-American relations?
I think, thanks to President Aquino and his Cabinet, Philippine-American relations have strengthened during my time. And that’s because he’s coming with a government that’s dedicated to anti-corruption, transparency, improved economy, that has allowed us to go back to not only the Secretary of State but other Washington agencies and say, we have an honest government so let us, give us, increased bonds under President Obama.
During President Aquino’s time we have increased assistance across the board. We have increased USAID assistance, despite our budget challenges in the United States.
Our embassy was one of the few to receive increase in the AID budget. Millennium Challenge Corporation was established here, that’s over $420 million a year over five years; USAID is over $100 million a year.
We’ve added more Peace Corps volunteers, we’ve added military assistance, we’ve increased our assistance to the PNP, all of these because we believe that you can work with an honest government.
So that’s what you attribute the improvement to, to the trust.
Yes. We have a budget challenge in the United States. We’re facing the same economic pressures other countries are, and President Obama’s job is to provide jobs for Americans, and people in America are questioning foreign assistance, but when we say let us give it to an honest government, they say, okay.
How did you find President Aquino’s Sona?
I think that’s for you. I’m not a Philippine citizen. Obviously, when we look at foreign policy, I was pleased that he had a photo (in the Sona slideshow) of BRP Ramon Alcaraz, which is the latest US Coast Guard ship that’s coming here. It’ll be here in September. It’s at Pearl Harbor now, earlier it was in San Diego, and Alcaraz’s family came out for the ceremony. That shows part of our increased assistance and commitment to the Philippines.
He was effusive in his praise for my very good friend and diplomat (Foreign Affairs) Secretary (Alberto) Del Rosario.
But it was really a domestic consumption speech, not a foreign policy speech. So that’s for you to decide.
There are calls for American military to have greater access to Philippine bases. Is this being worked out?
The first thing we’re doing is working on the Visiting Forces Agreement. We understand that this is an important issue now for President Aquino, but all Filipinos want to be assured that the American military is behaving in accordance with Philippine law and respecting Philippine citizens.
President Obama wants the same thing. We don’t want Americans in trouble, or causing problems. We want Americans assisting people. So we’re working on that first.
After that, we’re working on increased rotational presence to assist the Philippine military. We don’t want bases, we don’t need bases, and frankly, we don’t have the funds for bases… Over 60 percent of our naval assets are in Asia now. That will continue.
It was (Defense) Secretary (Voltaire) Gazmin and Secretary Del Rosario who came up with the defense strategy for the Philippines, and who asked us to partner with them and for increased rotational presence, only until the Philippine military is equal to the American military. So this is only a temporary thing.
One thing we’re working on is for the Philippine military to be first responders. You are in one of the most disaster-prone regions in the world, with so many typhoons, and USAID and the US military will always be here.
USAID was here instantly last year during typhoon Pablo. The US military was here seven hours after they got the call. Seven hours, the C130s landed. We will always come, if asked by President Aquino. Only if asked.
But I think the Filipino people understand that their military, their NGOs, need to be first responders. We’ve worked very closely with military on that. We’ve had military exercises, balikatan.
We also have, every other year, Pacific partnership, which has doctors, dentists; and when we went to Samar, for Pacific partnership, the American physicians asked for Filipino doctors and dentists to come and assist. We were told there would be three; when we opened up, there were 24. And that was great. That was shared work.
So part of it is humanitarian training, because you lose one percent of your GDP a year to typhoons, but also part is to assist you with your minimum credible defense. But other allies are working on that, as well: Korea, Italy, Japan. We want to make sure that the Philippines and the United States have peaceful relations with other countries.
Are issues with China impacting on this direction?
What we want to see is China and the Philippines, as part of the Asean, to work on a code of conduct. If the Philippines wants a code of conduct with China through Asean, we’d very much support that.
We think territorial disputes and claims are very difficult to solve, but they should be solved on the negotiating table. There are several claimant states, not just the Philippines, and all need to sit down, and the code of conduct is something China has agreed to.
Negotiations are tough but they beat any type of kinetic environment. We have a US ambassador in the Asean to show our commitment.
In the next two years, after your term ends, what do you think will be the biggest problems facing Philippine-American relations?
I think, economically speaking, we would like to see if the Philippines would like to join the Trans-Pacific partnership. Right now, the Trans-Pacific partnership is not open for partnership, but when that time comes, we would hope the Philippines would be interested.
This is something the Filipino people will have to decide, but I think President Aquino said that he believes the Philippines is en route to becoming an Asian tiger.
The future of our relations is not in development assistance, which we are happy to provide and will continue to provide; it’s through economic trade, jobs. That’s what changes countries.
How would that impact on the job creation our country needs?
Again, we just had a trade mission from Utah, and we have at least two more trade missions coming from the US, and these people are looking to establishing cooperative businesses with Filipinos, to sell things to Filipinos, buy things from Filipinos. We believe that exports and imports create jobs.
Does this cut across products and businesses?
Yes, it’s varied. The Utah trade mission had people interested in as far different areas as health and education. You’re looking for people to buy products, sell products. You’re looking for people who want to employ people. We don’t tell people what their trade mission has to be about, but they’ve been extremely successful.
To be honest, they’ve been more successful than I anticipated. So that shows that more Americans want to have trade missions in the Philippines. They’re able to find Filipino partners, that’s important.
Is that one area you’re happiest about where your stint here is concerned?
Well, what I’m happiest about is that there are 27 agencies in our embassy. They’re all grade A, or 1, in Philippine parlance, for the excellence they do on a daily basis.
We have the largest American cemetery. There are over 17,000 Americans and Filipinos buried there. There are 36,000 MIAs (missing in action), Americans and Filipinos, from World War II. When I go there, I look at the walls, and I see beautiful stone cut in America; I look at Leyte, where my father guarded Japanese prisoners after World War II…
Your father was in Leyte?
Right after World War II.
You went there?
I’ve been to Leyte a couple of times.
But, young people don’t want to see that, they want something interactive. So our Congress has given us money to modernize the cemetery, the guesthouses, for interactive. So young people can learn, and study and play games the way they do. And a Filipino company won the contract.
Yes. Jun Palafox’s firm won the contract. We have built four or five buildings. We have three new embassy compounds, a power plant and a marine house, that was done for about $150 million—the first time a local company won the contract. And that was the Ayalas.
We have had embassies constructed by companies that are not American, but they were never local.
This $150 million is for what?
Our new Veterans’ administration clinic and office, our new immigration counselor, social security administration, our new USAID, foreign commercial house…
And an Ayala firm won the bid?
Ayala Land. They’ve finished. We’re waiting for the third building to be certified; the power plant and the marine house will not be for LLD certification. But we have an LLD Gold and LLD Silver, and we’re hoping that third one will also be LLD Gold and Silver-certified.
We brought our American architects and engineers, but most of the work was done not just by Filipino contractors but by Filipino architects and engineers.
When was this finished?
March, we finished the last building. And we always brought Filipino students in, engineers, to study under other Filipinos so they could see what happened.
I’m very proud that our American recreation center, it’s Seafront, run by a Filipino-American. We have 11 student interns from Lyceum who want to be chefs and cooks. They’re interning this summer.
When I look at what we’re doing, it’s not what you would do in tradition. It’s all the things that we’re doing.
There’s our social media, they handle our public outreach programs, we call them American 3D—Development, Diplomacy and Defense. We’ve been to six cities in the Philippines. We started with Quezon, Iloilo, Baguio, Cebu, Laoag, Tacloban.
And we have brought our embassy to the Filipino people, streamed it live.
We have brought great music and American food products, American cars. We’ve had everybody, from Gary V to Ogie Alcasid, Filipino All-Stars, world champion hip-hop dancers, Zendee, Stephanie Reese and all these great entertainers.
You love music, obviously.
I love music. I can’t sing, but I love music. I was one of the two people not allowed into the glee club in elementary school.
How do you like Filipino music?
I like OPM, I like Apo Hiking Society. I love the AMP Band, Skarlet and the others, I like to hear them sing “No Money, No Honey.”
What memories of the Philippines are you bringing with you? What will you miss most?
Obviously the food, look at my size. I love everything. I shouldn’t—my cardiologist would have a heart attack—but I really like crispy pata, fried cricket, pork adobo, diwal.
What’s your favorite place in the country?
Too many to mention. I’ve been to Puerto Princesa, I’ve been there twice with Jesse Robredo, and then once after he passed away because we built a boathouse for the Philippine police.
But this time, I’m going to see the Underground River, and maybe that’ll be my favorite place.
I love Baguio, we have another home there, so much history.
Cebu is just… there’s something about Cebu, the people are so friendly, the food, great. I just like Cebu.
But I’ve had a great time in Boracay, I’ve gone parasailing there, I’ve done the banana boat.
I liked going to Bohol, saw the Chocolate Hills and tarsiers. I love going to places where there are old churches. I like to go to Mass all around the country.
Vigan is beautiful, Laoag.
In your goodbye reception, you mentioned Mithi. How do you manage when people ask you about her?
Well, I am very fortunate to have met a Filipino woman. She’s a lovely person from an outstanding family. I’ve been truly blessed, and now I have Filipino affinity.