[FNPFP ORIGINAL] When Foreign Policy is Lost in Translation

Ann Febel Bajo
Thursday, December 1, 2016

The question on whether we actually understand policy pronouncements of President Rodrigo Duterte came about when I had a conversation with a member of the US Special Operations Forces. He is assigned here in Manila and leads a team of Special Forces who train soldiers of the Philippine Army. In the light of foreign policy debacle arising from a succession of anti-American statements by the Philippine President, the counterpart asked, ”Do you think that because he is from Mindanao, he can’t clearly explain himself?” As some of us continue to glue our eyes and ears on the television for yet another Duterte “blunder”, I came to wonder, What does the President want? Do we really understand the context of what he is saying? How do we make sense of it all?

In the aftermath, political observers have suddenly turned into psychologists, trying to analyze and figure out the mind of President Duterte. This demonstrates that language, as part of the art of diplomacy, is an important feature of foreign policy. If there is someone who has most appropriately articulated my sentiment on the recent foreign policy fiasco of Duterte, that would be Mr. Publio Briones III’s article entitled Briones: Understanding Digong. He said, and I quote, “…I agree with Duterte in principle. It’s the delivery that I’m having problems with.”

When Things are Taken Out of Context

Media is instrumental as a channel for policy pronouncements. Public office practitioners have extrapolated strategic guidance from Duterte’s speeches and public interviews. However, not getting guidance directly from the President can be somewhat confusing, especially when one relies on media.

There was one situation when Duterte’s words were taken out of context that rattled the Department of National Defense. Days after the commemoration of 9/11, another surprising, to say the least, comment from President Duterte, after badmouthing President Obama, was that he wanted a pull-out of US troops from Mindanao (Inquirer, 2016). United States Special Forces are currently stationed in Mindanao as contingents of the Joint Special Operations Task Force-Philippines (JOSTF-P). The JOSTF-P was created in the early 2000 after then US President George Bush and former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo agreed to deploy American troops to Mindanao to help fight against terrorism. Its mission was to advise and assist Philippine security forces at the tactical, operational and strategic levels against violent extremism throughout the Southern Philippines. But it was deactivated in February 2015, as to explore other areas for the US to cooperate with the AFP, in the light of EDCA. This sudden announcement of Duterte rattled the whole Armed Forces of the Philippines and its US counterparts.

Unfortunately for Duterte, the intention of his statements is quite often misinterpreted. Philippine mainstream media has long built a reputation for reporting developing news out of context. For example, Rappler’s news article about this topic highlighted two statements from Duterte’s lengthy speech:

"Kaya 'yang mga special forces (Those special forces), they have to go. They have to go. In Mindanao, maraming mga puti doon (there are lots of white people there)," and "'Di ko lang masalita noon (I just couldn't say so) out of respect or I do not want a rift with America but they have to go," he added.” (Rappler, 2016)

Reading these two statements alone implies that Duterte dislikes the idea that the Americans are in Mindanao. On the other hand, CNN Philippines news headlines extrapolated another statement from the speech,

"Mas lalong iinit, makakita ng Amerikano 'yan (Moros), patayin talaga 'yan. Kukunan ng ransom 'yan, patayin,"Duterte said. [Translation: The situation will get tougher. When Moros see them, they will be killed. They will ask for ransom and they will be killed.] (CNN Philippines, 2016)

Another version from the Philippine Star,

“If they see an American, they would kill him. They would demand ransom then kill him. Even if you’re a black or white American as long as you are an American, (they will kill you),”(PhilStar, 2016).

The tone of the speech in the last two excerpts then changes color, compared with the first. The news article from Rappler reveals a Duterte who detests American presence in Mindanao. The news articles from CNN Philippine and PhilStar allow some benefit of the doubt that Duterte’s statement may mean he cares for the safety of American troops in Mindanao, or that the intention of the statement was ‘do not give us a headache so just leave’. In a sense, the former statement was unlikely the intention of the President, albeit he confesses that he hates the Americans. Hence, the latter statement makes more sense to fathom. In other words, Duterte’s statement does not simply mean that he wants the Americans out of Mindanao because he loathes them, but rather he wants them out to avoid future problems that may compromise the safety of US foreign troops.

This type of miscommunication on the part of the President can be attributed to his background of having grown up Mindanao, which makes him uncomfortable with the Tagalog language. Duterte’s statements have been often mistranslated and taken out of context (Mendoza, 2016), Just as what the US counterpart perceived it as a case of “lost in translation”. It must be that the manner he frames his statements in Tagalog do not reflect what he really intends to say in his native Bisaya. However, many continued to doubt Duterte’s concern over US troops. They are not simply visiting tourists; rather, American soldiers are skilled fighters and can therefore protect themselves from any possible danger from terrorist groups. So, for the Americans, Duterte being concerned for their safety in such a context is irrational.

How the International Community Responded

In response to Duterte’s diplomatic tirades, the US plays the role of “the better person” in the situation. I admire President Obama who, when asked about his thoughts on President Duterte badmouthing him, said that he does not take it personally. Likewise, US Secretary of National Defense Ashton Carter reiterated that Philippines-US relations is ironclad. The US is now controlling the damage from its unsolicited criticisms of Duterte’s human right issues that triggered Duterte’s insults, continuously reiterating the strong relations of both countries and totally ignoring Duterte’s scathing rhetorics. In other words, the US is exercising what I would call “strategic patience”

Interestingly, another victim of Duterte’s insults, the European Union, praised him for his political will and efforts in dealing with the peace negotiations. The Head of the EU delegation believes that no Philippine President has understood the true problems of insurgent groups better than Duterte does now. (Inquirer, 2016)

Recently, the US decided to pull out some of their service vehicles and equipment from Zamboanga. The AFP did not comment on whether this was a response to President Duterte’s statement that he does not want the Americans to be in Mindanao. This could be a warning that a superpower such as the US can respond in a manner that the Philippines might regret. (This has just been experienced by Singapore when it became embroiled in a nasty war of words with China, after Global Times - a publication tied to the Chinese Communist Party- accused it of lobbying for a stronger pro-ASEAN line regarding the South China Sea issue during the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in Venezuela. Singapore denied such allegations and pointed out that the Global Times relied on unnamed second-hand resources, inasmuch as they were not in the meetings. But a Senior Chinese Military Officer, Major General Jin Yinan, urged Beijing to retaliate and impose sanctions to make Singapore “pay the price for seriously damaging China’s interests.”)

US military operations still continue in the Philippines. But going forward, this could be problematic to the Philippine government, especially that the President’s pronouncements have been inconsistent and require clarification as to what he really wants to do. . It could send a wrong signal to the public when the President gives orders and the institutions charged with implementation do not follow. Foreign policy requires proper language communication. Unfortunately, if the President continues to make statements that are unclear, it will leave everybody in and out of government clueless on what to do.


Briones, P. (2016, October 8). Briones: Understanding Digong. Sun Star. Retrieved from http://www.sunstar.com.ph/cebu/opinion/2016/10/08/briones-understanding-....

Duterte: U.S. Soldiers in Mindanao have to go. CNN Philippines. Retrieved from http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2016/09/13/Duterte-U.S.-soldiers-in-Minda....

Mendoza, C. (2016, October 9). Duterte’s Incendiary Speech: Lost in Translation?. Nations & States. Retrieved from https://nationsandstates.com/2016/10/09/dutertes-incendiary-speech-lost-....

Ramos, M. (2016, September 12). Duterte: American Troops Must Leave Mindanao. Inquirer. Retrieved from http://globalnation.inquirer.net/144613/duterte-american-troops-must-lea....

Ranada, P. (2016, September 12). Duterte: US Troops Should Stay Out of Mindanao. Rappler. Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/nation/145981-duterte-united-states-special-force....

Romero, A. (2016, September 12) Duterte to US Troops: Leave Mindanao. Philippine Star. Retrieved from http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2016/09/12/1623038/duterte-us-troops-l....

Torres, Estrella. (2016, October 7). EU Envoy Hails Duterte’s Peace Process on Admin’s First 100 days. Inquirer. Retrieved from http://globalnation.inquirer.net/146367/eu-envoy-hails-dutertes-peace-pr....