Wednesday July 18, 2018

Seares: When U.S. envoy took off headphone

UNITED States Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim removed his headphone in the middle of President Duterte’s state-of-the-nation address last July 24.

Didn’t he want to listen to the president’s profanity-laced speech? Was he miffed by the tirade against the U.S. over stolen ancient church bells?

Kim told GMA 7’s Jessica Soho the translation had stopped coming. That must be when Duterte departed from the script and ad-libbed in mixed English, Tagalog and Davao-Bisaya. Kim could understand English, not the local languages.

That didn’t mean he didn’t care to know who Duterte was cursing and over what. But he knew his people at the embassy were monitoring and on demand he could’ve a transcript complete with translation and analysis. Every embassy or consulate in a country is a listening post that reports to their government. (A report of the U.S. embassy on extrajudicial killings in Cebu in the 70s and 80s and what the local leaders thought about the unsolved murders was among the documents leaked by Wikileaks recently.)

Part of the job

It’s the ambassador’s job to know what Duterte is doing or planning to do, anything that has the remotest link to U.S. interests in the country and the region.

But Kim’s statement about focusing less on Duterte’s public statements and more on “what’s happening on the ground” offers insight on how the Americans may be dealing with him and coping with his verbal offensive against the U.S.

Others blasted by Duterte may learn a thing or two from the Americans: Parse word, phrase and sentence. See what may lurk between lines. Spot the hyperbole, half-truth or the possible lie. But don’t publicly react too soon.

Oops, just joking

Not yet. Wait from any clarification from the president himself or his surrogates or communicators. That talk about abolishing the Commission on Human Rights? Clearing with his office any subpoena from the ombudsman? Those were a joke, Malacaang said later.

The Americans must have learned that often a huge gap yawns between rhetoric and actual event. Since Duterte assumed office, he has been hurling threats against the U.S., most of which have still to morph into official acts. What is important, Kim Sung sagely noted after Sona Two is “what we actually do together.” Even as Duterte threatened to kick out of the country American personnel, his army was using U.S. intelligence and spy equipment against Mindanao terrorists.

Ritual of waiting

The practical stance may be used by others thrashed verbally by the president. Examine language, assess what he says. They may feel like cursing back. They can but must do so privately, as they wait for the meaning closest to what he intended.

Ambassador Kim taking off the headphone could be part of the ritual of waiting for enlightenment.