Wednesday, September 17, 2008


Darryl Johnson - Service in the Philippines

I served as ambassador in the Philippines for three months in mid-1985, having been called back from retirement to fill in there. We had a terrific time, but the situation is discouraging -- way too many people in too little space, and limited economic opportunities. One niche they do have, however, is a significant number of people who speak good "Murrican English." This was one part of our colonial heritage -- together with excellent golf courses. As a result, one of the top business sectors is call-back centers. They are second only to India is the number of such facilities. And by the way, the biggest one is at what used to be Clark Air Force Base. The base is long gone, partly the result of failed negotiations in the latter part of the Marcos era, but mainly the result of the volcano, Mt. Pinatubo, which destroyed large parts of the base in about 1989(?). We have no bases in the Philippines now, not Clark and not Subic Bay Naval Base, and we have no permanently-stationed troops there at all (although we do have fairly extensive military assistance programs). On other related topics, Tagalog is the official national language, but it is mainly spoken in Luzon, the largest island, where Manila is located. But it is not widely spoken in the more remote islands, including Mindanao, which has been the home of most o f the security problems in recent decades, dating back long before 9/11 and the current Global War on Terror (also known as GWOT). In my three months in the Phils, I went to Mindanao five times, including Davao and Zamboanga. All of these visits were for the dedication of US-Philippine assistance projects -- new schools in remote strongholds of some of the real baddies, or small bridges to help farmers, or community education/training programs, or rural housing and agriculture projects. Most of these areas have had large Muslim minorities, or in some cases majorities, for centuries, and they were never fully assimilated into predominantly Catholic Philippine culture. Which reminds me of a cliche Filippinos say about themselves, and the cultural influences of their two colonial overlords, the Spanish and the Americans: they say they lived in a convent for 300 years, and in Hollywood for 50.

Zamboanga is a pleasant tropical city of about 300,000 located on the far southwest corner of the island of Mindanao, the largest of the Philippine islands (Luzon has a much larger population, and is about the same size). It is close to the farthest reaches of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia, and the small islands west of Zamboanga (Basilan, Jolo and others) have been terrorist havens for decades. The US supports Philippine efforts to build schools and medical clinics and bridges and docks and other infrastructure to encourage loyalty -- or at least passive acceptance -- toward the Manila government, which is a long ways away, literally and figuratively. These efforts have been somewhat effective, in part because the terrorists (the Abu Sayaf Group, the Moro National Liberation Front, Jamma Islamiya) are really brutal, but mainly because people want to be on the winning side. As for scenes from the colonial era in the Philippines that resemble The Ugly American (which was actually set in Thailand, by the way), the impression is accurate up to a point. But it is also true that Filipinos love Americans. One question I got numerous times was, "Why can't we become the 51st state?" The week I arrived, I presided over a movie premier about a daring rescue operation in the latter days of WWII, where Filipino guides helped untrained Americans liberate, with zero casualties, a Japanese POW camp holding 600 Americans and a few Aussies. It's a true story which virtually all Filipinos know. But I had never heard of it. There are examples of shared American and Filipino history all over the place, and MacArthur lives, from Corregidor to Leyte Gulf to the Manila Hotel! Unfortunately for those who have to live with today's realities rather than yesterday's dreams, the population (90 m) is far in excess of the economic or political capacity to support or govern, and the Philippines has gone from being the richest country in East Asia after WWII to being one of the poorest. President Arroyo enjoys very little respect, especially conpared to her movie star predecessor, Erap Estrada, who made little effort to govern, and to his predecessor, Gen. Fidel Ramos, who remains very popular. The society is very hierarchical, with a few hundred people at the top (mostly educated in the US) and millions at the bottom. In sum, it's a fine place to visit, but a somewht uncomfortable place to live.

Webmaster note: Darryl Johnson is a former U.S. Ambassador to Lithuania, Thailand and the Philippines, and current director of the American Institute of Taiwan.

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