'Creative imagination' under Duterte, or interpreting what he says

MANILA, Philippines – In his 6 months so far in office, President Rodrigo Duterte has dominated the attention of national and international media alike.

It’s not just because of his bloody crackdown against illegal drugs, with a body count running up to more than 5,600. It's also the President's colorful way of speaking – peppered with choice insults – and how some of his Cabinet officials painfully and carefully try to clarify, interpret, or explain away his controversial statements.

They have taken on the additional job of interpreter in recent months, blaming media for taking the President's words "out of context" in their "biased" news reports. They excuse Duterte's cursing as statements made out of frustration or exhaustion. They say national and international media simply do not understand the Bisaya president the way the Davao-based media do. Members of the press, they say, should use “creative imagination” and not take the President too literally. 

Rappler compiles a list of statements Duterte has made over recent months, and the way his spokesmen and advisers have interpreted or clarified these statements. 

Separate from the US…or not

Duterte has been openly disdainful of the United States, showering its envoy and even its president with insults. During a state visit to Beijing in October, Duterte announced a “separation” from the US in both military and economic aspects.

'I announce my separation from the United States, both in military but economics also.' 

His Cabinet members and advisers later had various interpretations of the President’s statement:

Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia

"We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbors...The Philippines is integrating with ASEAN (Assocation of Southeast Asian Nations), China, Japan and South Korea. In a way, Asian economic integration is long overdue compared with the regional economic integrations.”

Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia 

"It's not a separation…You have to parse it as a rebalancing, as a restructuring of economic relations from too much dependence on the West...We know that, that is what he means because he has said that before and that’s how we interpret it. The President has a strong economic team and whatever economic pronouncements are made, it's really the economic team that makes the final say.”

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr

"[Duterte] had always been saying this all along. We were separating from that colonial mentality from dependence so it is in that context that he said we are opening up to other countries.”

Communications Secretary Martin Andanar

"It's like a father and son, the son has to marry and move to another house. The US was a father to us for a long time but it is timely for us to move out of that house and secure our own house and decide for ourselves.”

President Duterte, 2 days later

"It's not severance of ties. Severance is to cut diplomatic relations. I cannot do that. Why? It's for the best interests of my country that we maintain that relationship. Why? Because there are many Filipinos in the US, Americans of Filipino ancestry...Separation of my foreign policy, that it need not dovetail the foreign policy of America. That's what I meant actually…Separate is just to chart another way of doing it.”

Last PH-US military exercises? 

In September, Duterte said the next joint military exercises between the Philippines and the US will be the last under his term because he does not want to antagonize China. 

'You [US] are scheduled to hold war games again which China does not want. I will serve notice to you now, this will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines-US, the last one.'

Here's how his officials clarified this statement:

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr

" Ang pagkakaintindi ko (My understanding is), it's the last for the year…We will clarify.”

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr, moments after Duterte's statement

“No, no, no, he did not say that at all…What he said was that, as he said before, there will be no joint patrols with a gray ship of any nation in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) because that would be a provocative act...But he said, he will continue to respect our treaty arrangements and commitments with the United States. He always says that.”

After media insisted on hearing Duterte's statement, Yasay later modified his response and said he did not hear what the President said. 

Leaving the UN: Just a joke 

With Duterte, it's often not clear whether his statements are made in jest or should be taken seriously.

In August, irked by the United Nations (UN)'s criticism on his bloody war against drugs, Duterte threatened to leave the UN.

'Maybe we'll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations....Take us out, you have not done anything. When were you here the last time? Never. Except to criticize.'

But Cabinet officials downplayed the President’s threat.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr

"We certainly are not leaving the UN...The President is understandably extremely disappointed and frustrated with this action of the special rapporteurs in arbitrarily concluding that these drug-related killings were done by or are at the instance of law enforcers. But I can assure you that he remains committed to the United Nations, of which the Philippines is one of the founding members."

Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella

"We are not decoupling. It was a matter of record, it was a statement.”

President Duterte, 2 days later

“ Hindi ka marunong magbiro pa? Saan tayo mag-join, Association ng mga Lumubog? ” (You still can’t take a joke? What will we join, the Association of the Sunken?) 

Sick or a snub? 

Duterte skipped the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)-US Summit in September allegedly due to a migraine. 

But he later admitted that it was intentional because of his dislike of Americans.

'I purposely did not attend the bilateral talks between ASEAN countries and the ambassador of the president of the United States.'

Despite this admission, the foreign affairs secretary offered his interpretation in a television interview.

"That's why he said that he was not going to attend purposely...He purposely did not attend both ASEAN+1 with India and ASEAN+1 and the United States because he was not feeling well," Yasay said in an interview over ANC's "Headstart." 

Pardon for Mary Jane?  

In September, Duterte went to Indonesia as part of a working visit of Philippine officials. Before the trip, he said he would appeal to Indonesian President Joko Widodo for the life of Mary Jane Veloso, the Filipina on death row for allegedly smuggling illegal drugs in Indonesia. 

'I may just have to ask Widodo in a most respectful and in very, very courteous way. And if my pleadings will fall on deaf ears, I am ready to accept it – for the simple reason I do not doubt the judicial system of Indonesia.'

Yasay later said the topic was not brought up during the talks. This was echoed by presidential legal counsel Sal Panelo and Indonesian minister of law and human rights Yasonna Laoly.

But on his arrival in Manila, Duterte said he did discuss Veloso’s case with his Indonesian counterpart Joko Widodo. 

Two days later, Widodo said Duterte had given the go ahead if Veloso were to be executed. Widodo also did not mention Duterte appealing for Veloso’s life during their meeting. 

'I have already spoken about Mary Jane's case...At that time, President Duterte said 'go ahead' if (Mary Jane) were to be executed.' 

Abella later clarified Duterte’s statements. "His actual statement and conversation with President Widodo went like this. He said, regarding Mary Jane Veloso he said, 'Follow your own laws, I will not interfere.' End of statement," Abella said.

Duterte later admitted that he felt “awkward” to “beg” for Veloso’s life, given his own hardline crackdown against illegal drugs. He also said that his saying “go ahead” was not a specific reference to Veloso’s case. 

Sinabi ko lang (I just said), ‘We will respect the judgment of your courts,’ period. It would have been a bad taste in the mouth to be talking about having a strong posture in drugs and here you are begging for something," he said. 

“I said, ‘Mr President, so as not to apologize or anything – ‘It’s good you have the death penalty here. At least you can bring the problem to the barest minimum.' I said, ‘Go ahead and implement the law.' We never mentioned about Veloso.” – Rappler.com