NEW YORK — Like a New Yorker and a seasoned diplomat that he is, U.S. Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, Jr. stood firm on his ground to fight all forms of human trafficking.
Responding to a question from the audience during a town hall meeting on March 20 held at the Philippine Center regarding a controversial remark he made last year on male tourists who visit the Philippines for sex, he acknowledged he was correctly quoted by the Philippine press. In the same breath, he said his source was from ECPAT, which stands for End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and the Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes which aired a report on YouTube.
“The reason I apologized is one, to get out of a stir. If you want to talk seriously then let’s look at a serious challenge. You can go on YouTube and see ECPAT and they say 40 to 62 percent , this is not Harry Thomas, this is a Filipino organization,” the envoy said.
Reaction from the audience that packed the Kalayaan Hall was mixed but most of them seemed to agree with Thomas’ explanation. Thomas also cited similar problems happening on 42nd Street in New York, in other states and elsewhere in the world.
“I believe the ambassador was sincere,” said someone from Queens who didn’t want to be identified in this story. “If, at his level he did not bring up this problem for a solution, do you think anyone would care to discuss it? So now that it’s on the table: how and what needs to be done, who should bring this burning issue to the forefront?”, she asked.
“What I was saying, I was ashamed –as an American — that American men come here for this reason. People took it as an insult, that I was insulting Filipino women. Those same people ignore what you see in Malate and Ermita every night, and you know its true,” Thomas said.
“Everyone of those children deserve the same opportunity as our own children. Let’s get past the emotions and look at this challenge seriously,” Thomas added. “Now let’s stop this through education and economic opportunity. I’m a foolish optimist, let’s start this. It’s gonna take a generation.”
But that was just one of the highlights of the townhall meeting which happened during the open forum session that was moderated by lawyer JT Mallonga, national vice chair, NaFFAA-Region 1 and president of FALDEF.
Hermie Samaniego Aczon, president of the Filipino Executive Council of Greater Philadelphia commented that it “was a cordial, fun, polite and interesting atmosphere.” She said she liked the format of the meeting and enjoyed the ambassador’s engaging talk with the Filipino American community leaders.
“I wish we had more time in the open forum,” Aczon said, as “it allows community leaders to be in one place with very interesting people.” She said her group will have a similar townhall meeting with Philippine Ambassador Jose Cuisia, Jr. in Philadelphia on March 30.
The event was organized by the U.S. Pinoys for Good Governance and Region 1 of the National Association of Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA). Loida Lewis, Emeritus Chair, introduced the ambassador, who she said was her “kumpadre”. Thomas was one of the sponsors in Lewis’ daughter’s wedding in Manila.
Thomas started off with a free-flowing conversation with the audience which immediately caught their attention. Instead of using the podium, he sat on a Chelsea wing chair due to a lingering back pain. He had with him a newly released IPad 3, which he said, he just bought and was testing it.
“Filipinos love photos,” he said, and started taking photos of the audience.
He then reported on a number of accomplishments that continue to advance a deeper alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines such as the defense and security cooperation which resulted in the transfer of the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Hamilton, now named Gregorio del Pilar, to the Philippine Navy, and another cutter that is on its way to Manila; the signing of the U.S.-Philippines Partnership for Growth and the $434 million Millennium Challenge Corporation compact.
Thomas also mentioned the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Manila Regional Office and Outpatient Clinic (VA) as the only VA office located outside United States or its territories. He said that the VA relocated to a new state-of-the-art facility on U.S. Embassy grounds, which was constructed by local firms – a first in its history. In the past, only U.S. firms were tapped to participate in any construction work.
He also said that there is now a 75 percent approval rate of non-immigrant visas which include an average of a thousand visas granted to students.
On another note, Thomas commended President Aquino’s fight against corruption, saying that symbolism was important. “At the Aquino’s inaugration, the President declared no more wang-wang,” he said. But what helped the ambassador more to work with his superiors in Washington in a time of budget cuts in all their assistance programs was President Aquino’s battle cry during his campaign: Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap. “That is true,” he said. “I believe he is committed to do that.”
Apart from serious issues raised by the audience during the open forum which ranged from human trafficking, increasing U.S. military presence in the Philippines, internal and external security of the Philippines, economic trade, disaster relief and even the Spratly Islands and the Corporal Lance Smith cases, Thomas also showed his lighter side that elicited laughter from the audience.
He talked about his “Filipino-sized” family members who have been visiting him and how they have been enjoying the country as tourists. Thomas’ father is one of ten siblings and his mother has seven siblings.
“Clearly, I like food of all types and I dislike my ability to lose weight. I like adobo and that scallop-like dish and my family seemed to like it too. I take them to Intramuros for a tour, then we go to a number of restaurants and make them eat the best Filipino dishes and drink lambanog and San Miguel beer,” he said. “They loved it but it could be expensive for me as well.”
He mentioned he went to Holy Cross, a Jesuit-school, and made reference to Ateneo’s achievement as four-peat basketball champions and its goal for a fifth. “One big fight,” he cheered, to which the moderator reacted and said, “Well thank you fellow Blue Eagle Mr. Ambassador.”
“I wish all Ambassadors that will be assigned in the Philippines would be like Ambassador Harry Thomas. Hearing him say that he has been to different provinces in the Philippines and very concern on the situations there makes him more endearing to the Filipinos,” Aczon added.
On the other hand, Gerry Barranda of Manhattan, said that if there was more time, he would have asked two questions: first, about the pending health care coverage to retiring Filipinos and second, providing a Section 8-type housing benefit to a growing number of returning Filipinos to the Philippines who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Merit Salud, chair, NaFFAA Region 1 and master of ceremonies of the event, ended the forum with a challenge to the audience: “What can you do to serve our people, our country, and our God?”