“It is a struggle for Asian Countries to establish Themselves in Western Europe”
A conversation with H.E. Amb. Maria Theresa B. Dizon-De Vega on the changing landscape of diplomacy, the role of social media in politics and promoting cultural diversity amid the immigration crisis.September 24th, 2019
On 6th September, Berlin Global had the honour of visiting the Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines to interview Her Excellency, Maria Theresa B. Dizon-De Vega.
Your Excellency, you have had a fruitful career. What influenced you to pursue a career in diplomacy,, and what do you hope to accomplish?
Actually I am an accidental. I always like say that I am an accidental diplomat. I have been serving for twelves years when I took the competitive examinations for the diplomatic service. It was mainly because in my mother’s family there was a very close family friend who was a diplomat and pioneered [the onset of] women diplomats in the Philippines. So, I took the exam and said I’ll give [diplomacy] a try and ended up staying for a number of years. I am also married to the service as my spouse is also a diplomat and is presently serving as the Ambassador of the Philippines to Belgium. But, I think that anyone with an interest in international relations and history, whether world history or geopolitical history, will find something of interest within this particular field of work. Although, like many other professions [diplomacy] is also evolving and changing with the times, with technology as well as the opinions of the public. Though, Asia is the place to be, in terms of what is happening in the world.
Your Excellency, what has been the main focus of your mission in Berlin?
This is my fourth month in Germany and so I am quite new but I we are working on all cylinders, though we are particularly doing a lot of political work and would like to focus more on the economical side of diplomacy.
Because of the federalisation of Germany, we really have to go out to the different states, I found myself travelling often. I have been to Nuremberg and for the economic side of diplomacy, the southern part of the country is more open to the business and economic side.
In your many years in service, how have you observed the landscape of diplomacy has changed due to developments in technology, the media and arts?
Right now, the role of social media for example, is a game changer in the case of diplomacy, we [diplomats] that are posted in foreign countries, consulates or governments, are now required to make an official Facebook profile page and are also encouraged to have a Twitter or Instagram account. In the case of the Phiippine Embassy here in Germany, we have official profiles [on social media]. We tend to engage more with Facebook as our Filipino diaspora, which is 10 million strong, prefers this medium to interact with officials, but I feel that having a Twitter page specifically for the German [audience] will focus more on harder policy issues as opposed to some of the softer policy issues like cultural diplomacy, tourism, food diplomacy, sports diplomacy. In terms of trends and what “clicks” with certain audiences or with different communities that you have to deal with, media is important for overseas community relations as well as media coverage of affairs in general.
Your Excellency, you briefly mentioned food as well as sport diplomacy, which the Embassy frequently participates in. Are there any other ways in which the Philippines promotes cultural exchanges with Germany?
We do have a cultural agreement that is overarching and we do a lot of work with the different organisations here. We also work closely with the Goethe-institut that has a lot of cultural exchanges within that [program]. But, I cannot recall a year within the last decade where we have not supported cultural events in Germany and have participated in a number of film festivals such as the Queer Film Festival. We do bring performances here to Berlin, as this summer we had Orchestra performances at several concerts. However, we are diversifying [our approaches].
On 29th July, a lecture on Homo luzonensis, the newly discovered hominid species in the Philippines, was held at Humboldt University (HU), marking the launch of a joint Philippine Embassy-HU program to promote Philippine Studies. How does this further relations between the Philippines and Germany?
The inaugural lecture held in July, included showcasing the discovery of Homo luzonensis, the new hominid species. It was a major grasp for the cultural diplomacy in terms of an academic space. The Phillppine government through the embassy is funding a three-year Philippines Studies program through a grant given to Humbodlt university, specifically for the department of Asia and African Studies, though it will focus on South East Asian Studies. Through this program, the university will also be offering Philippine language courses for the three academic years. Some of the funding will also contribute to Filipino scholarly participation in conferences here in Germany such as the European South East Asian conference that will be hosted by Humbodlt.
Your Excellency, in your remarks at the lecture, you expressed the sentiment that the program’s launch is a “proud moment for the Philippines.” Could you expand?
The importance of hominid discoveries is that it traces the origins of homosapiens. Homo luzonensis, like many other hominid species, did not survive for a long period of time so really for scientists and anthropologists, such discoveries are building blocks in determining what caused these species to disappear; was it climate change ions ago? Was it because they were not fully developed or even to find out how developed they were? Or was it [a] disease? These [discoveries] provide lessons for us, and we can sustain our species or are we too going to disappear like many other hominid species that did not survive?
But also this discovery is very important in the sense that within the field of anthropology in particular, most people tend to go to the Middle East or the so-called “Old World” such as Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey because of their ancient civilisations and cultures. However, not much attention has been given to South East Asia but there has been several discourses within the region over the past decade and hopefully now these discoveries will establish [us] as a significant region for anthropological research.. Especially with theories that Africa and Asia were connected by land bridges and also to trace human migrations.
The timing of the lecture is not only a staple to the 65th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Germany but also coincides with the 250th birth anniversary of German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, one of two namesakes of Humboldt University. Have there been any challenges that the Philippines have faced in trying to integrate with Europe?
It is a struggle for Asian countries to establish themselves in Western Europe in particular. [Asia] is still seen as being very exotic and oriental to many people and institutions or when people think of Asia, what first comes to mind is China when Asia is really more diverse than what is mainly associated with China but there are also a lot of diversity within South East Asia. We’re talking about 500 million people and has a lot of cultural and religious diversity. So the Philippines Studies is very important because if you don’t have these programs, you don't generate interest and you won't get your information out there.
What role does educational exchanges play to dispel any misconceptions between the Philippines and other nations?
Well, unfortunately, [we] are still Asia and Asia is still seen as the Other but there is actually a very rich history here and if you look at national heroes such as Dr. Rizal, Berlin is where he finished his masterpieces and undertook medical research here (he became the only Asian member of the Berlin Anthropological Society) so there is a rich history of cultural diplomacy. But even as far back as the eighteenth century, there have been German scholars who had gone to the Philippines and have published books [about] the islands. Though, it is still a struggle as there are many differences in terms of political outlooks, what the Philippines has in its favour is its very affluent diaspora- a very proud and nationalistic diaspora.
How important are cultural or national heroes in terms of promoting cultural diversity as well nation branding on a global platform?
[Cultural] heroes bring some historical perspectives to cultural relations from European colonialism, to the struggles of freedom and self-determination. All of which are universal themes. But they are also important to different ethnic communities, to frame cultural nationalism within diplomacy and the larger context of inclusiveness and diversity. Literature contains the cultural ethos of a community such as in the case of Dr. Rizal.
Your Excellency, you also acquired a degree in English. I too come from a similar background, though in English (literature). From your expertise, is there a connection between literature and politics?
Of course, people like to say that [art] is not political. I disagree because any piece of art is also a reflection of what [has] happened at a certain point in history and has many cultural influences. So, it is very important. We are also involved in the Living Library series with our opening topic being perspectives on migration and integration, and plan to hopefully incorporate more topics in the future that don't just pertain to the Philippines but are also conscious of other communities.
And how has the Philippines reconciled with the multiple layers of its colonial history given the sense of xenophobia amid the immigration crisis beset in the world today?
On the policy side of course you always push for things that will benefit that national situation, so there are certain focuses placed on the process of migration and managing how migrants should be treated, and we are a very active voice on a global platform.But the other approach is to show the diversity of talent that migration brings to society and how they enrich society.
I think now, particularly, there is so much more confidence because of the region around our country is doing very well and so people are discovering certain areas of their history and are reconnecting. The Philippines stance on this is that though [we] had endured colonialism and have a substantial colonial history [with other nations], which has informed us but we should [not] fall into the trap of solely dwelling in the past but to learn and to move on.
The Philippines is a culturally diverse and rich country with people who believe in diversity, and for empathy of people of all ethnicities and backgrounds, and also a bridge perhaps between cultures. The government is also seeking to end many years of conflict within the country and to correcting historical wrongs, particularly in the south, as well as building peaceful.
But we have to address historical wrongs.