Yasay gets mixed reviews from Washington, DC Fil-Ams
WASHINGTON, D.C. — He came. He smiled. He somewhat conquered.
That’s how some Filipino Americans viewed Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr.’s recent performance, both at a public forum sponsored by a Washington think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and at a “Talakayan sa Pasuguan” (town hall) hosted by the Philippine Embassy.
Yasay was in the nation’s capital last week to attend a US State Department-sponsored “Our Ocean” conference. During his visit, he took the opportunity to speak about Philippine foreign policy to Washington policymakers and members of the Filipino American community.
But based on questions posed to him in both events, people wanted to know more about President Duterte’s crackdown on illegal drugs, the widespread accusations of extrajudicial killings (EJK), his resemblance to GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, and his “colorful outbursts” regarding the Pope, the UN Secretary-General and President Obama.
Yasay, a consummate diplomat known for his wit and humor, did his best to downplay the charges. He asserted flat out that Duterte does not condone unlawful killings, and that America should no longer lecture Filipinos on human rights because they are not “little brown brothers.” He even made light of Duterte’s curses, describing them as “terms of endearment.”
“The Secretary defended the President ably,” says community leader Mitzi Pickard. “As a whole, Duterte has found an articulate and affable foreign affairs secretary in Yasay. That’s one right strategic move the president accomplished!”
Leaders of two recently formed groups of activists, once known for railing against President Benigno Aquino Jr. and his representatives, are now standing “in solidarity” with the president. Their members, avid Duterte supporters, welcomed and greeted Yasay with cheers.
A few others were willing to give Duterte the benefit of the doubt, even suspend disbelief that everything was well in a homeland that, in the eyes of some, has turned into killing fields.
Doubters and detractors
But it remains to be seen whether Yasay’s affability and eloquence won over any of the doubters and detractors who were hoping for satisfactory and more substantive answers.
“He did an excellent job disarming and deflecting, rather than directly responding to what people here in the US want to know,” says journalist Rita Gerona Adkins of Arlington, Virginia, who watched the Secretary’s CSIS address on video. “Blaming Duterte’s opponents and the international media is not an answer.”
A former Congressional staff member to three US Representatives, Nelson Garcia laments that “a man like Rodrigo Duterte seems to be quite the opposite of the Filipino people, who are intelligent, kind and compassionate by nature.” Garcia, who is President of the Washington Intergovernmental Professional Group, adds that “the Duterte Administration has violated the most basic norms of due process and civil rights by promoting the use of murder and torture in addressing the country’s ills.”
But immigration consultant Susan Pineda of Centreville, Virginia, prefers to take Yasay at his word and look at the totality of what Duterte is doing to improve the lives of ordinary people. “President Duterte may be sincere in his concern for the Filipino people, but pure law enforcement ends up in human rights violations and will not eliminate the root causes of poverty that give rise to the drug problem.”
While she argues that most of the killings are being done by drug lords and drug pushers themselves, “We actually condemn the arbitrary killings where most of the victims are small-time suspected pushers and users, including minors, mostly from the poor sectors. They also include police officers and innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. The drug problem can be eliminated without curtailing human rights. If people have decent living wages, free education and health care, they will turn away from drugs. I hope that through the president’s selfless leadership, the masses will finally see the genuine changes needed in our new government.”
“It’s almost as if he’s in denial,” says political activist Gus Alzona of Bethesda, Maryland. “I’m very much concerned about the loss of innocent lives, and whether Duterte is upholding the rule of law. Yes, he is responding to a popular demand to end the drug epidemic, but the ends do not always justify the means. I expected Yasay to be more forthcoming.”
Community leader Maurese Oteyza Owens of Arlington, a former member of the Movement for Free Philippines (MFP), says she welcomed hearing a few more details about the drug problem, especially the number of drug users who have turned themselves in for rehabilitation. “But press articles refer to innocent people dying and that was not denied categorically. Yasay’s explanations were coated in well-placed lawyerly language that protects Duterte from being accused of extrajudicial killings. We want to know more. Perhaps an impartial commission should be appointed to do further investigations.”
Secretary Yasay is a practicing lawyer specializing in corporate law and securities regulation.
Like Owens, Nap Curameng of Ft. Washington, Maryland, also wants an independent body, preferably an international organization, to look into the country’s human rights situation. “Yasay is simply toeing the company line,” Curameng says, admitting to some skepticism. “But in all fairness to both sides of this debate, let’s really look at all the facts and statistics, including claims of collateral damage.”
“In Yasay, Duterte has a reliable mouthpiece who can trumpet the party line with grace and charm,” observes former US diplomat Sonny Busa, chairman of the Philippine American Foundation for Charities (PAFC).
“Yasay’s comments were pro forma and well-rehearsed. EJK is no joke and it appears that he downplayed the social turmoil it has caused. Yes, the druggies are bad, but innocent victims in the drug war are much worse because of the toxic effect on the rule of law and governing institutions. His comment that in war some collateral damage is to be expected was insensitive and rang hollow,” Busa adds.
Pineda leads a workers’ coalition called “Kababayans4Change,” which includes Gabriela DC, JustPeacePH and Migrante International. They held a “friendly” demonstration of about 30 members outside the Philippine Embassy during Yasay’s visit. “We want Yasay to hear our calls for implementation of a national industrialization program, genuine agrarian land reform and homegrown businesses owned and operated in the Philippines that will create more job opportunities and reverse the trend of forcing Filipinos to leave the country for better prospects abroad.”
In turn, Yasay acknowledged the demonstrators by opening his remarks with a paean to the plight of overseas foreign workers (OFW’s) and how the number one priority of the DFA is the protection and welfare of the thousands of OFW’s worldwide, many of whom have been abused.
But Yasay’s comment grated on Busa who thought it was “disingenuous. The Duterte administration’s pique when criticized for human rights violations undercuts its position when it complains about OFW’s human rights being violated. You can’t have it both ways.”
Another newly formed DC-based group, U.S. Pinoys for Real Change in the Philippines (USPRCP), has come out publicly to support Duterte’s “Total Drug War Crusade.” Led by immigration lawyer Arnedo Valera of Arlington, Virginia, the group asserted in a statement personally handed to Yasay during the town hall, that it welcomes the President’s “unprecedented and bold national leadership to prevent the Philippines from becoming a Narco-State.”
In thanking Yasay for representing the Philippine government’s position and affirming Duterte’s domestic policies, Valera announced that USPRCP is raising funds for the families of policemen who are killed in the line of duty. He also vowed that while they are in solidarity with the government’s anti-drug campaign, “we will be vigilant and vocal against killings that violate human rights and due process.”
Valera and about 40 supporters held a prayer vigil in front of the Philippine Embassy three weeks ago to declare their “profound concern that the drug menace in the Philippines has snared, on a national scale, millions of young Filipinos, who represent the future of our country.”
Yasay was also asked if Duterte is at all like GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump, who is loved all the more by his supporters because of his personal style, spontaneous outbursts and stubborn defiance of facts that exasperates his foes. “There’s no basis to compare them,” Yasay brushed off the question with a smile. In contrast to Trump who insults minorities and the disabled, Yasay explained that Duterte’s penchant for profanity is actually his way of conveying his “sincere commitment and compassion for the people.”
Yasay went on to say that Duterte’s warning to President Obama that “I will curse you” if the American president attempts to bring up the human rights issue, was not intended as an insult. In fact, Yasay pointed out, “there is no bad word in Filipino. Cuss words such as ‘puta’ were passed on by Spanish colonizers, and ‘son of a bitch’ and ‘son of a whore’ are popular American insults.”
At one point, Yasay joked that Duterte often called him “putang ina” while they were roommates in college, that it just became part of their normal conversation, a “term of endearment.”
The quip stirred some laughter in the audience, momentarily diverting attention from earlier talk of unlawful killings.
Vicky Navarro, president of the Philippine Humanitarian Coalition, was not laughing, however. “I cringe every time I hear him cuss,” she says. “I wish he would act more presidential. He is now playing in a much bigger field, which requires him to be more thoughtful and circumspect. Unfortunately, because of his intemperate remarks, his message gets lost in translation.”
In a tongue-in-cheek Facebook post, Manila Mail Editor Rodney Jaleco can’t help but note: “When is an insult not an insult? Apparently when you’re President Rodrigo Duterte, according to his college chum and Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay.”
Little brown brothers
In both events, Yasay touched on the slang term “little brown brother,” which was used by Americans to refer to Filipinos during the period of U.S. colonial rule over the Philippines. “We can’t be treated as little brown brothers forever,” Yasay exhorted. “We have to develop, we have to grow and become the big brother of our own people, of the next generation of Filipinos.”
Alzona, who attended the CSIS forum, says he was elated when he heard what Yasay said. “I wanted to stand up and cheer. That is precisely how I feel about the history of colonialism in the Philippines.”
But to Busa, Yasay sounded like “a petulant teenager reacting to a scolding from a parent. For the DFA to bring it up is not seemly. Politicians, sociologists and academicians can refer to it, but it is not proper for diplomats to do so because it comes across as petty and whiny. There is an overlying tint of racism here as well. The hypocrisy is laughable when one considers the social stratification among Filipinos and how they treat each other.”
Malcolm Peck, retired Middle East specialist with NGOs and the Department of State, also had a similar reaction. “It invokes a colonial attitude of cultural disrespect long since consigned to the dust bin of history. It appears that these unseemly displays of antipathy toward the United States and its president grew out of the expectation that President Obama intended to discuss with President Duterte possible human rights violations in the recent spate of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers in the Philippines. Mr. Obama has not only the right but a moral duty to raise that issue with Mr. Duterte, speaking with the candor and respect that should characterize discussions between the leaders of two close allies.”
And what do Filipino American millennials, who were born in the USA, think of all this?
“The problem for me is ascertaining the truth of what the President Duterte is saying and what is taken out of context by the media,” says 31-year-old Eric Macalma of Richmond, Virginia. “I know there’s a lot of negative press coverage because extrajudicial
killings as a topic is hot. Regardless, I think it reflects on us poorly when the media takes his words and uses it against him no matter how he meant to say it, which is why I hope he is more careful with how he carries himself moving forward as he is the leader of our country. Obama’s cancellation of their meeting was definitely a detriment because a positive dialogue would have developed between the two.”
JC Videna, 23, a recent graduate from George Mason University, is also bothered by Duterte’s comments about the Pope and President Obama. “It’s one thing to have a difference of opinion but there’s a way to show it while still showing respect for someone else. As for the drug war policies, I can at the very least appreciate that he’s trying to do something different to fix this very prevalent problem in the Philippines as opposed to just doing the same old same old thing producing the same results.”
At Friday’s “Talakayan,” Busa notes that Yasay had a “friendly audience at the Embassy. No one asked him tough questions, like ‘Are you really a lame duck foreign minister and who will replace you after a year?’ ‘How do you intend to militarily oppose the Chinese without US assistance?’ ‘Will you really kick out US Special Forces in Mindanao and why?’ ‘Worldwide opinion is exceedingly negative towards the Philippines. This is a first. What is the plan to counteract this?’ ‘What really happened between Obama and Duterte?’ The softballs lobbed at him were easy to hit out of the park.”
“Yasay is in a tough position,” Busa adds, “and I’m sure he is not fully accepting of his boss’ colorful comments, but as a good soldier he must soldier on.”
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