By Jon D. Melegrito
Yasay Confronts Duterte's Doubters and Detractors
Filipino nationals in the Washington DC area voted overwhelmingly for Duterte in May. Last month, eager to show their support for the new President, they came out in full force to welcome his Foreign Affairs Secretary. Perfecto Yasay, Jr., after all, is Duterte’s college chum and trusted ally.
The Secretary was in town in mid-September to talk to lawmakers, policy makers, state department officials and members of the Filipino American community. On his last day, he was the featured speaker at the “Talakayan sa Pasuguan” (town hall) hosted by the Philippine Embassy.
Having heard and read all about Duterte’s crackdown on drug dealers, widespread accusations of extra judicial killings, and insulting outbursts, we were eager to hear the Secretary’s answers. He’d be eaten alive, I thought to myself. Was I wrong.
Thursday morning, he spoke at a forum sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He was articulate and eloquent, assuring everyone concerned that the US and the Philippines will always be valuable allies and strategic partners.
The questions posed to him were polite. He was not pressed about extra judicial killings because he said the President does not condone them. He also said the US should no longer treat the Philippines as a “little brown brother” and lecture its president on human rights. He did a good job deflecting the questions.
The following night, the embassy’s Romulo Hall was packed. As Yasay entered the embassy gates, he was welcomed warmly by a “friendly” demonstration of Duterte supporters. Organized by a newly-formed group, Kababayan4Change, they cheered Yasay as he made his way inside where he was greeted with more applause.
The Secretary sensed right away that he was in friendly territory.
Not, mind you, in a lion’s den. I make reference to this biblical story of Daniel because Yasay actually wrote a book in 2005. It’s titled “Out of the Lion’s Den: The Travails and Triumphs of a Public Servant.” In his memoir, he recounts the many instances when then President Joseph Estrada tried to gag him and force his resignation during his stint as chief of the Securities and Exchange Commission. But just like Daniel, Yasay was found blameless, turning his travails into triumphs.
Yasay went on to do greater things.
His extemporaneous speech at the “Talakayan” was a stout defense of Duterte’s policies and profanities.
He praised overseas Filipino workers (OFWs), vowing to create more jobs in the Philippines so they don’t go abroad and seek employment to feed their families. The drug epidemic has produced 3.6 million addicts, which is tearing apart families and communities. This, Yasay said, requires “toughness,” “a strong political will” and “an uncompromising attitude to end this problem once and for all.” It’s Duterte’s partisan opponents who are making “unfounded allegations.” The president has vowed to make corruption a thing of the past, end inequality and assert national sovereignty.
During the Q and A, he was asked about his use of cuss words. Yasay explained that Duterte’s penchant for profanity is actually his way of conveying his “sincere commitment and compassion for the people.” He went on to explain 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.” This quip stirred laughter in the hall.
Not everyone laughed, however. “In Yasay, Duterte has a reliable mouthpiece who can trumpet the party line with grace and charm,” observes former US Diplomat Sonny Busa. “Yasay's comments were pro forma and well-rehearsed. Extra judicial killing is no joke and it appeared 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.”
That was also the sense of a few others who came away unsure about who to believe. “I’d feel better if there’s an independent, international commission which can get at the real truth,” said community leader Maurese Oteyza Owens. “You can’t just brush off press reports of hundreds of innocent victims getting killed.”