A Smiling Ambassador for the Philippines' Brutal Regime

A Smiling Ambassador for the Philippines' Brutal Regime

Sec. Perfecto Yasay Jr. speaks during a forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) last month.

SourceZach Gibson/Getty

Why you should care

Because his boss, “Duterte Harry,” is invoking Hitler — and he has to deal with the backlash. 

His boss was already a global pariah, but Perfecto Yasay nonetheless wore an easy grin as he delivered a list of all the reasons the United States and the Philippines shall remain great friends. There was a lot of buttering over to be done, as evidenced by the introduction the head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank gave: before letting Yasay, secretary of foreign affairs for newly elected Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, take the stage, the CSIS leader wanted everyone in the room to be aware that Duterte had not recently called President Barack Obama a “son of a whore,” as was widely reported. Rather, Duterte had been directing the slur at a Filipino journalist who got under his skin at a news conference. No big deal.

As the archipelago of 100 million people asserts itself economically, under Duterte it is becoming unpredictable, eager to show its independence of both the United States, its former colonial master, and China, its current maritime encroacher. As the West wonders what to make of crass, impulsive Duterte, it is turning to his diplomatic counterpart, Yasay. The 69-year-old smiles easily, his slightly droopy cheeks framed by large ears. But in spirit, they’re in agreement. “They share many of the same ideas,” says Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reform in Manila. “The president has a lot of confidence in him … but of course there are skeptics, because Mr. Yasay doesn’t have direct background on diplomatic work.” Indeed, Yasay delivers his own more carefully crafted middle finger to the world: More telling than his Washington platitudes was Yasay’s unrehearsed response to a query about the ongoing bloody drug war. Yasay pledged the Philippines’ commitment to human rights and fair investigations of extrajudicial killings. He added: “We cannot be forever the little brown brothers of America.”

It’s hard to tell whether Duterte really takes advice from anybody.

— Phuong Nguyen, Southeast Asia expert

“Jun” Yasay — short for “Junior” — was born in 1947 to a pastor and a schoolteacher in the southern Philippines at a time when the newly independent nation still lay ravaged by World War II, which left between 500,000 and 1 million dead out of a population of 17 million. Yasay attended high school in Davao City, where Duterte would later rule as an iron-fisted mayor. But it was 600 miles north in the capital of Manila where they formed their bond in the early 1970s, sharing a YMCA dorm room as they attended separate law schools. The Felix-and-Oscar pair kept different hours, and night owl Duterte’s rough tongue jarred the deeply Christian Yasay. Yet Yasay envied how Duterte was “very attractive to women,” the foreign minister said in a September television interview. (The secretary of foreign affairs was traveling and unavailable to speak with OZY, according to an aide.)

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Sec. Perfecto Yasay Jr. speaks at a forum in Washington, D.C., last month.

Source Zach Gibson/Getty

Yasay built his legal career in New York City for more than a decade, specializing in corporate law. While in America, he took immigration cases for his compatriots and led a call-in radio show dispensing advice to Filipino-Americans. After returning home, he was appointed chairman of the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission, policing the country’s businesses. He entered the spotlight by testifying against President Joseph Estrada in his impeachment trial, saying Estrada pressured him to clear a friend in a stock manipulation case. It sealed Yasay’s reputation as an anticorruption do-gooder and gave him future campaign fodder. While campaigning for vice president, Yasay publicly apologized to Estrada, but stuck by his testimony. “Impeachment certainly is a very political act, and there were those who praised him and there were those who criticized him,” Casiple says. “He stuck to his guns.”

Yasay lost campaigns for senate and VP — he doesn’t consider himself a good politician — and fell out of the limelight. Until this May, when he was “astounded,” he told Filipino television host Boy Abunda, to get a call on behalf of his old friend, whom he still calls “Rody.” Duterte wanted Yasay as his foreign minister. The announcement would be in 30 minutes. The pair shared an emotional moment at Duterte’s inauguration. But there was no honeymoon. In July, an international tribunal ruled for the Philippines in a South China Sea maritime rights dispute, and Beijing ignored the ruling. On raged the drug war, piling up 3,500 bodies in 10 weeks, according to a Reuters tally, and Yasay had to explain away police actions and extrajudicial killings to the international community.

At home, Duterte retained a Putin-esque 91 percent trust rating in July, but his reception has been rockier abroad. After the European Union denounced the drug killings, Duterte replied in a speech: “Fuck you.” He has mused about leaving the United Nations, spoken of eating terrorists alive and compared himself to Adolf Hitler in his willingness to “slaughter” millions of drug addicts. When Duterte attended the East Asia Summit in Laos, he scrapped a prepared speech in favor of haranguing the United States — with Obama looking on — for its past sins in the Philippines. Yasay is left to soften the blows. Duterte says he wants the American troops out of Mindanao or an end to joint military exercises; Yasay follows with something more conciliatory. “Yasay clearly is a believer in Duterte’s approach to many things, but at the end it’s hard to tell whether Duterte really takes advice from anybody,” says Phuong Nguyen, an associate fellow with the Southeast Asia program at CSIS.

If Yasay is beleaguered, it doesn’t show. A cancer survivor, he keeps a strict diet and exercise regimen. He is in bed at 9, up at 5, he told Abunda. He may not be around for the long haul — he was nominated as a placeholder while Duterte’s promised pick, Alan Peter Cayetano, sits out a one-year, legally mandated delay after losing the VP race. But if Yasay’s boss ends up keeping him on, it wouldn’t be the first time the strongman went against convention.

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