MANILA, Philippines – Crisis management may just as well be included in Rafael Seguis’ curriculum vitae.
The Foreign Affairs Undersecretary has put his life on the line, in the course of his diplomatic career, to help bring home Filipinos from violence-torn countries.
Seguis also knows the Middle East and Northern Africa like the back of his hand, having spent most of his career in the region.
Now in his 70s, the Undersecretary for Administration puts his experiences and the friendships he kept to good use in helping repatriate Filipinos.
Seguis recently went to Syria where he met with Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and Presidential Adviser for Political and Media Affairs Bouthaina Shaaban. He was assured of the Syrian government’s support in the repatriation of Filipinos.
Making and keeping friends as well as learning to disagree nicely are among the crucial skills of diplomacy.
Seguis wields these skills through “mango diplomacy,” he put it – particularly as it concerns the diplomatic community in the Middle East where he spent much of his career.
“Mga limang kilo lang. Dinadalhan ko sila ng pasalubong kapag nakakadalaw ako,” he said. (Just 5 kilos. I would bring presents whenever I’d pay a visit.)
He does this to friends in other governments. This tradition of “pasalubong,” as also observed overseas, is loosely translated to English as token, be it as gifts or as gestures.
Repatriating Filipinos from different countries is not easy and it often needs the help of the host government. Keeping in touch with officials of Middle Easter governments has worked well for Seguis, who is often sent to critical areas to facilitate the repatriation.
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As with the rest of the Middle East, a region with an ancient history and a rich heritage, Syria was a beautiful country before it became a battlefield.
Syria was one of the most progressive countries in the Middle East, and Seguis remembers this country being a refuge for evacuees from Lebanon during the war in that country in 2006.
“It was a beautiful city. Everything was available, people were happy,” Seguis said. “They had night clubs.”
Now, it is Syria that is being abandoned, as the evacuees escape through the border to Lebanon.
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In 2006, Seguis found himself in Lebanon, heading a team that was evacuating Filipino workers.
“Ako yung sa Damascus side ng escape route – kasi isinara na yung border dahil binobomba yun ng Israeli dahil may gera. Dumadaan kami sa Homs.”
(I was in the Damascus side of the escape route – because the border had been closed and it was bein bombed by the Israeli in the course of the war. We passed through Homs, [a city in western Syria].)
Seguis’ team would bring 3 to 5 buses of Filipinos per day to Syria. This had Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s consent, and the workers would be boarded on planes bound for Manila within 24 hours. Over 8,000 Filipinos were evacuated.
Seguis remembers meeting with the Syrian leader on several occasions before the eruption of conflict. The diplomat said he would “smile all the time.”
Nowadays, Seguis and other diplomats, including Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, go to Syria to personally supervise the repatriation of their kababayans (compatriots).
“Volatile ang situation, anything can happen,” Seguis said about his recent visit to Damascus.
“Pero nung nagpunta naman kami ng [But when we visited] downtown to observe, normal naman, [it was] business as usual. May mga tao [There were people], waiting for buses to take them to work.”
Despite this semblance of normalcy, Seguis said he would hear the intermittent sounds of explosion and artillery fire, even from the relative safety of the Mezzeh district where most diplomats live.
How will the situation play out? Seguis’ educated guess: “I think President Assad will not surrender. He will fight to the death.
“Tignan mo yung mga nangyari [Look what happened the past months, to Mubarak, to Gaddafi. This may be drawn out.”
Al-Assad is no stranger to conflict. When he was a teenager, he witnessed the assassination attempt on his father, Hafez al-Assad, by the Muslim Brotherhood (Sunni) – which would have been the catalyst of an uprising that would topple the Ba’ath Party. But Hafez survived and he retaliated by annihilating members of the brotherhood and their families who were holed up in Hama, as if to show the world there is no room for rebellion in Syria.
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Seguis notes how the tide has so far turned in al-Assad’s favor, as government forces take back many areas controlled by the rebels
The Philippines remains neutral in all this, Seguis said. “We’re not against, not supporting. Our sympathy is to the Syrian people – the majority being affected by the violence.”
And more so to the Filipinos caught in this crisis.
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Seguis first came into the public eye in 2004 after he successfully negotiated the release of Angelo de la Cruz and Roberto Tarongoy, who were both abducted by rebel groups in Iraq during the US-led military campaign against Saddam Hussein.
“Naku, katakot takot na takutan [It’s such a frightening experience]. It’s a difficult process,” Seguis said of that episode.
Seguis, who can read and write in Arabic after studying in Cairo and Baghdad, spent hours helping in the negotiations with intermediaries until de la Cruz was freed.
Not long after that, he found himself tasked in helping with the negotiations for Tarongoy’s release with the help of two other officials – then Consul now Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Ezzedin Tago and Labor Attache Jijil Jimenez. The three were called ‘Team Tarongoy’.
Of all the highlights in his career, it’s the negotiations he will never forget, Seguis said.
Seguis is keenly aware of the critical character of his assignments. He attributes his safety to luck, and to God.
“Maswerte ako. [I’m lucky]. When we were negotiating for Tarongoy, we were going to leave our hotel. May nauna lang sa aming Italiano siguro mga ten minutes kasi nag-exercise kami sa morning.”
(There was an Italian who stepped out 10 minutes ahead of us, because we were exercising that morning.)
“Nung kami na ang lalabas, sinsasabihan kami na wag daw kasi nakidnap yung nauna.”
(When we were about to leave, we were advised to stay put because [the guy who left ahead of us] had been kidnapped.)
Seguis had been held at gun point as well during the Libyan crisis when rebels hijacked some cars parked outside the Philippine Embassy. It is best to keep your cool in this situation, he said.
“Sabi nga ni Secretary [As Secretary del Rosario would put it], ‘smile diplomacy.’ Huwag kang papakita na ninenerbyos ka. Barilin ka lalo,” Seguis said, laughing.
(Don’t show them that you’re afraid. All the more they’d shoot you.)
Seguis also played crisis manager in his own country when he was appointed chief negotiator with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
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Seguis rose from the ranks in the DFA. He grew up in Mindanao with his 10 siblings. His father was a teacher and his mother, a dressmaker.
He wanted to be an engineer but ended up taking accountancy. One day, he saw an add at the Manila Chronicle saying the DFA needed accountants. He applied and the rest is history, or rather his life story.
Seguis took the Foreign Service Officers’ exam, and in time he became Philippine ambassador to Indonesia, East Timor, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, and Jordan.
He also served in the Philippine embassies in Libya, Washington D.C., Rome, Thailand, Egypt, and Iran.
His long years in government and diplomacy have imparted to him humility rather than hubris.
“I maintain a healthy attitude,” Seguis said. “I don’t think badly of people. I stay positive. Even if people hurt me,”
This diplomat is a simple man. When his schedule permits, he reads books and sings for a church choir.
Although past the age of retirement, Seguis has been asked to stay on in his present position. Eventually he hopes to retire and inculcate among the younger diplomats the insight that dedication to one’s work is everything.
“People here should have dedication and commitment to service. Hindi yung [Not] because of material reasons.
“If you get an assignment, do it. In the best possible way you can. No reservation. Even if you have to put your life on the line.
“Diplomats are like soldiers.” – Rappler.com
All other photos courtesy of Undersecretary Seguis.
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