[OPINION] Remembering ‘Amba’ Rod Severino

I was a young reporter, newly assigned to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) sometime in the late 1980s. I wanted to meet the big guns of the department then and made it a point to list what they termed as the geographical offices, along with their heads. I needed to familiarize myself with them.

One of the critical offices then was ASPAC short for the Office of Asia and Pacific Affairs. The head carried the title of assistant secretary, and his name was Rodolfo Severino Jr.

I dropped by his office one morning to pay my courtesies and introduce myself as the new reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. It was different then – security was more lax and it was easy for members of the media to drop by unannounced and be accommodated whenever the head of office was available. He accommodated me.

The man’s salt-and-pepper hair was striking, as was his impeccable diction. On most days, he wore white long-sleeved starched shirts complete with a necktie and a coat always on standby, and, on more casual days, made do with short-sleeved polo shirts. He had a great tenor voice as well. After all, he was a member of the Ateneo College Glee Club, along with Alran Bengzon (perhaps a year his senior), who was former health secretary.

Severino had been tagged as one of the Kokoy boys, having been associated with former ambassador to the United States, Benjamin “Kokoy” Romualdez, younger brother of then-first lady Imelda Marcos. Not many knew that he had worked with fellow Atenean Raul Manglapus before joining the foreign service. Manglapus would later become foreign secretary after the People Power uprising.

Severino had been assigned to Washington, too, during the Marcos years. It was a plum post, and the appointment there also meant he was one of the bright boys of the administration, tasked to defend Mr Marcos and his policies during the difficult Martial Law years.

He spent considerable time in Washington, from 1967 to 1974, as a young diplomat in his early 30s, before being appointed chargé-d’affaires of the Philippine embassy in Beijing for about two years (1976-1978), and eventually consul general in Houston – his last post before the 1986 People Power revolt.

Top diplomat

At the DFA, Rod Severino, as he was called by colleagues, was highly regarded. His stock knowledge, intelligence, and expertise were respected by the media and the diplomatic community. Many of the young diplomats then who were either first, second, or third secretaries in rank are, by now, already ambassadors themselves.

He knew the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) very well and thought it foolhardy to expect the regional organization to take gigantic steps, given its decision-making by consensus and policy of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.

At the time, there were only 6 member-countries of ASEAN and to remember them all, I kept a code for myself: BIST-MP (Brunei, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines). Today, ASEAN has grown to 10 members with the addition of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Papua New Guinea acts as observer.

At one point, when Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took over the presidency from Joseph Estrada in 2001, she was said to have offered the foreign secretary post to Severino and to another career diplomat, former ambassador to Washington Raul Rabe. Both men declined. She then offered it to Teofisto Guingona Jr, who was her vice president and only her third choice for the post. 

Working on China

Severino’s stint in Beijing also came in handy. He said years back that, when dealing with the Chinese, one had to learn how to read between the lines. Not everything was explicit.

His understanding of the regional superpower came into play when he became department undersecretary in 1996 under then-president Fidel Ramos, and got China to agree to negotiate a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

He also played a critical role in helping steer the country’s foreign policy under Ramos as the Philippines transitioned to a post-US military presence in the country.

Efforts that focused on China in 1996 bore fruit in 2002 at the 8th ASEAN Summit, when Beijing and ASEAN member-countries signed an important document, the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties on the South China Sea. Signatories to the declaration committed to refrain from taking action that would exacerbate the security situation in the South China Sea.

ASEAN

Severino declined the offer to be foreign secretary as he was already ASEAN secretary-general at the time, having taken on the post in 1998 and ending his term in 2002.

As he was ending his term, the ASEAN Secretariat published a compilation of his speeches in August 2002 titled, ASEAN Today and Tomorrow. He said in April 2000: “ASEAN’s relevance both to the world and to its own people depends on how effectively it can help the region to be competitive in the global marketplace…. Competitiveness for what? The basic answer is: For markets, investments, and people.”

MEMENTO. Ambassador Severino's short dedication in his book. Photo by Chay Hofileu00f1a/Rappler

MEMENTO. Ambassador Severino's short dedication in his book.

Photo by Chay Hofileu00f1a/Rappler

As a diplomat, he had consistently talked about ASEAN integration and convergence. If ASEAN is to survive as a regional group, member-nations must overcome their histories, traditions, and culture that serve to imprison them, he said.

He wrote that “the forces of globalization and technology are impelling a certain convergence globally, regionally and nationally…the nation, the region that maintains the right balance between diversity and convergence – which, necessarily, must be shifting – will be the one that finds success in a globally competitive world.”

Close to two decades later, ASEAN is still struggling with integration, given its diverse economies, and dealing with aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea. The challenges have not become easier and nor have they dissipated.

The last time

The last time I saw Ambassador Severino was at the wedding of our reporter Pia Ranada. His salt-and-pepper hair had become completely white, he walked with a stoop, and was visibly physically weaker.

I wanted to thank him again for gamely participating in our experiment when Rappler (then Move.PH on Facebook) was trying to interview him remotely and streaming it. He was in Singapore with an excellent internet connection, while we were somewhere in Manila with crappy Wi-Fi.

He couldn’t hear me very well then as I struggled to interview him online. But he was patient and didn’t mind at all that his precious time was maybe being put to waste. The former foreign affairs undersecretary and ASEAN secretary-general was willing to give me and our little media organization the time of day.

Once again, Sir, thank you for that accommodation. We have since come a long way. And the early first steps, we took with you. – Rappler.com

Chay F. Hofileña

Chay Hofileña is editor of Rappler's investigative and in-depth section, Newsbreak. Among Rappler’s senior founders and editors, she is also in charge of training. She obtained her graduate degree from Columbia University’s School of Journalism in New York.

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