A treasure trove of memories

Source: The Manila Times / www.manilatimes.net / By Juanito P. Jarasa /

NOW in my retirement, I look back to my 40-year diplomatic career and realize how meeting very important personalities has enriched my life.

I was ambassador to Hungary and Czechoslovakia on a concurrent basis, then to India and Nepal, also on concurrent basis, and, lastly, to the Republic of Korea.

In Budapest, Hungary, I had a saintly encounter with Pope John Paul II (canonized as a Saint in 2014). During His Holiness’ official visit in 1991 to Hungary, the Papal Nuncio held a meeting with the diplomatic corps. When I was introduced as the Philippine Ambassador, the Pope shook my hand and exclaimed: “My beloved Philippines!” I could only say, “We need your prayers  in the Philippines, Your Holiness,” since the next ambassador was already being introduced. Nonetheless, I was given a papal rosary, a golden commemorative medallion with the visage of the Pope on it and a picture with His Holiness as mementoes of the visit.

As concurrent envoy to Czechoslovakia, I had the pleasure of meeting three eminent personalities—Vaclav Havel, Alexander Dubcek and Shirley Temple-Black. The late Havel was the Czech writer, philosopher and dissident who became the President of Czechoslovakia as a result of the non-violent Velvet Revolution in his country. I had an interesting conversation with him in 1990 after the presentation of my credentials to him as ambassador, during which he drew a parallelism between the Philippines and Czechoslovakia in ousting an authoritarian regime.

I will never forget the rare honor he bestowed upon me in Nov. 1993 when I made my farewell call on him in the Prague Castle. The call was delayed by an hour so that I could pass through uniformed honor guards on my way to his inner sanctum in the castle. He impressed me as an unassuming man of towering intellect; in fact, he is regarded as one of the 20th century’s great Europeans.

In 1968, Dubcek, the new Communist Party leader of Czechoslovakia, tried to create “socialism with a human face” or the so-called “Prague Spring.” This was foiled by a massive Warsaw Pact invasion of the Czechoslovak territory. I saw Dubcek in person in 1990, when then-Foreign Secretary Raul S. Manglapus had a meeting with him in Prague.

After the presentation of my credentials to Havel, in 1990, I was able to make a courtesy call on Temple-Black, the US Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Ms. Temple-Black was the famous movie child-star who eventually became a diplomat assigned as envoy to Ghana and Chief of Protocol. We had a pleasant 20-minute talk and she was surprised to learn from me that her first husband, actor John Agar, made a film in the Philippines with our own Pancho Magalona. When Amb. Temple-Black departed from Prague, I received a note verbale from her bearing her signature—a precious collector’s item.

In New Delhi, India, I listened to Nelson Mandela addressing the Indian Parliament. Imprisoned for 27 years on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activism, Mandela became the first black President of South Africa and was the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize awardee.

Also in New Delhi, I shook hands with the Dalai Lama at an exclusive gathering. Living in exile since 1959 in Dharamsala, India, the Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet, was awarded the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize for his peaceful struggle to liberate his homeland from China’s domination.

In 1995, an Indian friend made it possible that my wife, Angelita, and I be the only diplomatic couple to be invited to an awarding ceremony for Mother Teresa in New Delhi.

We were able to meet the venerable Mother backstage after the ceremony. She was happy to see us. She talked about the branch of her Missionaries of Charity in the Philippines, and she expressed admiration for the religious fervor of the Filipino people. There was a saintly halo surrounding her bent and diminutive body. We found moral and spiritual beauty in her mere presence. Mother Teresa was the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Projecting a dynamic image to the international community, the Korean government and Korean organizations actively hosted international meetings/events and very, very important persons. It was during such an occasion that I met US President George H.W. Bush, father of President George W. Bush, who dazzled his audience with self-deprecating humor.

I had also met US President Jimmy Carter, who, with the late President Corazon C. Aquino, presided at a Habitat for Humanity project in Korea. He won the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian efforts and incessant advocacy for conflict resolution. My wife and I were the only diplomatic couple who attended the project, and we saw Carter’s adeptness in carpentry work.

Two other VVIPs I’d met were Xanana Gusmao, who led East Timor’s struggle for independence from Indonesia, and Jose Ramos-Horta, the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize laureate. Both Gusmao and Horta became Prime Minister and President of East Timor.

The Portuguese Ambassador and I were the only diplomats invited by a Korean organization to an exclusive dinner that took place before East Timor gained independence. I was seated next to Gusmao at thedinner.

I’d likewise met Francis Fukuyama, the American political scientist/economist and author of The End of History and the Last Man and Political Order and Political Decay, at a special lecture in Seoul.

It was also a pleasure meeting Lee Kuan Yew, the longest-serving Prime Minister (1959-1990) in world history, made his tiny city-state of Singapore a First World country.

The Russian Ambassador and I were the only ambassadors invited by the Singapore ambassador to attend the book launching of the Senior Minister’s memoirs, The Singapore Story, at a 5-star hotel in Seoul. The Singaporean Ambassador sent me a framed photograph of the event with the Senior Minister and his wife and the Korean dignitaries in attendance.

In one Seoul event, I witnessed how Margaret Thatcher, the first female and three-term Prime Minister of Britain, showed to all and sundry why she was known widely as the “Iron Lady.”  Visibly annoyed before she delivered her speech by the uncontrolled clicking of cameras and the commotion created by media people, she boomed in stentorian voice: “Gentlemen, you have had enough.”

I was profoundly honored by the fact that a distinguished Korean was on hand at the beginning and end of my assignment to Korea.  Kim Dae-jung, who won the presidency on his fourth attempt, received my credentials as ambassador on May 21, 1999. A Catholic, Pres. Kim was bestowed the 2000 Nobel Peace Prize on account of his “sunshine policy” toward North Korea.

On Feb. 1, 2004, at the official residence of the Korean Ambassador in Makati City, South Korea’s then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Ban Ki-moon conferred on me the Order of Diplomatic Service Merit, Gwanghwa Medal (First Class). In 2007, Ban was elected Secretary-General of the United Nations, a post that he will relinquish this December upon the completion of his second term.

Meeting these personalities has made my life in the Foreign Service truly worth living.