MANILA, Philippines >> The pro-democracy uprisings raging in the Middle East have trapped thousands of overseas Filipino workers and quickly tested the Philippines’ new top diplomat.
Albert del Rosario, 74, has quietly traveled to conflict zones from Libya to Yemen — once straying near a gunbattle — to lead the rescue of hundreds of Filipinos.
His unorthodox hands-on style has impressed many and helped repair the lethargic image of this impoverished Southeast Asian nation’s bureaucracy. He recalls his daredevil missions with humor.
When his Libyan military escorts dove for cover because of fears that NATO jets were approaching the city of Misurata last week, del Rosario said many were impressed that he did not scamper away in panic.
“I was the slowest to move and people thought I was the bravest,” del Rosario told The Associated Press in an interview late Wednesday.
“Of course, bad knees,” he said laughing, referring to past knee surgery that forces him to walk slowly.
The former business executive inherits a Department of Foreign Affairs that overlooks the Philippines’ often-testy relationships with America, its former colonizer, and China, the Asian powerhouse that is a major economic partner but is often accused of bullying.
In March, two Chinese patrol boats allegedly harassed a Philippine oil exploration ship near the contested Spratly Islands, prompting a Filipino general to deploy two military aircraft that arrived after the Chinese vessels had left. Both nations issued protests.
A frequent concern is the 10 million or so Filipinos who work overseas — about a tenth of the Philippines’ 94 million people. The money they send home fuels economic growth but many become trapped in conflicts or complain of abuse.
The pro-reform revolutions sweeping the Middle East have exposed tens of thousands of Filipinos to armed clashes.
Just days after he started his job in February, del Rosario visited Libya, where he led a long convoy of 400 Filipinos from the capital to neighboring Tunisia. On the way they passed through 25 checkpoints and near an area where gunfire erupted.
“It looked like a crossfire situation, you could hear automatic rifles,” del Rosario said. His convoy found another escape route.
In the past three months, he has traveled four times to Libya, twice each to Yemen and tsunami-ravaged Japan, and to Bahrain and Syria to rescue Filipinos, Foreign Affairs spokesman Ed Malaya said. His risk-taking example has energized other diplomats.
“It’s almost a culture shock,” Malaya said. “This has not only shaken the bureaucracy but inspired it.”
Del Rosario, Manila’s former ambassador to Washington, is not a stranger to violence.
He was badly wounded in crossfire between Japanese occupying troops and American soldiers and local guerrillas in Manila in the final months of World War II.