Duterte v America: The bark's worse than the bite

Why is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte bristling at the United States, for decades his nation's closest ally?

The Philippines' brash, populist leader on Tuesday flatly told US President Barack Obama: "Go to hell." This comes just a month after he called him a "son of a whore".

His tirades go beyond obscenities.

He has said he wants US special forces helping to fight Islamist militants in the Philippines' troubled south to leave because their presence there is complicating his efforts to forge peace with Muslim secessionists. Lately, he has declared that the Philippines will stop joining the US in war games and patrols in the South China Sea while he is president.

He explains this "hatred" - a word he himself used - for the US: He feels the Americans have "let me down" because they criticise, instead of support, his bloody anti-crime drive. He insists that the deaths of over 1,300 drug suspects at the hands of police are defensible and necessary, given the scale of what he calls the narcotics "pandemic", something he thinks the Americans refuse to understand.


Mr Duterte (in white shirt) with Philippine troops during a visit to the army headquarters in Taguig city in metro Manila on Tuesday. The Philippine President may say he hates the US, but he is unlikely to take it any further than that, as a recent survey showed that three-quarters of Filipinos like the US more than most Americans do. PHOTO: REUTERS

"I have lost my respect for America," he said on Tuesday, vowing that before his term ends in 2022, the Philippines would have already "broken up with America".

"For the life of me, I'd rather kneel before the king of Brunei or Thailand, but I will never before the Americans," he said.

But his anger runs deeper.

He may be a demagogue mouthing socialist ideals and the attendant anti-US insults, but he has also proven to be pragmatic. Even with a 91 per cent approval rating, he knows his people will not rally behind a total break with the US and a full pivot to China and Russia. That may be why the US is not losing any sleep over him.

It stems from an anachronistic belief system of a long-time fringe politician made inflexible by a very big ego and wounded pride.

He still seethes over an episode 14 years ago when he was mayor of Davao city. It involved an American named Michael Terrence Meiring. On May 16, 2002, a metal box inside Meiring's hotel room exploded, mangling the self-styled treasure hunter's legs.

Despite severe injuries and charges of explosives possession against him, Meiring vanished from his hospital room three days later. Witnesses said men waving US Federal Bureau of Investigation badges took him in the dark of night and flew him out of the country.

Mr Duterte was outraged that the US would help a criminal flee the Philippines. He also fanned speculation that Meiring was involved in covert operations to create instability in the war-torn southern island group of Mindanao to get the government to sign off on more US military aid. Meiring died in 2012 without disclosing what happened.

Mr Duterte consideredthe incident a disrespectful act by a superpower and has since grabbed every opportunity to make the US pay for that unforgivable affront.

In 2013, he refused to let the Americans station drones at Davao's airport, citing the Meiring case.

This incident aside, he has always seen the US through the prism of a socialist. He has echoed the left-leaning, liberal lines of his most trusted associates and mentors, including Mr Jose Maria Sison, the exiled founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines and Mr Duterte's political science professor.

 
 
 

One of his closest aides, Mr Leoncio Evasco, was a priest who became a top squad leader in the communists' armed wing until he was captured in 1983.

Mr Duterte prosecuted Mr Evasco, but later asked him to run his campaign when he ran for mayor in 1988. The two have since become tight as brothers and many believe Mr Evasco is the hidden hand that guides the king.

For ideologues like Mr Sison and Mr Evasco, the US is the imperialist power that has, for decades, shackled the Philippines in lopsided trade and defence deals.

Mr Duterte thinks along these same lines, often couching his remarks in anger dating back to US rule of the Philippines between 1898 and 1946.

From 1899 to 1902, the US fought a war with nationalist fighters in the Philippines. Over 200,000 died from fighting, starvation or disease during that period.

In defending his war on crime from accusations of human rights abuses, Mr Duterte often calls out the US for hypocrisy, as he dredges up a 1906 battle when American colonial troops slaughtered more than 600 Filipino Muslims.

Mr Duterte has also backed nationalist sentiments that have had real political effects, including Manila's decision to force the US to withdraw from its last Philippine military bases in the early 1990s.

The US has never been comfortable with Mr Duterte, not just because of his communist ties. Documents show that the US State Department has been documenting cases of vigilante-style killings in Davao, purportedly at the behest of Mr Duterte, since the late 1990s.

Yet, till he became president, the US had regarded him as an aberration in the Philippines' political landscape. It is now forced to deal directly with that aberration.

Thus far, despite the abuses he has heaped on Mr Obama as well as his threats to break the Philippines' decades-old alliance with the US and run towards China and Russia for arms and money, the Americans are, perhaps wisely, choosing to ignore the noise.

Mr Duterte's bark, after all, is worse than his bite.

He may scream "Revolution!" and threaten oligarchs, but a closer look reveals policies that, in fact, favour the status quo. He has, for instance, promised to tear down remaining restrictions on foreign investments and to shift to a form of government that will likely lead to weaker labour laws and environmental regulations.

While he has taken several nationalists under his wing, he has given pro-capital businessmen the reins of ministries that have greater control over the economy.

Even to the communists, Mr Duterte is a conundrum. While he gives a hero's burial to communist guerillas, he is also unwavering in his support for former senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos who oversaw a murderous regime that sent thousands of leftist activists to unmarked graves.

Mr Duterte may say he hates the US, but he is unlikely to take it any further than that, not with a recent survey showing that three-quarters of Filipinos like the US more than most Americans do.

He may be a demagogue mouthing socialist ideals and the attendant anti-US insults, but he has also proven to be pragmatic. Even with a 91 per cent approval rating, he knows his people will not rally behind a total break with the US and a full pivot to China and Russia.

That may be why the US is not losing any sleep over him.

In any case, six years is just a blip in history. The Americans can always just wait him out.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte v America: The bark's worse than the bite'. Print Edition | Subscribe