President Rodrigo Duterte announced his arrival on the world stage in a way that only he could. Right before Duterte left Davao City for his first trip as head of state, the potty-mouthed Philippine president, bristling at the thought that US President Barack Obama would lecture him on human rights abuses taking place simultaneous with his campaign against illegal drugs, used language that was undiplomatic, to say the least.
In reply to a reporter’s hypothetical question, Duterte cut loose with a withering tirade about the US’ own record on human rights, its policy of overseas intervention and its continued treatment of its former colony as its vassal. In trademark Duterte fashion, the speech was laced with choice epithets and threats which were heard all the way to China, where Obama was attending the G-20 summit of wealthy nations.
The upshot of Duterte’s outburst was the cancellation of his scheduled meeting with Obama on the sidelines of the ongoing summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Vientiane, Laos. “He’s a colorful guy,” Obama joked and shrugged, after hearing about Duterte’s anti-American rant.
Later yesterday, Duterte seemed to have backed away from his tough-guy position. In a statement, Duterte acknowledged that he made “strong comments to certain press questions,” which “came across as a personal attack on the US president.”
“Our primary intention is to chart an independent foreign policy while promoting closer ties with all nations, especially the US, with which we have had a long-standing partnership,” Duterte’s statement said. “We look forward to ironing out our differences and working in mutually responsible ways.”
According to the statement issued by Malacañang, a mutual agreement has been reached to make the Obama-Duterte meeting happen at “a later date.” There has been no news of such a postponement from the American side.
I listened to Duterte’s speech as he was delivering it and I thought, well, that’s Digong for you. But I never heard him—as the Western media thought they did—cussing Obama and insulting the American president’s mother.
Embroidering the story to make it appear like Duterte was staging a personal attack on Obama was something the media, not Duterte, did. And that was how Duterte, on the eve of his very first foreign trip as President of the Philippines, hogged every headline between Manila and the eastern seaboard of the United States.
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But I don’t believe that the furor caused by Duterte’s undiplomatic language in any way lessens the importance of his message. And that message, quite simply, is that the Philippines and its government should be allowed to do what they think is good for them, without unwanted intervention from foreign powers like the US.
Setting aside the form of Duterte’s delivery, there remains the very important substance of what he wanted to say to Obama, had they met as scheduled and had the American leader—as his State Department had earlier promised—brought up the matter of human rights abuses attending Duterte’s war on drugs. And Duterte has been consistent in saying that the people who claim that the Manila government was behind the killings have been relying only on reports that have not been verified, from supposed human rights advocates who are really pushing an anti-Duterte agenda.
And the Western press, on which the State Department and Obama have been basing their concerns about human rights violations under Duterte, has invariably taken the position that it needs no further proof other than anecdotal and cherry-picked evidence that its “parachuting” journalists pick up. Duterte’s frustration is shared by many Filipinos, who cannot understand why the foreign media will not look beyond the sensational stories and ask if what’s happening—meaning, the inroads being made against the illegal drug trade—is not really a good thing.
Most Filipinos, after all, have already learned to listen beyond Duterte’s language to get at what he is really saying. This is why what foreigners thought was an attack against Obama was interpreted by Filipinos as a declaration that we will no longer allow ourselves to be dictated upon by stronger nations, regardless of whether they lie to the east like the US or to the west like China.
That is something no Filipino president in many, many decades has ever declared. And it’s something that only someone like Duterte can say.
At heart, what Duterte and many Filipinos want is better treatment from our former colonial masters and current allies. And if you can’t hear that in Duterte’s speech because you’re distracted by the cuss words, don’t worry—you’ll get used to it.
Sure, Duterte could use a little more prudence and lose a lot of the gutter-speak, especially when talking to the press and about foreign leaders. But to ignore what Duterte is saying by focusing on how he delivers his message is to make the same mistake as those who thought he was too rough, uncouth and vulgar to become president.
Duterte, as he said, serves no one but the people of his country. To ignore all he’s been doing for his people is to insult their wisdom in choosing Duterte to serve them.