MANILA, Philippines – He shared a stage with 4 other leaders. He held captive an audience of diplomats, government officials, and academics from all over the world. But Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, asked about specifics on his foreign policy, only wanted to talk about drugs and his beef against human rights activists.
His justification of his drug war and condemnation of critics took up most of his responses to questions raised by the hosts of the Valdai Discussion Club, a forum on international relations held in Sochi, Russia.
The highlight of the forum was the plenary session on Thursday, October 3, in which Russian President Vladimir Putin, Duterte, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Kazakhstan President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, and Azerbaijan President Heydar Oglu Aliyev gave speeches and took part in a question-and-answer portion.
Duterte answered two questions during the Q and A.
In his responses, he found time to briefly rant about the Catholic Church’s criticisms of him (“I have my own god.”) and assert that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was listening in (“The CIA is here, I’m sure.”) as Putin, two seats away, looked at him with interest.
Duterte spent some 20 minutes responding to the first question, posed to him by a host, about his China approach.
Much of those 20 minutes, however, was his usual long litany about the drug war, human rights groups, and how Western governments like the US and Canada impose conditions on the Philippine purchase of firearms and helicopters.
He hardly mentioned China, and then only to recognize how they provide assistance to his government without conditions, unlike some Western countries.
In his element
With an introduction about how Duterte is challenging the US-centric foreign policy of past Philippine administrations, the host asked, “You’ve also managed to improve and reinforce your relations with China. How did you do that?”
Duterte began by explaining how Spain and US had colonized the Philippines but that this was “all water under the bridge.” Since then, the country’s foreign policy had depended on what would please America.
From here, he launched a familiar diatribe of how the US gave the Philippines second-hand helicopters which crashed and killed Filipino pilots, how American congressmen blocked the sale of firearms to the Philippine police over the drug war controversy, and how Canada refused to sell Bell helicopters if they would be used outside of humanitarian purposes.
Duterte hardly mentioned China.
Warming up to the topic, Duterte assumed the bravado of his past tough-talk speeches.
“Now people say that my pronouncements actually encourage everybody to kill the drug lords and drug addicts. You know, frankly, I would be happy to if [those] things happen,” he said.
After some 20 minutes, the host cut Duterte off because he had been speaking for too long.
“I’m sorry for intervening, but maybe we go ahead and come back to you,” said the host.
“Well yes, is there one minute?” responded Duterte, drawing laughter from the audience.
Into this last minute he squeezed his complaint about how the Church is “attacking” him. He also said he plans to “invite the Russian Orthodox [Church]” to the Philippines “so we can look for the place where we can build the Orthodox church,” raising issues on the separation of church and state.
Jokes about killing girls
Perhaps feeling that he was in his element, Duterte stretched his time further. As in previous speeches, he seemed determined to end his remarks with a joke.
He employed one of his common speech-enders, a joke that the only real issue anyone can lob at him is his womanizing.
But, whether intentional or not, the joke sounded like he was claiming to kill girls and that the men in the room, world leaders and diplomats, were likely guilty of the same thing. He was likely spinning off from the slang term "lady killer," which means a man who is attractive to women.
“I am not a killer. Some say killer of what. Maybe you know what it is, you are all practicing it. Killing girls maybe, woman? We are good at that,” he said.
The remark elicited some scattered laughter and murmurings.
East vs West
It was Putin who posed a second question to Duterte.
The Russian leader asked, in Russian, if the division between the east and west is a “thing of the past” or if it was a “natural division.”
Duterte’s response was to contextualize how the Philippines, though an Asian country, had been westernized because of its history under the US. But under his administration, he was determined to “chart a new course.”
“Not really to separate from America but more of the colonial vestiges of the practice of diplomacy,” he said.
Like in his speech at the forum, he expressed doubt about a world order dominated by America and the West.
“Any attempt to force a nation to adopt the Western ways is always suspect,” he said.
But as with his first response, he was again cut short by the host.
“Mr President, can you wrap up?”
Duterte is in Russia on the invitation of Putin, for an official visit – his second after 2017. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.