VIENTIANE, Laos: US President Barack Obama urged President Rodrigo Duterte Thursday to conduct his anti-drug war “the right way,” as the pair clashed at a regional summit over the crackdown that has claimed 2,700 lives in the Philippines.
The showdown was a fitting climax to a brutal few days of diplomacy that began with the famously acid-tongued Duterte’s expletive-laden outburst that forced the White House to cancel a bilateral meeting between the two leaders on Tuesday.
After warnings from Duterte on Monday that he would not be lectured on his war on drugs—which is seeing police and shadowy assassins kill an average of 44 people a day—Obama urged the Philippine leader to respect the rule of law.
“As despicable as these (crime) networks may be and as much damage as they do, it is important from our perspective to make sure that we do it the right way,” Obama told reporters when asked about his conversation with Duterte at the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) summits in Laos.
“Because the consequences of when you do it the wrong way are innocent people get hurt and you have a bunch of unintended consequences that don’t solve the problem,” he said.
Obama’s call came shortly after Duterte gave what diplomats said was a “fiery” address to leaders of the 18-nation East Asia group, including Obama.
Veering off his prepared speech, Duterte launched into a tirade about US military killings in the Philippines when it was an American colony from 1898 to 1946, according to three diplomats AFP spoke with who were in the room.
“The Philippine President showed a picture of the killings by American soldiers in the past and the President said: ‘This is my ancestor they killed. Why now we are talking about human rights,’” an Indonesian delegate said.
The delegate described the atmosphere in the room as “quiet and shocked.”
Another diplomat described the speech as “normal Duterte.”
Obama on Thursday told reporters he did not take personally Duterte’s Monday tirade, when the latter used a Filipino expletive that has been widely translated by the international press to “son of a bitch” or “son of a whore.”
“I don’t take these comments personally because it seems as if this is a phrase he’s used repeatedly including directed at the Pope and others,” he said in a news conference marking the end of his trip to Laos, adding that such choice words were “a habit, a way of speaking for him.”
Duterte had branded Pope Francis, the US ambassador to Manila and the United Nations as “sons of whores,” and on Monday repeated the phrase after being asked in a news conference about Obama’s reported plan to discuss the human rights situation in the Philippines amid the government’s bloody campaign against drugs.
Obama said the US won’t back off on its position against extralegal killings of drug suspects.
Obama, Ban encounters
Philippine officials said on Thursday Duterte and Obama shook hands, met briefly and patched things up before attending the Asean gala dinner Wednesday night.
“They met at the holding room and they were the last people to leave the holding room. I can’t say how long they met,” Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., traveling with Duterte, told reporters shortly afterwards. “I’m very happy that it happened,” he added.
Obama said of the meeting: “I did shake hands with President Duterte last night. It was not a long interaction. And what I indicated to him is that my team should be meeting with his and determine how we can move forward on a whole range of issues.”
Charles Jose, spokesman of the Department of Foreign Affairs, told reporters in Laos the two leaders “ironed out their differences,” quoting Presidential Peace Adviser Jesus Dureza.
Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, one of Duterte’s close aides who joined the trip to Laos, said the brief meeting ended well and there was no talk about the spat.
In a statement, he said Duterte and Obama shared “a warm handshake [and]a good conversation.”
“All’s well that ends well. You could see that there is an effort from both sides to patch things up,” Cayetano said.
“In diplomacy, you do not usually go to the past and say, ‘Why did that happen?’ You can’t blame anyone. It won’t be productive. The Philippines and the US have a longstanding partnership [and]relationship. There will be bumps along the way… But it won’t hurt to have a popular President on our side,” he added.
Duterte also met UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the Asean dinner on Wednesday. A Malacañang photo showed Duterte shaking hands with Ban.
Duterte skipped the Asean-UN Summit with Ban Wednesday night, to pay a courtesy call on Lao President Bounnhang Vorachith.
The President previously decided to forego a meeting with Ban at the sidelines of the Asean summits, which the Palace said was due to scheduling difficulties.
Duterte had been angered by criticisms of his war on illegal drugs made by two UN rapporteurs.
Contrary to a widely reported press statement from Duterte aides, he did not get to sit between Obama and Ban during the Asean dinner.
Instead, Duterte sat between Indonesian President Joko Widodo and Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.
“The media from all over the world, including from the Philippines, are up in excitement as each await the event where the two leaders (Duterte and Obama) will possibly say something positive,” the statement said.
Secretary Martin Andanar of the Presidential Communications Office, which released the statement, blamed the snafu on miscommunication.
‘Not feeling well’
Duterte also skipped the Asean summits with the United States and India in Vientiane on Thursday, because he was not feeling well. Yasay represented Duterte.
“He was not feeling well in the morning so he missed the two sessions,” Dureza said in a statement.
“But he was able to attend the East Asia Summit with 18 world leaders and the rest of the day’s remaining schedule until departure for Indonesia early evening today (Thursday),” he added.
Andanar told reporters Duterte had a migraine attack.