By Zofia Reych
It’s been 14 years since the incident that made Rodrigo Duterte angry with the United States. In Davao, during Duterte’s tenure as mayor, a mysterious American man checked in into a hotel. He carried with him a metal box and told hotel staff not to touch it. Later that night the box exploded, severely wounding the man who was transported to a local hospital.
The spy story
Despite being charged with illegal possession of explosives, just three days later the man, who became to be known as Mr. Meiring, disappeared from his hospital bed and fled the country. According to witnesses, he was accompanied by FBI agents who assisted Mr. Meiring and waved their badges at anyone who tried to stop them.
Although the case remained a mystery, one thing was certain: Mayor Rodrigo Duterte wasn’t happy with it, and he made it clear.
He called the US interference an “affront to Philippines sovereignty”. Commenting on the FBI agents seen in the hospital, he said: “I don’t give a shit who they are. Those metal badges do not have any value to me. If [the FBI does] that again, I will have them eat [their badges].”
Mr. Meiring’s case in now commonly cited by the media as the cause of Duterte’s strong feelings against the US, and not without a good reason. In April last year Duterte admitted that the incident had fueled a personal “hatred” of America. However, in the same interview he promised to overcome his feelings, and seek the USA’s help regarding Chinese activity in the West Philippine Sea.
Unfortunately, Duterte’s latest comments suggest that he hasn’t gotten over his anger, and the presidency might have only amplified it.
The diplomatic incident
During his presidential campaign, Duterte made a now infamous, inappropriate rape joke and was chastised by the US ambassador, Philip Goldberg. Not taking kindly to the criticism, Duterte recently dubbed Goldberg a “gay son of a whore”.
Despite The State Department’s calls for an explanation, Duterte is not repentant. “I will not apologise for anything. [Goldberg] did not apologise to me when we saw each other,” he explained.
These comments come only days after Duterte accepted USD32 million in aid from the US. The president pledged to spend the money on the fight with terrorism by splitting the amount between the army and the police. At that time he was already involved in the dispute with Philip Goldberg, and he publicly mocked the American ambassador: “Let’s insult him again and we may get more money”.
The US embassy replied with a statement expressing their concern over the recent murders of alleged drug criminals which saw nearly 700 people lost their life. “We strongly urge the Philippines to ensure its law enforcement efforts are consistent with its human rights obligations,” warned the embassy, reminding Rodrigo Duterte that US security assistance is conditional.
So far, concerns over Duterte’s past, and his self-appointed role of a real life Punisher, have not deterred the US from granting aid. However, possibly the strongest accusation levelled at the Philippines’ president is contained in documents released by Wikileaks. The cables suggest that Duterte is already considered a criminal by The US State Department, and could be arrested if he were to travel to America. “Duterte is clearly behind a group called the ‘Davao Death Squad’ which has been implicated in over 60 vigilante-style killings in the past year”, states the leaked message.
The Davao Death Squad is a mysterious group of vigilantes which operated in the area during Duterte’s tenure as mayor. In just three years, 700 people went missing, allegedly executed in an attempt to eradicate crime. Duterte’s purported involvement with the group was not commented upon by US officials.
In his recent interpretation of history, Duterte criticised the US for their interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, stating that “it is not that the Middle East […] exporting terrorism in America. America imported terrorism.” He added that jihadists were people “pushed to the wall” by US actions.
President Benigno Aquino’s administration cultivated The Philippines’ relationship with the US to neutralise China’s economic and political influence. Rodrigo Duterte is suspicious of his most powerful ally, and may shift his loyalties towards Beijing.
Seeking to establish an effective, trilateral policy, Duterte is likely to attempt to play China and the US off against one another, making the Philippines the middleman between the two superpowers striving for dominance in Southeast Asia. It has recently transpired that the president is not going to press the US backed ASEAN administration to take a stance in the territorial disputes with China. Instead, he will resume bilateral talks with Beijing. “We maintain good relations with China. Let us create an environment where we sit down and talk directly,” said Duterte, and his decision also suggests he is not keen to give up any political leverage in favour of the ASEAN administration.
With the new president’s thirst for power, constant overtures to the army, and even his close alliance with Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., grandson of the dictator, some warn that the Philippines might yet see a return of a General Marcos style dictatorship.
Last month, the president’s trust rating hit a historic 91%. Wherever he’s leading the country, for now it seems he can get away with anything, even murder.