Philippine President Duterte defiant over deadly drugs campaign – RTÉ World Report

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte leaving the ASEAN summit closing ceremony on Nov. 14 for a press conference during which he excoriated Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, among others (Simon Roughneen)

A banner draped over the facade of Manila’s De La Salle University reads “Stop the killings. Start the healing.”

But Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is adamant that the killings will go on precisely because the country needs healing — from drugs.

Officially around 4,000 people have been killed in police counter-narcotics operations since Duterte took office in mid-2016. Over 2,000 others have died in drug-related killings, some attributed to gang turf wars, and several thousand more again have been shot in unsolved murders.

The exact number of dead is unknown due to what the United Nations believes to be differences in terminology in official reports as well as the slow progress of investigations.

Last week Duterte returned the handling of his anti-drugs effort to police after temporarily giving control of the campaign to the small specialist drug enforcement agency.

Making the handover announcement, the president told critics to “go to hell” and deemed the move necessary as the Philippines had turned into “a narco state.”

If the Philippines is indeed a narco state, then it suggests that the “war on drugs” is not working as planned. After taking office last year Duterte said he needed 6 months to prosecute the campaign, but that timeframe has been extended four times and the latest deadline is now a year away.

Twice Duterte has taken the drugs campaign out of police hands — firstly because they were accused of murdering a South Korean businessman and the second time out of what the president said was “deference” to critics among foreign governments and the Catholic Church.

The most recent temporary suspension came in October, a month before the Philippines hosted a major Asian summit that included the final leg of U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent tour of the region.

Though Duterte endorses a take-no-prisoners approach to drugs, at the same time he surely did not want headlines about police shooting teenagers — a regular newspaper splash since he took office — while he was feting President Trump and other government leaders from around the Pacific.

Trump was given the central seat next to Duterte during the formal dinner -– a table that included heavyweights such as China, India and Japan.

Fears that the two tetchy grandfathers might prove too alike — and their meeting would end up in a flare-up — proved unfounded. Trump did not criticize the drug war and the two leaders scoffed at some shared enemies.

“President Trump knows too well that he can’t raise issues that are sensitive as far as the Philippine president is concerned,” said Bobby Tuazon of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, citing Duterte’s determination to avoid deferring to the U.S.

Harry Roque, a Philippines government spokesman, said the two presidents bonded over a common dislike of former US President Barack Obama, who Duterte called “a son of a bitch” because Obama criticized the drug war.

After the usual photo op and opening remarks at one of the various meetings, Duterte said it was time for the press, who he described as “spies,” to leave — getting a laugh out of Trump despite the fact that 78 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines in the last 25 years.

But by the end of the summit Duterte seemed agitated by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who said he had raised his concerns about the drug war with Duterte.

Trudeau, who seemed as interested in posing for selfies with star-struck reporters as he did in his meetings, described Duterte as “receptive” during a what he said was “cordial” meeting but later the same day Duterte accused Trudeau of offending the Philippines.

Then, using a word that rhymes with duck, the Philippine president told the European Union not to interfere with his country’s sovereignty. He then said that a visiting UN official nearly made him fall out of his chair with what he deemed stupid comments about the drug war.

With the Philippine economy among Asia’s fastest-growing and Duterte telling Filipinos to expect much-needed road and rail investment from China, the president is no more inclined to listen to domestic opposition than he is to foreigners.

The Philippines electoral system means that the president and vice president are elected separately, so winners can come from opposing parties, as is the case with Duterte and vice president Leni Robredo. But Robredo’s criticism of the drug war has left her isolated and sidelined by the rest of the government.

Another member of the opposition, Senator Leila de Lima, is in jail, accused by police of drug trafficking. Duterte called de Lima “an immoral woman” and accused her of having an affair with her driver — an echo of the same bar-stool bluntness and rakish put-downs that helped Duterte to a landslide election win last year.

Such rhetoric — and an army of social media supporters, bots included — helps the president stay popular despite the brutality of the drug war.

A couple of days before his rant about the EU and the UN, Duterte gave speech to local corporate bosses at one of Manila’s huge casinos.

He touched on some serious subjects, such as the implications for the region of China’s growing economic and military strength.

But he signed off with some typical repartee, drawing laughs from the the high roller crowd.

Bantering with his security team, he told them to allow people approach him for selfies.

“I want to meet everybody, especially the ladies,” said the president, who during his election campaign had talked up the virtues of Viagra and made glib and insensitive comments about the 1989 gang-rape and murder of an Australian woman in Davao, the southern Philippine city where he was mayor

“If you want to have a picture with me, fine..[..]..I’ll pull you in,” Duterte chuckled, adding, ambiguously, that “nothing comes free in this world.”

For World Report, this is Simon Roughneen in Manila

Banner on the front of De La Salle University in Manila (Simon Roughneen)

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