DIPLOMACY: ANALYSIS
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Rodrigo Duterte

Did Rodrigo Duterte really call Obama a ‘son of a whore’ or was he a victim of his own reputation?

The Philippine president made the remark while insisting he would not be lectured about his brutal crackdown on drugs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 September, 2016, 11:00pm

As the summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Laos draws to a close this week, many will see the event as one probably best forgotten for Philippine leader Rodrigo Duterte.

But as the dust settled following his “son of a whore” comment – widely seen as being directed at US President Barack Obama – could it be that Duterte was simply misquoted or merely responding to a reporter’s loaded question?

Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

As a former government prosecutor who fought outlaws and insurgents, Duterte’s reputation is such that he is nicknamed “Duterte Harry” after Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movie character.

Cementing this image, since he took office as president on June 30, his crackdown on suspected drug dealers and users has left more than 2,000 people dead. More than 600,000 others, mostly drug addicts, have surrendered apparently for fear of being gunned down.

Ahead of the Asean meeting on Monday, the firebrand 71-year-old warned he would not be lectured by Obama over concerns about his country’s brutal war on drug crime.

“You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum,” Duterte told reporters when asked about his message for Obama.

The coarse comments can be taken many ways and are perhaps best described as ambiguous.

But despite the confusion, Obama cancelled a planned meeting with his Philippine counterpart on the sidelines of the event. To further confuse matters over the insult, the following day Duterte expressed regret over his comments – specifically if they came across as a personal attack on Obama.

By Wednesday, the major diplomatic row appeared over after the United States gave the Philippines two used military aircraft to help Manila expand sea patrols in the face of territorial disputes with China. The two Sherpa 30-seater aircraft will be delivered in December, Philippine coast guard spokesman Commander Armand Balilo.

“It will help us in the movements of the Philippine Coast Guard like patrol missions,” Balilo added.

Back in the Philippines, Duterte remains the most popular politician in the nation, despite his public spat with Washington.

“It’s hard to explain. It’s a machismo thing,” said Earl Parreno, from the Manila-based think tank Institute for Political and Electoral Reform, explaining that Duterte represented many people’s hope for genuine change. “Despite his missteps, his insults ... what they want really is for him to be given a chance to do something that will have an impact on their lives.”

Parreno said Filipinos generally backed Duterte’s bloody anti-crime crackdown not because they were ignorant of their rights but that they were more concerned about their personal safety.

“They really think we need this kind of action,” he said. “It is sometimes embarrassing but that is the mind of the masses.”

Indonesia anti-drugs chief calls for tougher Philippine-style war against dealers

Manila pollster Pulse Asia said 91 per cent of Filipinos supported Duterte in their last popularity survey in July, more than a month after he took 38 per cent of the popular vote in the landslide May election. There have been no other surveys since then.

In Laos, some foreign ministers as well as delegates, have been scrambling to take selfies with the Filipino leader.

“In spite of the colourful language that he uses, the Asians in the region seem to be able to get – and there seems to be an empathy towards – him,” said Ernesto Abella, a Duterte spokesman.

Additional reporting by Associated Press and Agence France-Presse