EXCEPT, perhaps, for the late Cory Aquino, no Philippine president has gained wider media attention during the first three months of his term than Rodrigo Duterte. The comparison ends there, of course. Aquino was even-tempered and carefully chose her words; Duterte is easily annoyed and when he is, his language is crass and unrestrained.
President Digong was at it again last Tuesday although the words that he used were tame by his standards. He just asked U.S. President Barack Obama to go to hell and the European Union to choose purgatory because “hell is filled up.”
The international media promptly picked up the story. In less than five hours after Duterte directed Obama and the EU where to go, the Associated Press, USA Today, Al Jazeera, Reuters, the Washington Post, CNN, BBC News and NBC News, to name only some, had nearly identical headlines screaming, “Philippine President tells Obama to ‘go to hell.’”
Interestingly, none of the stories appearing in the above news outlets had bylines indicating that they were written by Filipino journalists. It will be recalled that when Duterte received international condemnation for remarks comparing himself to Hitler (he has since apologized to the Jewish community), his followers threatened with harm two Filipino correspondents who wrote the report for a wire agency, provoking a strong protest from the National Union of Journalists in the Philippines (NUJP).
There is no love lost between Duterte on the one hand and Obama and the EU on the other so the Philippine leader’s recent pronouncement was hardly a surprise. Still, we thought that with his experience in the Hitler comparison and with the advice of well-meaning friends and allies like Sen. Richard Gordon, Duterte would rein in his mouth. That is not going to be, it seems. The people elected me president, not statesman, he explained.
The United States has so far not reacted in kind to Duterte’s outbursts, obviously fearing the latter will make good his threat to junk the Americans and seek warmer relations with China and Russia. But how long will they hold their peace?
Not that Duterte cares or so he says. If America will not sell arms to the Philippines, the Chinese and the Russians will, the same Chinese and Russians who tacitly endorsed by their silence the policy that the U.S. had found unacceptable: the killings that have attended Duterte’s war against drugs.
Duterte has singled out Obama, of all U.S. leaders, for scorn, most probably because the latter had the gall to snub him, whom everybody else treated like a pop star, in Laos. Those who fear that Duterte’s name-calling on Obama could have adverse consequences on the Duterte presidency may find comfort in the fact that in less than four months, the U.S. president will be stepping down from office.
But he can have a problem with the next U.S. president if he continues to treat criticism as undue interference and uses the same harsh language he has used on Obama (and the EU and the United Nations) to show his resentment.
Imagine, for example, if Donald Trump were elected U.S. president. Duterte has already drawn comparisons with the choleric Republican candidate, the latest coming from an unnamed senior Southeast Asian official who told Reuters that Duterte is “like Mr. Trump. He craves attention, and the more he gets, the more outrageous he becomes.”
It’s an unfair commentary, maybe; most comparisons are. But Duterte should listen to his friends and allies who are asking him to show some restraint with his pronouncements for his own good and, if I may add, for the sake of the country.