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Focus on Insult to Obama Obscures a Crisis in Philippines: the Slaughter of Addicts and Drug Sellers

Media focus on a shocking remark aimed at President Obama by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is overshadowing a real crisis in the Philippines—the nation’s increasingly violent drug war.

Duterte openly insulted Obama in a speech Monday at the summit of the Association Southeast Asian Nations, in which he called for an escalation of his tough crime-fighting policies. “[It] started when a reporter asked him how he intended to explain the extrajudicial killings of drug dealers to Obama,” The Associated Press reported. Duterte responded with remarks shown in the video below:

As many media outlets have been quick to point out, Duterte has a history of foul language. And while the use of such an epithet aimed at a sitting U.S. president is astonishing, it quickly became the main theme of most outlets’ coverage:

Obama himself labeled Duterte “a colorful guy” at a press conference in China on Tuesday:

Critics argue that the focus on the back-and-forth rhetoric between the U.S. and the Philippines overlooks the central problem. “Duterte is not particularly interested in talking about human rights — he has said as much,” argues Emily Rauhala of The Washington Post. “Now, because he cursed out Obama’s mother, he doesn’t have to; instead of apologizing for overseeing executions, he can say sorry for his dirty mouth.”

The Obama administration has been openly critical of Duterte’s violent strategy for dealing with the Philippines’ catastrophic drug war, but describing him as “colorful” doesn’t begin to cover the horrors of his presidency.

In July, Duterte urged police and citizens to “go ahead and kill” drug addicts. Since he took office in late June, more than 2,400 people have died in drug-related violence.

In response to Duterte’s insult, the White House canceled a meeting between him and Obama. Then, Duterte vaguely walked back his incendiary words. “In a statement read by his spokesman, Duterte said his ‘strong comments’ in response to questions by a reporter ‘elicited concern and distress, we also regret it came across as a personal attack on the U.S. president,’ ” notes the AP. “Even though Duterte’s statement did not amount to an apology, the expression of regret is unusual for the tough-talking former mayor, who is unapologetic about his manner of speech and liberally peppers casual statements with profanities.”

“Duterte’s insults may seem trivial, but when they lead to the cancellation of high-level U.S.-Philippine meetings, leaving the door open for China, they are not,” Rauhala explains. One outlet went so far as to label Duterte “the Trump of the East,” a statement that makes him seem more like a joke than a serious human rights abuser.

Recent reporting shows that about 37 people per day are killed “in extrajudicial fashion.” While the mainstream media focus on the long list of Duterte’s past insults, the people “living and working close to the bloodstained sidewalks” of the Philippines are running out of time.

Emma Niles
Assistant Editor
Emma Niles, an assistant editor at Truthdig, graduated from the University of California, Santa Cruz, with a degree in political science. She has worked for the National Women’s Law Center and Ms. Magazine.…
Emma Niles

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