Philippines president briefly meets with Obama, days after issuing dare

The Filipino president put aside his differences with US President Obama to share a brief meeting prior to the ASEAN regional summit this week. 

Jorge Silva/ Reuters
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at the ASEAN Summit family photo while U.S. President Barack Obama chats with the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah in Vientiane, Laos September 7, 2016.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and US President Barack Obama put aside their differences to informally meet on Wednesday, after the White House canceled their scheduled meeting on Tuesday after Mr. Duterte warned the president not to question his harsh crackdown on drugs. 

Duterte later apologized for his vulgar comments, in which he threatened to curse at Obama if he questioned the Philippine president about violence associated with the anti-drug push, which has left more than 2,000 people dead. 

The pair met briefly and shook hands in a holding room ahead of a formal dinner at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Vientiane, Laos, officials said. 

"They met at the holding room and they were the last persons to leave the holding room," Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay told the Associated Press. "It all springs from the fact the relationship between the Philippines and the United States is firm, very strong. The basis for this relationship is historical and both leaders realize this. And I'm very happy that it happened."

Speaking with reporters on Monday, Duterte insisted that Obama had to right to question him about the scores of extrajudicial killings generated by the crackdown in the Philippines, which has been sharply criticized by human rights groups. 

"I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You must be respectful. Do not just throw questions," he said, promising he would swear at Obama if the issue were brought up. 

More than 2,400 people have been killed since Duterte took office on June 30. About 1,000 are suspected drug users and dealers killed by police, Time reports, while the remainder are under investigation, with the bulk said to be vigilante killings. His efforts to decrease crime rates and the drug trade have taken a huge humanitarian toll, but the president remains popular, with 91 percent of respondents in one poll saying they had "big trust" in the leader. 

"What's emerging is a portrait of a leader – and a people – willing to at least temporarily suspend the judicial process – the rule of law and the right to a trial – in favor of a hardline path to greater sense of security," The Christian Science Monitor's David Iaconangelo wrote last month:

“Filipinos are very weary of high crime rates in the country, and the president has played successfully to insecurities. A lot of people see the killings as a necessary evil in the pursuit of his agenda,” says Anni Piiparinen, a specialist on Southeast Asian security at the Atlantic Council and assistant director of the cyber statecraft initiative there. The crime rate has gone down since Duterte entered office, she tells The Christian Science Monitor, as it did in Davao City during his term as mayor. “Many people are willing to make this tradeoff.”

Others are concerned, however, about the humanitarian implications of the crackdown. Duterte has encouraged vigilante killings of drug dealers, and has said that “plenty will be killed” before the problem is solved and the crackdown ends.

The Philippine president also responded negatively to UN criticisms of the killings. On Wednesday, he did not attend a meeting of ASEAN leaders with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. 

On Wednesday evening, however, Duterte and Obama's brief chat was “warm and cordial,” according to Filipino politician Alan Cayetano. The Philippines ambassador to Laos, Marciano Paynor, attributed Duterte’s diplomatic faux pas to the learning curve between his prior position as a mayor to his current role as president.

"He has to experience it," Mr. Paynor said. "If you don't experience it, you don't know how it's done, you'll be grappling."

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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