Truth and Duterte in media crosshairs

Judging by the spate of attacks on Duterte in the Western press and veiled criticism from some of the Manila papers, it looks like Duterte’s insufficient loyalty to the pivot vision may result in his downfall.  Indeed, with the Duterte-US split deepening, his removal may become a strategic imperative for America.

Serial misreporting on Asian affairs is the price the media pays for loyally supporting the US pivot to Asia.  It’s also a sign that, after a brief US government dalliance with feisty Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, the skids are probably getting greased for his removal.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte attends the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte attends the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos September 7, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

As an appetizer, consider “Stairgate” i.e. the kerfuffle over the non-appearance of the fancy stairs that would have allowed President Obama to deplane in suitable imperial fashion from the front of Air Force One in Hangzhou for the G20 meeting.

As the Guardian chose to present it, President Obama was “forced to ‘go out of the ass’ of Air Force One” presenting the unfortunate image of the leader of the free world — and a black man —energetically expelled from the rear of the American flying machine and rolling across the tarmac like a lonely brown turd.  Not your best work, Guardian.

The idea that the PRC would find it desirable to humiliate President Obama in this fashion is pretty dubious, and sure enough the Chinese put out the story through the South China Morning Post that there had been an unresolved tussle between the US and PRC security teams over the English-language capabilities of the Chinese driver charged with delivering the magic staircase to Air Force One.

Looks like they might have been telling the truth!

AP actually confirmed the Chinese account, but buried it in another story, perhaps to avoid embarrassing the journos who had conducted the original pile-on:

But U.S. officials said the incident actually stemmed more from a mix-up over finding a driver for the staircase-on-wheels who could communicate in English with the U.S. Secret Service. The officials requested anonymity to describe private diplomatic arrangements.

As a public service, I would also like to point out the “killer fact” arguing against the intentional snub, which is that PRESIDENT OBAMA COULD HAVE STAYED ON AIR FORCE ONE UNTIL THE RIGHT STAIRCASE SHOWED UP.

Contrary to the Guardian’s formulation, President Obama was not “forced” to exit via the nasty little rear door by frog marching Red Chinese goons.  He could have stayed on the plane, ordering up drone strikes or whatever, until the problem got worked out.  But he didn’t.  He chose instead to get off the plane.

Good for him.  President Obama simply shrugged off the incident, which the Western press laboriously spun into its “snub” narrative.

The Financial Times’ Jamil Anderlini provided the sullen capstone to the story, while inadvertently providing an epitaph for the outmoded idea of “reporting” in the “infowar” era:

The details of why the staircase was withheld are beside the point.

The point being, that there is an intense interest in the Western media in promoting a narrative of China as aggressive and obnoxious and preserve a sense of victimhood for the United States when America gets aggressive and obnoxious.  Even a discredited story is a worthy foundation for a series of think-pieces grumbling about the nasty Chinese humiliating innocent Westerners.

Duterte’s salty remarks

The process repeated itself with the media firestorm roasting another guy guilty of insufficient fealty to the notion of American awesomeness, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.  Duterte directed some salty remarks at the United States while holding a press conference at the airport in Manila to mark his embarkation to Vientiane for an ASEAN get-together, occasioning the cancelation of his meet there with President Obama.

Originally, President Obama was apparently prepared to shrug off the Duterte remarks, for reasons that will become clearer below.  But…

Obama initially responded by calling Mr. Duterte a “colorful guy,” but then called off the meeting after the international media reported heavily on the issue.

In order to keep the suitable happy American frame around the event, the significance of Duterte’s remarks was confined to his allegedly calling President Obama the son of a …

An actual listen to the full press conference is enlightening in terms of Duterte’s issues with the United States.

At the 6:40 mark, Duterte goes off on a Reuters reporter who, in Duterte’s view, accepts the premise that he needs to answer questions President Obama and others might raise on extrajudicial killings and human rights issues in the drug war.

Duterte is infuriated because in his view the United States is devoid of the moral stature to question him on human rights, given its bloody history of “Moro pacification” in Duterte’s homeland of Mindanao.

CNN helpfully (or hopelessly) glossed the human cost of the US intervention for its readers as a matter of about 600 dead:

Duterte was referring to the US’s history as a colonial power in the Philippines, and specifically to one infamous massacre in the southern Philippines — the 1906 Battle of Bud Dajo — in which hundreds of Filipinos, including women and children, were killed.

Actually, he wasn’t, which CNN would have discovered if they had listened past Duterte’s first agitated reference to his fuller statement about “600” at the ten-minute mark.  Duterte is referring to 600,000 dead, not 600.  Even more shockingly, Duterte’s number is actually one of the more conservative estimates (the upper end is 1.4 million) of Moro deaths at the hand of the US military.

Yes, American friends, Duterte is referring to one of the most brutal and shameful chapters in the history of American imperialism, the brutal subjugation of the Muslim population of Philippines’ Mindanao over 30 years of formal war and informal counterinsurgency from 1898 into the 1920s.

Mindanao is where the United States first applied the savage lessons of its Indian war to counterinsurgency in Asia—including massacre of civilians, collective punishment, and torture.  Waterboarding entered the US military toolkit in Mindanao, as immortalized on the May 22, 1902 front cover of Life magazine.

And the war never ended.  After the Philippines shed its colonial status, the Manila Roman Catholic establishment continued the war with US help.  Today, the Philippines is locked in a cycle of negotiation and counterinsurgency between the central government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) —a cycle that Duterte as president hopes to bring to its conclusion with a negotiated peace settlement.

This is not ancient history to Duterte, who emphatically stated in his press conference that the reason Mindanao is “on the boil” today is because of the historical crimes of the United States.

Duterte has additional reasons for his choler.

As I wrote previously at Asia Times, Duterte suspects US spooks of orchestrating a deadly series of bombings in his home city of Davao in 2002, with the probable motive of creating a pretext for the central government to declare martial law on Mindanao to fight the MILF.  The 2002 Davao bombings form the foundation of Duterte’s alienation from the United States and his resistance to US-Philippine joint exercises on Mindanao, as he declared upon the assumption of his presidency.

And, though it hasn’t received a lot of coverage in the United States, last week, on September 2, another bomb ripped through a marketplace in Davao, killing fourteen people.  It was suspected of being part of an assassination plot against Duterte, who was in town at the time, and the Communist Party of the Philippines (which is also engaged in peace talks with Duterte) accused the United States of being behind it.

The CPP characterized the group that claimed the bombing, Abu Sayyaf, as CIA assets.  Not too far off the mark, apparently.  Abu Sayyaf is a group of Islamic fighters/bandits formed out of the dregs of US recruitment of Philippine Muslims to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan.  When these fighters came home, they apparently were enrolled and armed as central government/CIA deniable assets in the war against the MILF.  Duterte has vowed to destroy, indeed, consume them.

So, mindful of the human rights crimes the US has committed historically, recently, and perhaps currently in Mindanao, including a possible assassination attempt against himself, Duterte declared himself unwilling to submit to any questioning or censure by President Obama.  And his “son of a …” remark at the airport appears to have been along the lines of, “If President Obama confronts me, son of a …, I’ll tell him…”

At the ASEAN gathering in Laos, Duterte apparently tried to explain the roots of his indignation but is getting the psycho crank who “veered off speech and launched a tirade” treatment via AFP:

“The Philippine president showed a picture of the killings of American soldiers in the past and the president said: ‘This is my ancestor they killed. Why now we are talking about human rights,'” an Indonesian delegate said. The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to 1946.

The delegate described the atmosphere in the room as “quiet and shocked.”

It should be noted that in his press conference at the airport in Manila, Duterte referenced the pictures he wanted to show, so it was more of a planned event rather than a spontaneous piece of hysterics by an unstable leader, which seems to be the frame being applied here.

The messy reality of a century of no-holds-barred counterinsurgency under US coordination, drugs, corruption, and murder in the Philippines distracts from the pretty picture of sailor suits, battleships, and yo-ho-ho in the South China Sea with American and the Philippine democracies shoulder-to-shoulder against China that the US wants to present to the world.

Judging by the spate of attacks on Duterte in the Western press and veiled criticism from some of the Manila papers, it looks like Duterte’s insufficient loyalty to the pivot vision may result in his downfall.  Indeed, with the Duterte-US split deepening, his removal may become a strategic imperative for America.

According to a report I read, the cynical tack of packaging the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to evade legislative review also means that its implementation is at the discretion of the executive  branch — the president of the Philippines in other words— and his willingness to allocate funds for it.  If Duterte threatens to fiddle with EDCA — fiddle with the pivot! — it may be time to unleash the pro-US elements in Manila to engineer a change.

When it comes time to portray Duterte as an out-of-control thug incapable of managing the relationship with the United States and unworthy to lead the Philippines in a struggle against Chinese aggression, I’m sure the press will step up to do its part.  After all, it’s already happening.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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