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Duterte’s Apology at ASEAN Won’t Save the Philippines

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Both the Philippine government and President Duterte himself have since issued official statements of apology towards President Obama ever since Rodrigo Duterte called US President Barack Obama an expletive roughly translated as “son of a whore.” This was in response to a carefully worded question that implied Obama might grill Duterte on human rights issues at the forum.

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The statements were effusive in affirming the country’s ties with the US and even thanked Obama for his role in supporting the Philippines in G20.

But the damage was done.

The expletive made headlines around the world and ended in the White House cancelling the scheduled meeting between the two heads of state.

Duterte’s supporters have since been downplaying the gaffe, justifying his words, insisting that they were taken out of context, or saying that the media’s provoking questions, and not Duterte, are at fault. Whatever the case may be, the official statements from government convey regret, and taken at face value, an apology is always an admission of a fault.

The problem with “sorry” is that it doesn’t always make everything alright. Much like the broken shards from a dropped plate, mending the pieces is sometimes difficult, or almost impossible to do.

According to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. For the Filipinos, this means that the president’s words and actions have consequences, and those will fall not just on him, but on the entire nation. What those consequences will be have yet to be seen. But the ripples have started to show as early as within the first 24 hours of the summit.

First, a cursory assessment of Duterte’s actions at ASEAN:

1. Cursed the US president and threatened him with a verbal tussle should he receive a lecture on human rights violations.
2. Cursed the UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon at a previous occasion.
3. Skipped the ASEAN leader’s meeting with Ban-ki Moon.
4. Showed that he is capable of statesmanship and courteous behavior, in summit talks involving China.
5. Released a statement promising that he will eat Abu Sayyaf members alive.
In sum, the combined strength of his words and deeds has communicated a particular message to the world at large.

Foul mouthed tirades followed by apologies

First is that all understand that Duterte makes no qualms in cursing anyone, may that personality be an obscure drug offender or the Pope. Obama, the Abu Sayyaf Group and Ban-ki Moon join a list of personalities – from all walks of life – who at some point were the brunt of Duterte’s rude speech. This list also includes an Australian missionary who was raped and killed in a shootout in Davao City, the United Nations, and Singapore, among many others.

It has gotten so bad that in January of this year, the president had earlier promised to pay Php 1,000 for every cuss word he would utter after receiving much flak from cursing Pope Francis.

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The subsequent apologies released by the Philippine government likewise send another message: that Duterte can blurt out his thoughts unthinkingly, but will later retract, when fear or reflective thought get the better of him.

But his unbridled speech has cost him – and the country – some very important opportunities.

Lost opportunities in US and UN relations

Because of his unwillingness to discuss the human rights issue, Duterte has lost an opportunity to face two very important leaders that can influence the fate of any country.

For one thing, according to a UN official who declined to be identified, skipping a meeting with the U.N. secretary general was practically unheard of. We could hazard a guess why– because “drug policy and human rights would have been top of the U.N.’s list at the meeting.”

Reports have victims of extra judicial killings in the Philippine drug war reach the 2,400 mark, a hefty figure that needs a lot of explaining from a government that has purportedly affirmed their stand in safeguarding human rights and from a president who has released statements that contradict the policy.

News anchor and opinion columnist Teddyboy Locsin was quoted in a recent editorial as saying that thus, Duterte had lost a chance “for far more important and pressing issues: such as the role of the Philippines as the only country with recognized rights instead of mere claims in the South China Sea.”

A slaughter in PH stocks

Then there’s the Philippine Stock Exchange Index which has plummeted since Duterte’s controversial statements. Shortly after the comments, the PSEi has since slid down to the 7,600 level, its biggest decline in five weeks and has remained sluggish as of press time. From a 15-month high on July 21, the market dropped 6 per cent. This is attributed to foreign funds pulling out USD 58 M from local equities on Wednesday. A net of USD 333 M has been sold in an 11-day run of outflows.

That the Philippines is the only market in a downturn among major Asian markets speaks volumes of investor sentiment towards the government.

Philippine pride – flushed down the drain

Countless jokes have also been made by international media, which poke fun not only on Duterte but on Obama as well. But it’s not just Duterte who is being made fun of, but the Filipino people he represents. Mediaite’s JD Durkin has summed up Duterte’s statements on human rights in a video that has since gone viral while Stephen Colbert has mentioned the diplomatic gaffe on his late night show.

Lost opportunities in pushing PH interests in the South China Sea

Finally, the series of exchanges have not missed China’s attention, which is the biggest irony of all. The US conservative media observes that while the world entertains itself on Duterte and Obama’s little drama, China is slowly establishing its dominance with very little resistance, especially not from the Philippine president, who made sure that there was no mention of the Hague ruling made in the Philippines’ favor.

Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen, reported that harsh words were not used at Wednesday’s meeting, saying thus: “Duterte said the international dispute should inspire us to work together within the boundaries of the law. Basically, he was avoiding mentioning July’s arbitration ruling about the South China Sea which was in favor of the Philippines.”

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Duterte’s press secretary has gushed at how statesman-like the president can be, and how we can forget he has that capacity, especially in the light of his loud comments in the past. That the president – who can barely rein in his tongue – can actually sustain such courteous behavior towards China is a wonder.

And so with his words and actions, the president has shown that though he is not beholden to the US, he is indeed to someone else. How that will play out for the future of Philippine (as well as ASEAN) territories is anyone’s guess.

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