Duterte demands US troop withdrawal

USS Essex enters port at Subic Bay. Source: Wikimedia

The Philippines’ president, Rodrigo Duterte, has said US forces must leave the unstable island of Mindanao, saying their presence increased separatist, Islamist violence in the Muslim-majority region.

Manila would review its policy of letting US forces attack militant groups in Mindanao, Duterte announced in Manila. As many as 1,300 members of the US special forces have been stationed on the island since 2002.

“These special forces, they have to go,” Duterte said. “They have to, in Mindanao, there are many white men there. I just couldn’t say it before out of respect. I don’t want a rift with America but they have to go.”

Duterte’s recent “son of a whore” comments about President Barack Obama led the White House to cancel a meeting last week at the Asean summit in Vientiane.

The thin-skinned Duterte has lashed out at Washington for criticising the thousands of extra-judicial murders, and denounced killings that took place over a century ago when the archipelago fell to US colonial occupation.

Before Duterte’s election this year, US-Philippine relations had been strengthening. The US Supreme Court in January upheld the validity of a defence deal that gives the Pentagon the right to boost troops deployed to the Philippines for military exercises, as well as delivering equipment to specific installations, including Subic Bay, a former US naval base.

“This could just be fallout from the Laos brouhaha,” said Richard Bitzinger of S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It is interesting that [Duterte] hasn’t mentioned the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement. Maybe he wants the US to say it really values its relationship with the Philippines.”

In early September Duterte put the country under a so-called state of “lawlessness” after a bombing in his home city of Davao on Mindanao, where he was mayor for decades. The order allows him to use the armed services to assist in law enforcement.

Duterte said the presence of US personnel could inflame the Mindanao situation and suggested that they may be kidnap targets or killed by regional separatists.

Washington had not apologised for atrocities committed in the 1900s, Duterte said, while questioning US moral authority after its role in Iraq, Syria and Vietnam. Washington’s leaders were “hypocrites” for funding anti-drug efforts while criticising him for supposed human-right violations, he said.

A US State Department spokesman said no official demand from Manila had been received.

Spokesman John Kirby said he had seen reports of Duterte’s comments, but said “we are not aware of any official communication by the Philippine government … to seek that result”. The United States was committed to its alliance with the Philippines, he explained.