The way Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte responded to US questioning of his government’s handling of the anti-narcotics campaign showed that future relations between the world’s most powerful country and its closest Southeast Asian ally are shifting f
In the past, both the US and Philippines were more tolerant with each others’ misgivings – even their nincompoop leaders. Those times have gone. Aside from the Philippines, no country in this part of the world is willing now to accept or tolerate Washington’s criticism of their conduct on serious issues impacting on the social fabric – be it drugs, human trafficking, human rights, among others.
This year’s US presidential campaigning and all the toxic comments made by candidates about America and its neighbours have added salt to the wounds. American creditability overseas is currently at a low level. In particular, the Republican Party’s candidate, Donald Trump, with his profanity and off-the-cuff remarks has rendered far-reaching repercussions on the global perception of the US — further consolidating negative feelings toward America.
It was understandable why Duterte reacted very strongly in Tagalog towards the US comments. Before that, he lashed out at the Pope as well as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon — also in Tagalog. Pity him! The president has been trying to do his job fulfilling his pledges made to voters before the election – while Western countries keep piling negative comments on him without looking at the true situation in the ground.
Previously, one would have expected only dictators’ governments to respond to such vitriol, especially comments from Washington. As it turned out, democratic governments in the region were not prepared to take criticism from outside quietly, as they did before.
Duterte was popularly elected as president by an overwhelming majority, which gave him a full mandate. If anything, it would be the same voters who would kick him out if they are offended by his style of governance and foul-mouthed language. In the Philippine political arena, anything is possible at any time.
Lest we forget, the Philippines was the country that gave us People Power, which inspired a myriad of political wake-ups around the world. In 1986, the Filipinos set the parameters for where the nation’s sovereignty lay. The Philippines is the freest country in Asean and it has a checks and balances system as in the US. The press is dynamic and has been critical of Duterte since his very first day. So, let the Filipinos deal with their own problems, in particular their elected leader.
Certainly, America can help. In this case, Washington can look to diplomatic or private channels, turning down the volume a bit — as it did in the case of Laos. The US government’s attitude towards Vientiane on human rights issues was more circumspect and well thought out. Every comment was handled with the greatest care. Obama decided to proceed with the trip to Laos last week despite strong pressure from human rights groups not to do so over the disappearance of social activist, Sombath Somphone in 2012, and many other rights concerns. In return, Laos permitted Obama to address Laotian youths directly, as well as young people from Asean — the first town hall meeting in the country’s recent history.
Such an approach would be best with all Asean members — more sensitivity and respect. Quite often, the US shoots itself in the foot when critical remarks are made publicly about the region’s handling of local problems and rights issues. Washington often cites a lack of the rule of law or fair treatment in other countries without reflecting on its situation at home.
So far, no Asean leaders have commented on the situation in the US or its leaders, with the exception of Duterte. In November 2014, Hun Sen criticised Obama’s policy towards Syria at the East Asian Summit.
By comparison, Thailand’s reactions towards the US government’s criticism of all aspects of Thai life – be it democracy, human rights, the monarchy, freedom of expression – have been equally strong over the past two years. In all rebuttals, the manner and language employed by Thai leaders was completely different — they were smooth without the forbidden words. As a military government, Thai responses were mild and rational. Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha showed his leadership numerous times when confronted with strong criticism from the US and Europe.
For instance in June, the UN’s Ban Ki-moon picked on Thailand for a lack of freedom of expression and public debate on the constitutional referendum. Prayut immediately dispatched a Thai team to offer explanations to his office personally. Such discussion was fruitful, delivered from the horse’s mouth. It was a better way to communicate. Thailand did not want to break away from the UN but it wished the UN chief and his officials understood the real situation and showed some sympathy.
Of late, Washington’s comments on their allies and friends have poisoned their bilateral ties. In Asean, the US links with the Philippines will take time to return to the status quo. Already, Thai-US relations have been stalled for two years. These two allies have found a better comfort level with China. Even Duterte has become friendlier to China and since then his government has expressed a willingness to have direct contact and dialogue.
It is wise for the US to show verbal restraint towards other countries, even where its intentions are good. At this juncture, the US also needs serious soul-searching on how to deal better with friends and allies. The world today is different from yesteryear where the US was the only option.
In a globalised world and emerging new powers, the US remains an important partner; but that does not mean countries in the region need to be meek. With democratic governments on the rise in Southeast Asia, as in the latest cases of Myanmar, Indonesia and the Philippines, their leaders are unpretentious and a lot bolder.