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Obama Cancels Meeting With Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte After Insults


President Obama's schedule had a last-minute change today. He was supposed to meet with the new president of the Philippines while they were both in the Asian country of Laos. Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has been cracking down on drugs, and more than 2,000 people have died in the last two months. The U.S. has been critical of this program.

When President Duterte insulted President Obama's mother, the White House canceled the planned meeting. Duterte has since expressed regret over his remarks. Reporter Michael Sullivan joins us now from Manila. Hi there.


SHAPIRO: What exactly were these offensive remarks from President Duterte?

SULLIVAN: Well, it's a little unclear, and frankly I think it was taken a little out of context, Ari. I mean in theory, he said in Tagalog that President Obama was the son of a whore, but in reality, it was mainly conditional in future tense, a kind of - if President Obama says this to me, then I'm going to tell him this - kind of a thing. But it didn't get reported that way, and it doesn't really matter on an optics level because it's out there. It went south, and he's owned it.

SHAPIRO: What is the reaction in the Philippines where you are to this whole kerfuffle?

SULLIVAN: There's (laughter) not a lot really because they're used to it. And his supporters - and there's many - like to say he's got a big mouth but an even bigger heart. But it's the mouth that gets the attention, right?

In the past year, he's called the pope an SOB for clogging traffic in Manila. He's made jokes about the rape of an Australian missionary. He's cursed out the U.N. general secretary for daring to criticize Duterte's war on drugs. Oh, and wait; wait; wait. Last month he called the U.S. ambassador here a gay son of a whore also I believe in connection with the war on drugs. So just add this one to the list.

SHAPIRO: And so much of this does revolve around the war on drugs. Tell us about what's happening there. How big is the drug problem and the scale of the government's response to it?

SULLIVAN: They have a huge meth problem here. There's no doubt. And it affects the poor disproportionately, and the ripple effects on society are huge, too. And that's what Duterte is trying to fix.

He did it in Davao where he was mayor for more than 20 years. Ask human rights groups about how he did it there. And now he's taking the show on the road, and the people here have given him a mandate to do it.

SHAPIRO: About 2,400 people have died in this war on drugs since Duterte took office two months ago. Can you give us more details about how these killings happen?

SULLIVAN: Well, about a thousand of them, Ari, have been in encounters with police - shot while resisting arrest, police say. And the rest just show up on doorsteps or in the middle of the street, and it's not clear how they died. But Duterte's been encouraging both the police and the general public to go after drug dealers and users in their communities, and it seems to be working.

More than 600,000 people, Ari, have turned themselves in since Duterte took office, preferring a record to maybe a bullet. And if you go to some of the worst-hit neighborhoods, people tell you the program is working.

And here's the bottom line. So far the people are with him - 91 percent approval rating in the last opinion poll in mid-July. That's more than double the percentage of the vote he got in the election in May.

SULLIVAN: Do you expect this cancelled meeting between President Obama and President Duterte to have any long-lasting impact on U.S.-Philippine relations?

SULLIVAN: I don't because again, everyone knows this is his style, and that includes the U.S. And both countries have bigger fish to fry, namely China. The U.S. and Philippines have a mutual defense treaty. They've been allies for more than half a decade, and they need each other in what's fast shaping up to be a showdown with China over what may be new construction on the Scarborough Shoal.

President Duterte over the weekend spoke of reports China might be going ahead with construction there. It's about 130 nautical miles from Manila - not good. And it's been spoken of as a red line for the U.S. in terms of stopping China and their expansion in the South China Sea. So the last thing either the U.S. or the Philippines needs right now is a wedge that drives them apart.

Having said that, President Obama has made it clear the extrajudicial killings here will be a topic of discussion when and if the two men do sit down to talk in the future - want to be a fly on the wall when that happens.

SHAPIRO: Reporter Michael Sullivan in the Philippines, thanks.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.
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