Manila, Philippines – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has told American special forces to leave Mindanao, blaming their presence in the southern region for the continuing conflict, while signalling his desire to “reorient” the country’s foreign policy vis-a-vis the United States.
Just days after declaring that the Philippines “will pursue an independent foreign policy”, Duterte said on Monday in a rambling speech from the presidential palace.
“For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace in that land [Mindanao]. We might as well give it up.
“So, those [American] special forces, they have to go. They have to go. In Mindanao, there are so many American [troops] there. They have to go. We will reorient our foreign policy.”
On Tuesday, Perfecto Yasay, the foreign affairs secretary, told ABS-CBN News Channel that “there is no shift in so far as our policy is concerned, with respect to our close friendship with the Americans”.
For decades, the Philippines had hosted major US naval and air bases. Current laws, however, prohibit that.
Still, executive agreements with previous presidents allow visiting US forces, to conduct joint military exercises with the Filipino troops.
No official comment
In March, a military agreement was announced opening more Philippine bases to host US troops and supplies.
Among the five bases is the Lumbia airport in Cagayan de Oro, a city in Mindanao.
US forces have also long been reported to be present in other parts of Mindanao, including the Zamboanga Peninsula.
But with no official comment from the Philippine military and the US, it is hard to determine how many American troops are currently in the southern region.
When Duterte took over as president in June, he had grown critical of the US security policy in the Philippines.
On Monday, he warned that armed groups could target the American troops.
“I do not want a rift with America. But they have to go. It will only inflame [the situation],” Duterte said in a mix of Filipino and English.
“If they will see Americans, they will kill them. They’ll get a ransom, and will kill you whether you are black or white American, as long as you are an American,” he said.
The Philippines is currently battling the Abu Sayyaf, and Duterte has ordered the deployment of more than 7,000 troops to the southern island of Jolo, Sulu.
During his speech, Duterte also waved pieces of paper with printed black and white images of Muslim Filipinos killed by US troops in the early 1900s.
“This is the massacre of Jolo. Look at the bodies there. You [US] have not even apologised to the Filipino nation,” he said, referring to the southern island of Jolo, Sulu.
At one point he vigorously flicked the sheets of paper, as he said that the history of American presence in Mindanao have provoked the unrest for years.
In a separate speech during an award ceremony in the presidential palace, Duterte also said that he “purposely” stayed away from the meeting between President Obama and the leaders of ASEAN in Laos.
“I really skipped it. The reason is not that I am anti-West. The reason is not that I do not like the Americans. It’s simply a matter of principle for me,” Duterte said.
That is contrary to the explanation given by senior Philippine officials, who last week said that Duterte missed the ASEAN meeting with Obama, because “he was not feeling well”.
On Saturday, following his first foreign trip as president, Duterte said in Davao that he was “not a fan of the Americans”.
Richard Javad Heydarian, a Manila-based political science professor and Al Jazeera columnist, says Duterte’s pursuit of a “less subservient foreign policy is a noble goal and a strategic imperative”.
But the tension, according to him, with the US could weaken the Philippines’ hand as it tries to deal with regional security issues, particularly its sea dispute with China.
Heydarian says Duterte’s tirades against the US “should be taken with a grain of salt”, while saying that “bilateral security ties are too entwined to be disrupted”.
“It will create huge reverberations and affect his domestic political standing in a profoundly pro-American nation”.