The 72-year-old is still popular with Filipinos despite his leadership being marred by his so-called ‘war on drugs’.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he hoped a shift to target big networks in his “war on drugs” would satisfy “bleeding hearts” and interfering Western states fixated on the high death toll in his crackdown.
In a televised speech on Thursday, Duterte read a memorandum that removes police from the drug war and places the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) in charge, then launched a curse-laden tirade at foreign critics of a campaign that has killed thousands of Filipinos.
Duterte lashed out at Western powers who colonised countries, started wars, “stole” oil from the Middle East, and said they had imported “terrorism” to their shores.
He appeared to take aim at some European parliamentarians among a group called the Progressive Alliance, which on Monday said it was “extremely alarmed” by the drug war and warned the Philippines risked losing trade privileges because of unchecked abuses by police during his signature campaign.
“I want, as a last word, maybe this would suffice for the stupid European Union guys. They were all focused on how many deaths,” he said.
The European Union delegation in Manila issued a statement clarifying it had no involvement in the visit by the Progressive Alliance.
It was unclear whether the decision to change tactics in the anti-drug campaign was influenced by Western pressure.
The administration on Thursday said the shift was to target “big fish”, moving away from street level operations to go after big networks and suppliers.
Police disbanded all 18 regional anti-drugs units on Thursday. Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said the new aim was for PDEA to target “higher echelons of the syndicates, as well as their protectors in government”.
That message will sound familiar, with similar announcements a year ago when a new phase of the drug war was launched to catch producers and suppliers.
Critics say that never happened and small-time dealers and users and the urban poor continued to bear the brunt of the 3,900 killings by police. Police say armed suspects resisted arrest in every one of those cases and they deny allegations that victims were executed.
Duterte was furious on Thursday and appeared to suggest European legislators had warned the Philippines it could lose its United Nations membership.
He dared them to cut ties with the Philippines and have their ambassadors leave within 24 hours. He said his new alliances with Russia and China – UN Security Council permanent members – would keep the Philippines in the UN.
“We will be excluded in the UN? You son of a b****. Go ahead. You are interfering in our affairs because we are poor. You give money, and then you start to orchestrate what things should be done,” he said.
“We are past the colonisation stage. Don’t f*** with us.”
Duterte’s spokesman Abella later clarified that Duterte’s “expression of outrage” was a reaction to the Progressive Alliance, which had “falsely portrayed itself as an EU mission” and made irresponsible statements.
PDEA spokesman Derrick Carreon said the agency was up to the task.
“We are ready, we can do it,” Carreon said. “We will target the source, the so-called big fish. Removing these high-value targets will also eliminate the street level distribution and disrupt the entire network.”
Duterte acknowledged the death toll in PDEA’s operations was smaller than that of police and said human rights groups and the media should be happy.
“Let’s go there. No death, no encounter. So better for the bleeding hearts and media. I hope I will satisfy you,” he said.