Behind Pres. Duterte's Break With The U.S., A Lifetime Of Resentment

Philippines president, driven by a sense of grievance over colonial history and perceived slights, threatens to undo a vital American relationship in Asia



In an effort to clear tension with Barack Obama, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte approached him during a dinner at a regional summit in Laos last month, two days after he had openly criticized the U.S. president.

It made things worse. Mr. Duterte didn’t feel Mr. Obama treated him as an equal in the encounter, says a Philippine official present, because Mr. Obama said a follow-up would come from White House staff, not himself. The next day, Mr. Duterte boycotted a group meeting with Mr. Obama and Southeast Asian leaders.

Mr. Duterte “expected more respect from Obama,” says his sister Jocellyn Duterte. White House officials say they can’t confirm the wording of the exchange, saying it consisted of a handshake and pleasantries.

The perceived Laos snub fits into a lifetime of resentment toward America and what Mr. Duterte sees as U.S. arrogance toward the Philippines, interviews with his friends, family and associates show—a sense of grievance that threatens to undo a vital American relationship in Asia.

If Mr. Duterte’s sentiments weren’t yet clear to the world, he spelled them out Thursday in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People during a state visit. In a speech discussing military and economic ties, he declared: “In this venue I announce my separation from the United States.” He said “Americans are loud, sometimes rowdy,” then launched into a crude imitation of American speech, which he said “is not adjusted to civility.”

He told reporters Friday that by “separation,” he didn’t mean cutting ties with an ally but staking out a foreign policy that wouldn’t always align with Washington.

A look at the 71-year-old Philippine leader’s life, and how it informs his thinking, helps explain why Washington might not be able to salvage what was until recently one of its closest Asian alliances.


Souring relations between the Philippines and the U.S. are threatening an alliance central to America's interests in Asia. Video: Warangkana Chomchuen/WSJ, Photo: Erik De Castro/REUTERS

Mr. Duterte’s bitterness was instilled early by his upbringing on an island where locals still resent U.S. military actions of over a century ago and America’s subsequent colonial rule, and it was stoked by incidents later in life that he saw as trappings of U.S. imperialism.

He grew up a brawler, once coming home with a knife-fight wound. He made his political name as a crime-fighting mayor under whose regime hundreds in his city died at the hands of vigilantes.

That tough approach foreshadowed his first hundred days as president, during which he declared an assault on drug dealers. Police say they have shot dead about 1,600 suspected drug dealers who resisted arrest, that about 700 more have fallen victim to vigilante killings and that over 1,000 other deaths are being investigated to see if they are drug-related.

“When you pick a fight with him, he will not let it pass—he will deal with you,” says Jesus Dureza, a former classmate who serves in the Duterte cabinet. “This is very deep in him.”

His anti-U.S. rhetoric flared last month when he declared Mr. Obama shouldn’t lecture him on human rights. In an aside directed at no one, he used an exclamation of frustration meaning “son of a whore,” which some in the international press interpreted as a dig at the U.S. president. Mr. Obama then canceled plans for a one-on-one meetingwith him at the regional summit in Laos. It was two days later that Mr. Duterte approached Mr. Obama there.

In recent weeks, Mr. Duterte has canceled U.S.-Philippine military exercises. He said he might annul a 2014 U.S.-Philippines defense pact, a key aspect of Mr. Obama’s “Asian pivot,” that lets the U.S. deploy soldiers to Philippine bases. And he has threatened to “cross the Rubicon” and ditch the countries’ 65-year-old treaty in favor of accords with Russia and China.

In Beijing, he signed business deals with President Xi Jinping, who promised the Philippines over $9 billion in loans in return for Mr. Duterte’s agreement to restart bilateral talks.

       Mr. Duterte, on his state visit to China, reviewed the guard with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. PHOTO: THOMAS PETER/AGENCE FRANCE-             PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

“I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” Mr. Duterte said in the Beijing speech, “and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world—China, Philippines and Russia.”
Mr. Duterte also set aside his country’s territorial disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, where China controls a contested reef, Scarborough Shoal, about 125 miles off the Philippine coast, that it took over in 2012.

Souring relations could leave the U.S. with fewer options for expanding its military presence in the South China Sea—a resource-rich and strategically important area claimed almost entirely by China, and in part by several Southeast Asian states—and make it harder to portray itself as a guarantor of regional security, as it has done since World War II.

Before Mr. Duterte’s talk of “separation,” U.S. defense officials said the relationship continued to function. Afterward, a State Department spokesman called his comments “inexplicably at odds” with the bilateral relationship, which officials including the president have described as “ironclad."

Philippine defense officials have said publicly they are largely in the dark about Mr. Duterte’s plans. They nonetheless make clear he intends to forge a more independent foreign policy than his predecessor,Benigno Aquino III.

Mr. Duterte is “trying to liberate us” from a “shackling dependency” on America, wrote Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. in a Facebook post this month. Filipinos are treated as “little brown brothers” of the U.S., he wrote. Mr. Yasay didn’t respond to inquiries.

Mr. Duterte’s office didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. Publicly, he has faulted Washington for failing to halt China’s territorial grabs and for refusing to give explicit guarantees it would protect all Philippine territory, including remote possessions in the South China Sea.


Mr. Duterte’s nationalism, displayed in his angry reaction to Mr. Obama’s admonishments, echoes sentiments common among left-leaning Filipinos that America never atoned for invading the archipelago in 1898 and violently subduing the former Spanish colony. With independence in 1946, the Philippines passed into the hands of what many left-leaning politicians such as Mr. Duterte regarded as a corrupt Manila elite installed by Washington.

History’s scars

The son of a provincial governor on Mindanao, Mr. Duterte grew up in a troubled region with ample cause to resent both Manila and Washington. A largely Muslim area in an overwhelmingly Catholic nation, it was never fully conquered by Spain. When the U.S. took over, Mindanao’s sultanates put up stiff resistance.

For the people of Mindanao, the colonial experience left scars and a hatred of perceived oppression and disrespect, says Ms. Duterte, the president’s sister, who lives in Davao City, Mindanao’s largest. She says their grandmother, a Muslim, helped Mr. Duterte come to believe that Washington was guilty of crimes during its invasion and colonization.

He was a rebel from the start, say friends and family. As a boy, he was expelled from his strait-laced Jesuit school for squirting blue ink on a priest, recalls Mr. Dureza. At high school he was a brawler. “He always had that hair-trigger temper,” says Carlos Dominguez III, a childhood friend and now Mr. Duterte’s finance secretary.

He staggered into the family home one night, clutching a stab wound from a street fight, his sister says. He later shot a college classmate in the leg in reprisal for an attack on a friend, Mr. Dureza says, noting that the other man recovered and Mr. Duterte faced no legal blowback.



At university in Manila, he studied politics under Jose Maria Sison, who later founded the Communist Party of the Philippines and in 1969 launched an armed insurrection. Mr. Sison, now in exile in the Netherlands, says he schooled Mr. Duterte in what he viewed as the evils of American imperialism and the corrupt nexus of business and political families who have ruled the Philippines at the expense of ordinary Filipinos—a system Mr. Duterte has pledged to upend.

The Philippine communist party is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Mr. Duterte has said he sympathizes with the party, which he never joined.

His views on law and order coalesced in the 1980s when violent criminal gangs terrorized Davao City. Mr. Duterte was robbed at gunpoint, leading him to swear to destroy the gang responsible and others such as them, says Leo Villareal, who worked with Mr. Duterte at Davao City Hall.

Mr. Duterte worked through the mid-1980s as a city prosecutor, having surprised his family by finishing law school, his sister says. The country was descending into chaos, ruled by U.S.-backed strongman Ferdinand Marcos.

After a “People Power” revolution ousted Mr. Marcos in 1986, the criminal-justice system deteriorated, with wealthy Filipinos often escaping prosecution through bribes while other cases could drag on for years. Mr. Duterte came to see the legal process as “something that can be delayed or derailed,” Mr. Dureza says, with direct action the only way to effect change.

Elected mayor of Davao City in 1988, he adopted a strict approach that his sister, Ms. Duterte, says was modeled on Singapore’s disciplinarian leader, the late Lee Kuan Yew. He imposed curfews, and smoking and drinking restrictions.

He declared a crackdown on suspected drug dealers, and vigilante death squads in Davao killed more than 1,400 alleged criminals, according to Human Rights Watch and other rights groups. Mr. Duterte has said in speeches and interviews he encouraged police to be tough and shoot anyone resisting arrest but never personally ordered murders.


‘The Punisher’

His measures were popular, and locals gave him the nickname “The Punisher.” He served seven terms, with interruptions for term limits, until 2016.

Along the way, Mr. Duterte nursed grievances over perceived U.S. slights, including a 2002 incident in which an American slipped out of the country under mysterious circumstances after a bomb exploded in his Davao City hotel room. Mr. Duterte suspected a CIA plot and brooded over the episode for years, friends say.

The U.S. embassy in Manila says: “We took no action beyond providing routine consular services assisting a U.S. citizen with a medical evacuation. As services were rendered, we consulted closely with Philippine authorities.”

Soon after the 2002 incident, the U.S. denied Mr. Duterte a visa, and his partner, a nurse, had her U.S. work visa canceled, say a friend and an associate of Mr. Duterte’s who are familiar with the incidents and attribute the moves to U.S. concerns about extrajudicial killings in Davao City. The U.S. embassy in Manila declined to comment on the matter.

From 2002, the U.S. military was providing counterterrorism support in parts of Mindanao at Manila’s request to help subdue Muslim separatists. In 2007, the government suggested holding an annual joint U.S.-Philippine exercise in Davao.

That provoked Mr. Duterte, who persuaded the Davao City council to pass a resolution permanently preventing American forces from exercising in the area. “I don’t want American soldiers in my city,” he told the council, local media reported. “Because of their arrogance and pretended superiority, the Americans invaded Iraq to kill Saddam Hussein but ended up destroying the country. We don’t want that to happen to us.”


His victory in May’s election came after he promised to wipe out crime and spread the benefits of a fast-growing economy more evenly. “It’s going to be bloody,” he predicted during a January interview with the Journal. “People will die.”

Mr. Duterte is popular at home, with 76% of Filipinos saying in a poll this month by Social Weather Stations, a research group, that they are satisfied with his work.

His presidential campaign featured only mild criticism of the U.S. That changed after he took office and faced foreign criticism.

At the Laos summit, he lashed out at Mr. Obama for alleged American war crimes over a century ago, holding up a photo of slain Filipinos and describing them as his own ancestors, says a person who was there.

Some of Mr. Duterte’s colleagues say they are caught off-guard by his outbursts, in which he departs from prepared remarks.

“We can only write the speeches,” says one communications official, “we can’t make him read them.”

Sourcde: Carol E. Lee, Cris Larano and Chun Han Wong contributed to this article.