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When Trump meets the Philippines' Duterte, 'drug war' killings will be the elephant in the room. Trump will probably ignore it

Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

BEIJING -- In President Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines, the police, with his explicit support, have killed thousands of alleged drug dealers and users without due process, some while they were in jail, or asleep, or at home with their families. They allegedly shot a 17-year-old while he was in custody, then dumped his remains in an alley. The youngest victim was 4.

Human rights groups, the U.S. Congress, the European Union and the United Nations have all condemned Duterte's "war on drugs." Yet when President Donald Trump meets Duterte in Manila, it probably won't enter the conversation.

The two leaders will hold talks at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit on Monday in Manila, marking the last leg of Trump's 12-day, five-country Asian tour, which has included stops in Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. There are no signs that he will press Duterte on the killings -- the White House, in advance of the trip, said Trump enjoys a "warm rapport" with the Philippine leader. Duterte, analysts say, is probably delighted.

Duterte was in Vietnam on Friday along with Trump and other regional leaders for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, where Duterte made news after saying he killed someone when he was as young as 16. He had previously bragged about killing suspected criminals in Davao, where he had served as mayor.

"When I was a teenager, I would go in and out of jail," Duterte said Friday in the city of Da Nang, Vietnam. "I'd have rumbles here, rumbles there. At the age of 16, I already killed someone -- a real person, a rumble, a stabbing. I was just 16 years old. It was just over a look. How much more now that I am president?"

There was no immediate reaction from the White House to this latest admission.

"Duterte is tough-talking, but he's actually notably thin-skinned," said Phelim Kine, a deputy director in Human Rights Watch's Asia Division. "When he's criticized, he lashes out. So what he's looking for, and what he hopes for from Trump, is someone who won't talk about his human rights record, and will give him very much what he desires -- which is international acceptance and recognition, what he's been denied since he took office because of his bloody drug war."

Trump and Duterte will discuss "trade and investment, innovation, addressing cybercrime, countering radicalization, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, protection and promotion of right for migrant workers," Robespierre Bolivar, spokesman for the Philippine foreign ministry, said on Friday. They will be joined by the U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, as well as Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev.

Trump has shown no interest in criticizing the drug war -- in an April phone call with Duterte, he reportedly congratulated him for doing an "unbelievable job on the drug problem." Yet Duterte still cautioned Trump against bringing it up. "You want to ask a question, I'll give you an answer," he told reporters on Wednesday. "Lay off. That is not your business. That is my business. I take care of my country and I will nurture my country to health."

"This is about developing a strongman populist internationale -- there's a solidarity between Trump and all the strongmen around the world," said Richard Javad Heydarian, the Manila-based author of "The Rise of Duterte." "Trump was absolutely out of place in (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), very much isolated among Western allies. He feels at home with people like Duterte, and he loves it. And he knows that Duterte is very popular, not only in the Philippines, but also across the region."

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