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MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte’s very cautious response to the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat by a Chinese ship struck many as uncharacteristic given his image as a no-holds-barred, tough-talking defender of the ordinary Filipino.
Not only did he echo China’s dismissal of the ramming as just a "maritime incident," he had no words of comfort for the Filipino fishermen who almost lost their lives. Nor did he let loose any categorical condemnation of the abandonment of fishermen. This, despite his own defense secretary, foreign secretary, and spokesman earlier condemning the abandonment.
But what makes Duterte’s initial reaction even more peculiar is how it contrasts so sharply with other incidents when an act of a foreign entity caused harm to Filipinos, or when Duterte himself perceived such harm to Philippine sovereignty.
In these incidents, Duterte made colorful threats and followed through with executive action meant to tip the scales of justice in favor of Filipinos.
Here are these moments:
1. After OFW abuse in Kuwait, Duterte bans OFW deployment
Days after the discovery of overseas Filipino worker (OFW) Joanna Demafelis’ mangled body in a freezer in Kuwait, Duterte called a press conference to express his outrage at the Kuwaiti government.
“What are you doing to my countrymen?” Duterte roared. “Is there something with your culture? Is there something wrong with your values?”
While the Filipino fishermen in the Recto Bank collision were not killed, like the Demafelis case, actions of a foreign entity, in their case Chinese nationals, led them to the brink of death, or at the very least, injury.
It was also only in April, two months after his outburst, when Demafelis’ employers confessed to her murder and were sentenced to death. Duterte didn’t wait for their conviction to rail at Kuwait – unlike the Recto Bank incident where he is giving China more time to investigate before he makes any strong statement.
2. Duterte’s "war" threat over Canada garbage
The Canada garbage controversy is a foreign affront that involved no Filipino deaths but still made Duterte go ballistic.
He threatened to wage war against Canada, a North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member. The Philippine Ambassador to Canada was summoned home and Filipino government officials were ordered to limit their engagements with Canadian representatives. Duterte even set a deadline for Canada to take back their trash.
“I will advise Canada that your garbage, prepare a grand reception. Eat it if you want to,” Duterte blustered on April 23.
And whereas he was very careful not to blame China for the incident, Duterte did not hesitate to make hasty and false assumptions about Canada’s involvement in the smuggled trash.
"They extend these educational grants but on condition that we will accept their shit and their garbage," Duterte had said.
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo thumbed down comparisons of the Recto Bank ramming incident to the Canada garbage controversy. He said Duterte’s responses to the two issues were different because the Canada garbage squabble involved “established facts.”
“Ito, hindi pa nga established ang facts kaya iba ang galaw niya rito (In this case, the facts are not established yet so his response is different),” said Panelo in an ANC interview.
Yet before Duterte spoke up about the boat ramming incident, Panelo had surmised that the President would condemn China, even cut diplomatic ties, given his response to Canada.
"Given steps undertaken by the President on the Canada trash issue, that's more likely...maybe even more severe,” Panelo had said on June 13.
Panelo had no qualms comparing the two diplomatic tiffs then.
3. Blasts EU Parliament, US, United Nations for “interference”
The other times Duterte hurled threats and insults to foreign entities was after they criticized his policies. He painted these criticisms as “interference” in Philippine domestic affairs and thus as insults not just to him but the country.
But the public has not heard Duterte speak about Chinese officials this way after they confirmed that a Chinese ship had been fishing within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone and left Filipino fishermen to the elements.
4. "Exposé" vs foreign-funded media
While Presidential Spokesman Panelo says Duterte is being a "thinking, cautious, and responsible President" by choosing to hear China's side in the Recto Bank ramming controversy, Duterte has accused Rappler of being "CIA-funded" without presenting any proof. The United States embassy had also categorically denied the claim.
Panelo, in defense of Duterte's tame Recto Bank statement, said on Wednesday, June 19: "While others may have the luxury of armchair expertise or backseat driving, the President, as Chief Executive, can ill afford to act on fragmented or incomplete information."
5. ICC pull-out
Duterte also considered it a national affront for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to begin a preliminary examination into his drug war.
6. Demands to US, industrialized countries to correct historical injustices
Some of the national affronts Duterte has demanded justice for are travesties committed not in the present day, but in the past.
The Philippine President has fumed at the US for colonial-era atrocities, even presenting photos of early 20th-century massacres in Mindanao to a roomful of foreign leaders and diplomats during an ASEAN summit.
His call for America to return the Balangiga Bells, taken from the Philippines as war booty, has been widely praised.
7. “Suicide missions” to protect Pag-asa Island
Duterte had even shown some firmness to China in another incident of its aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
After receiving military reports of China maritime militia swarming tactics near Pag-asa Island, a Filipino-occupied island in the West Philippine Sea, Duterte threatened to deploy soldiers on “suicide missions” against the Asian giant.
Duterte even brought up the swarming report with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their May meeting, where the two agreed to sort the issue out through negotiations.
Like China’s actions around Pag-asa Island, the Filipino fishermen’s account of the Recto Bank ramming has been affirmed by the military. Yet unlike with the Pag-asa Island swarming case, where no Filipino was harmed, Duterte has chosen to play safe with the Recto Bank boat sinking incident, where 22 fishermen were left “tired, hungry, and cold” at sea, according to the Vietnamese who rescued them.
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.