MANILA, Philippines - In the final days of U.S. President Donald Trump’s 13-day Asia trip, the controversial leader met his Philippine counterpart, who shares a similar controversial image in the global media - Rodrigo Duterte.
As many had expected, Trump held a 40-minute meeting with Duterte and while the duo discussed strategic interests, trade, the Islamic State and illegal drugs - the meeting did not feature any discussion on human rights.
The U.S. President repeatedly praised Duterte, whom he called by his first name, and the two leaders even shared a joke about the media, as Trump complimented Duterte on Manila’s weather.
Unlike his predecessors and much to the dismay of human rights groups, Trump did not highlight the human rights abuses in the Philippines during the meeting.
Duterte’s bloody drug war has featured hundreds of extrajudicial killings and the President has even boasted about killing people with his own hands at least three times.
In his latest apparent admission of murder, on Friday he boasted that he had once stabbed a person to death, adding to a list of similar public statements including a claim that he pushed a man out of a helicopter.
During brief remarks to reporters, Trump said he and Duterte have "had a great relationship" and avoided questions on whether he'd raise human rights issues with the Filipino leaders.
Later, in a statement, the White House said the two leaders discussed the Islamic State, illegal drugs and trade during the meeting and spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders said human rights came up "briefly" in the context of the Philippines' fight against illegal drugs.
She did not, however, pointed out if Trump was critical of Duterte's programme.
Meanwhile, the Filipino version of the meeting said on the contrary.
Harry Roque, a spokesman for Duterte, said "there was no mention of human rights. There was no mention of extralegal killings. There was only a rather lengthy discussion of the Philippine war on drugs with President Duterte doing most of the explaining."
Duterte’s spokesman also said that the pair discussed their mutual distaste for Barack Obama too.
During Obama’s tenure, relations between the U.S. and its former colony, allies since the second world war, were at a low point and since then, Duterte has pushed for better ties with Russia and China.
Roque added, “It was President Duterte who brought up with President Trump the drug menace in the Philippines, and the U.S. president appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter but was merely nodding his head.”
Trump’s advisers had stated before the meeting that while Trump was always unlikely to publicly chastise Duterte, he might offer criticisms behind closed doors.
Trump was expected to hold his tongue in public to avoid embarrassing Duterte, whom he is urging to help pressure North Korea and fight terrorism, and to avoid pushing him closer to China.
Over the last year, Duterte has seemed less committed to the strategic partnership with the U.S.
Meanwhile, his war on drugs has alarmed human rights advocates around the world who have said the President has allowed police officers and vigilantes to ignore due process and to take justice into their own hands.
While Philippines’ government officials estimate that well over 3000 people, mostly drug users and dealers, have died in the ongoing crackdown - Human rights groups believe the victim total is far higher, perhaps closer to 9000.
As the two leaders met, hundreds of leftwing protesters clashed in central Manila with riot police, who used water cannons to disperse the crowds.
The demonstrators chanted against the drugs crackdown as well as other issues such as Trump’s bellicose rhetoric on North Korea.
They even burnt an effigy of the U.S. president that showed the billionaire developer with four arms, all bent into the shape of a swastika.
Duterte, who has regularly been described as the “Donald Trump of Asia” for his mercurial temperament and anti-establishment populist support, was previously praised by Trump for his bloody crackdown on drugs.
Trump said Duterte was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem,” and continued to shower the president with compliments on Monday.
Trump said, “Rodrigo, I would like to commend you on your success as Asean chair at this critical moment of time. The show last night was fantastic. And you were fantastic.”
Meanwhile, on Monday, Trump met with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi and highlighted their two nations' "deeper and more comprehensive" ties, looking to strengthen a relationship that is vital to the U.S. vision of an Indo-Pacific region that attempts to de-emphasise China's influence.
Trump also jointly met with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, with whom he had a contentious phone call last winter, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who hosted the president in Tokyo earlier in the trip.
Trump met with Turnbull privately later on Monday.
Trump has been trying to strengthen ties with Pacific Rim allies, aiming to strike bilateral, rather than multinational trade agreements.
He is also holding meetings with leaders from the region to increase pressure on North Korea to abandon its nuclear programme.
Trump has stated that he would wait until his return to Washington on Wednesday to elaborate with a "major statement" on his accomplishments on his five-nation journey, particularly on trade and on North Korea but hinted at progress while in Manila.
Speaking to reporters and pointing to business deals forged between U.S. and foreign companies, Trump said, "We've made some very big steps with regard to trade - far bigger than anything you know. We've made a lot of big progress on trade. We have deficits with almost everybody. Those deficits are going to be cut very quickly and very substantially.”
Trump also said the trip had been "very fruitful" for the United States and pointed to the warm welcomes he had received in capitals like Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing.
He said, “It was red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever received. And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little, but really for our county. And I'm really proud of that."
Later in the day, Phelim Kine, Deputy Director for Asia Human Rights Watch issued a statement saying, “I would say it's dismaying but not surprising that President Trump is failing to raise the crucial issue of human rights and the calamitous human rights issues related to the war on drugs. It's not surprising because Trump has a well-documented affinity for strongman leaders who abuse the rights of their people and he has, over the months, expressed and made several references to how he supports what Duterte is doing in the Philippines."
Kine added, “Trump is failing to understand that words have power and failure to speak out could have a lot of symbolic value in terms of how Filipinos view the United States and the Philippine relationship with the United States.”
Meanwhile, Wilnor Papa, a human rights officer of Amnesty International Philippines, echoed Kine's sentiments.
Papa said, “Although we were pushing for human rights to be part of their agenda, we are really not that hopeful that the Trump administration will grab the opportunity. They really don’t want to talk about issues that mire both countries. Disappointing but expected from both leaders. What a waste.”
And Ellecer Carlos, spokesperson of In Defense of Human Rights and Dignity Movement, said Trump's priority is "long-standing friendship and economic interest."
Carlos said, “It is clear that Trump needs to maintain his relationship with the Philippines and Duterte. First, Trump has personal economic interest here. He has personal investments here, not just the United States. Essentially, the Philippines is strategically important for the United States in Asia [such as the] assertion of U.S. authority and hegemony in Southeast Asia. They need to keep the Philippines with US than China. That's the context that's why he acts like a mediator in the West Philippine Sea dispute. The Philipines is important strategically on the U.S.’ war on terror."