“People say the Republic of the Philippines has a president with a foul mouth. Correct, I am that president,” Rodrigo Duterte said in front of more than 500 Filipinos who gathered on the evening of September 28 at the Intercontinental Hotel, Hanoi, and are among the 3,800 Filipinos currently residing in Vietnam. Many of them considered themselves lucky to be able to see the man with their own eyes and hear him with their own ears. For his part, President Duterte seemed he had a lot to share with his citizens abroad. On his first official visit to Vietnam as the president of the Philippines, he made sure he did not miss the chance to explain his domestic and foreign policies to his own people. If one had come expecting to hear how he planned to protect domestic interests in the host country, one would have been disappointed.
President Duterte’s speech, which was broadcast live online, did not differ much from his usual rhetoric, now already familiar to those who follow his public deliberations. His language was as colorful as usual. He would start a sentence in English only to finish it in Filipino, causing uneasiness to those who don’t speak Filipino, including a limited number of local and international journalists invited by the Filipino embassy to the meeting. This may be the reason why just minutes after the meeting, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay gave the press another interpretation of what his president had said.
On top of his talking points was the security situation back home. “A sector of the population of Mindanao, especially the younger ones, are allied now with ISIS. ISIS is a very terrible outfit. They are the guys who simply cut the heads of people, decapitate them in public…,” said Duterte. “You kill people for money and there is no payment, you just kill them like chickens and goats….I would never agree to talk about peace that would include Abu Sayyaf,” an Islamist militant group based in the southwest of the Philippines. He made a similar statement at home a day before visiting Vietnam, but his administration has also started peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a Filipino secessionist group based in Mindanao. While his people may be applauding his strong stance, it's unsurprising that the rest of the world has been left baffled by his actions.
Then he went on to talk about the war on drugs. “I have to protect the people… In my country, it’s never wrong, it’s not a crime, it’s never unlawful to threaten criminals.” To this the audience cheered and applauded.
The part that caused the press to surround his foreign secretary after the meeting was about the country’s military ties. "I would serve notice to you now that this will be the last military exercise. Jointly, Philippines - U.S., the last one”, he was heard saying. However, Yasay later denied hearing anything like that.
It’s hard to know if the Filipinos present at the meeting felt disappointed because their president didn’t tell them anything that can't be found on the internet, but they didn’t seem to mind much. Many of them are clearly his fans. People wearing black t-shirts with “Hanoi Vietnam Du30” printed on the back and Du30 was visible on the background of a fist.
Du-thirty sounds like Duterte when Filipinos pronounce it.
If we think Duterte is no conventional president, imagine his fans. That could be the most unconventional audience if you count those for such a high ranking occasion. People gathered noisily to enjoy the buffet dinner before the meeting took place, and many sat eating on the carpeted floor outside the meeting room as if they were on a picnic. The Filipinos didn’t just let the three hours of waiting pass by for nothing. To conform to a positive stereotype, they sang. And of course, they took selfies with their favorite senators.
For many Filipinos living in Vietnam, they felt happy to be part of that crowd because they are thankful that Duterte is doing what his predecessors did not: waging a war on drugs. In front of his people, Duterte affirmed: “I will not leave the presidency in shame.” Hopefully the cheerful Filipinos will not be let down and their president’s promise will come true.