Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said U.S. troops must leave the southern island of Mindanao, saying their presence would worsen the situation in the Muslim-majority area long riven by insurgency and terrorism.
The Philippines will review its policy of allowing American forces to combat terrorist groups in Mindanao, Duterte said Monday in a speech in Manila. As many as 1,300 U.S. special forces troops have been present on the island since 2002.
“These special forces, they have to go,” Duterte said. “They have to, in Mindanao — there are many white men there.”
“I just couldn’t say it before out of respect,” he added. “I don’t want a rift with America but they have to go.”
Duterte’s comments follow a spat with President Barack Obama that prompted the U.S. leader to cancel a meeting last week on the sidelines of a summit in Laos. In the past few weeks, Duterte has lashed out at the U.S. for criticizing his war on drugs that has led to thousands of extra-judicial killings, and denounced military killings that took place over a century ago when the Philippines was an American colony.
Prior to Duterte’s election this year, U.S.-Philippine relations had been strengthening. The Supreme Court in January upheld the validity of a defense cooperation pact that gives the U.S. military the right to increase troops deployed to the Philippines for war games, as well as bringing equipment into military areas including Subic Bay, the former site of a U.S. naval facility.
The U.S. has also been a strong supporter of the Philippines as it pushes back against China’s assertiveness in the disputed South China Sea. Manila’s military forces are dwarfed by China’s navy and coastguard.
“This could just be fallout from the Laos brouhaha,” said Richard Bitzinger, who studies the military as a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “It is interesting that he hasn’t mentioned the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Maybe he wants the U.S. to say it really values its relationship with the Philippines.”
Duterte put the entire country under a so-called state of “lawlessness” following a bombing in his home city of Davao on Mindanao at the start of the month. The measure allows him to use the military to assist the police to fight crime and violence.
Duterte said Monday the presence of U.S. forces could inflame the situation and suggested that they may be kidnap targets or killed by local terrorist groups.
The U.S. hadn’t apologized for alleged atrocities committed by Americans on Filipinos in the 1900s, Duterte said, also criticizing the U.S. over its role in conflicts in Iraq, Syria and Vietnam. American officials are “hypocrites” for funding anti-drug efforts while calling him out for supposed human-right violations, he said in the same speech.
—With assistance from Cecilia Yap