MANILA, Philippines — Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday he wants U.S. forces out of his country’s south and blamed America for inflaming Muslim insurgencies in the region, in his first public statement opposing the presence of American troops.
Washington, however, said it had not received a formal request to remove U.S. military personnel. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Duterte had a tendency to make “colorful comments” and drew a comparison with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
Duterte has had an uneasy relationship with the U.S. since becoming president in June and has been openly critical of American security policies. As a candidate, he declared he would chart a foreign policy that would not depend on America, his country’s treaty ally.
In 2002, the U.S. military deployed troops to train, advise and provide intelligence and weapons to Filipino troops battling al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern Philippines. When the American forces withdrew in February last year, U.S. officials said a smaller contingent of U.S. military advisers would stay. Details of the current U.S. military presence in the south were not immediately available.
Duterte did not mention any deadline or say how he intends to pursue his wishes.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the U.S. was aware of Duterte’s comments, but is “not aware of any official communication by the Philippine government to that effect and to seek that result.” He said the U.S. remained committed to its long-standing alliance with the Philippines.
Before the alliance, the Philippines was a colony of the United States from 1898 to 1946, except for a period of Japanese occupation in World War II.
In opposing the U.S. military presence in the southern Mindanao region, Duterte cited the killing of Muslims during a U.S. pacification campaign in the early 1900s, which he said was at the root of the long restiveness of minority Muslims in the largely Catholic nation’s south.
“For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace in that land,” Duterte said in a speech to newly appointed government officials.
He showed photos of what he described as Muslim Filipinos, including children and women, who were slain by U.S. forces in the early 1900s and dumped in a pit in Bud Daho, a mountainous region in southern Sulu province. American soldiers stood around the mass grave.
“The special forces, they have to go. They have to go in Mindanao, there are many whites there, they have to go,” he said, adding that he was reorienting the country’s foreign policy. “I do not want a rift with America, but they have to go.”
By contrast, White House spokesman Earnest said, “Filipino people have enormous affection for the United States.” He said the U.S. military has been present in the Philippines for a number of years at the request of its leaders, and the U.S. provided humanitarian assistance when a cyclone struck and help for maritime security.
With the United States two months away from a presidential election that will pit President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton against Trump, Earnest drew a comparison with the Philippines. He said that elections say a lot about what kind of person is “going to represent your country on the international stage.”
When asked if he were trying to draw a cautionary tale for the American people, Earnest said, “I guess some people could draw that analogy.”
Last week, Obama called off what would have been his first meeting with Duterte on the sidelines of an Asian summit in Laos after the Philippine president used the phrase “son of a bitch” in warning that he wouldn’t accept lectures from Obama on human rights.
Despite the remark, the two leaders later shook hands and had a brief chat in a holding room where Duterte reportedly said his words were not directed at Obama.
Duterte, however, has continued to press his criticism of the American president.
In another speech late Monday, Duterte said for the first time that he deliberately skipped a meeting between Southeast Asian leaders and Obama at the summit in Laos out of principle. His spokesman said at the time that Duterte did not attend the meeting because of a migraine.
American colonial forces killed many Muslims in the southern Philippines more than a century ago “because you were here as imperialists, you wanted to colonize my country and because you had a hard time pacifying the Moro people,” Duterte said in the speech.
While criticizing U.S. policies, Duterte has taken steps to repair relations with China, which were strained under his predecessor over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report.