Donald Trump has revived US relations with two of Asia’s most authoritarian heads of state – the leader of Thailand’s junta and the president of the Philippines – by inviting them to the White House.
In separate phonecalls over the weekend, Trump spoke with Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former general who took power in a 2014 coup, and the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, who is accused of mass murder.
The calls aimed to rally regional allies as Washington takes an increasingly hard line towards North Korea’s nuclear programme. The country ran another failed missile test on Friday.
The governments of Thailand and the Philippines had cooperative but strained relationships with the US before Trump took office, mostly because of human rights concerns expressed by the former administration.
Neither leader was offered an official White House visit during Barack Obama’s tenur, although Prayuth did attend a summit in California. Obama cancelled a meeting with Duterte after the Filipino strongman referred to him as a “son of a whore”.
Asked on Monday about his invitation from Trump, Duterte was non-committal, telling reporters: “I’m tied up. I cannot make any definite promise. I am supposed to go to Russia and go to Israel.”
Thailand’s deputy government spokesman, Lt Gen Werachon Sukondhapatipak, did not mention North Korea but said “[the US and Thailand] stand ready to enhance bilateral cooperation in all dimensions”.
Bangkok’s ruling generals have promised elections yet repeatedly delayed a vague timeline for a return to democratic rule, which is now tentatively tabled for late 2018. During Prayuth’s time as prime minister, politicians and activists have been detained as part of a countrywide clampdown. The launch of an Amnesty International report on torture in jails last year was blocked by police.
In Manila, Duterte has used his first 10 months in office to conduct a devastating crackdown on crime in which thousands of suspected drug dealers and also alleged addicts have died. More than 7,000 people have been killed by police and vigilantes.
Phelim Kine, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, said “countries with close bilateral ties to the Philippines, particularly the United States, have an obligation to urge accountability for the victims of Duterte’s abusive drug war, rather than offer to roll out the red carpet for official state visits with its mastermind”.
Kine added that Duterte has been an “enthusiastic cheerleader” for thousands of extrajudicial killings. “He has made repeated calls for the public to kill drug addicts as part of his anti-drug campaign.”
Last week, a Filipino lawyer filed a complaint at the international criminal court accusing Duterte and 11 other officials of mass murder and crimes against humanity.
The 77-page complaint said the president had “repeatedly, unchangingly and continuously” committed extrajudicial executions or mass murders over three decades, amounting to crimes against humanity. Duterte’s aides deny the allegations.
The White House said the discussion with Duterte was “very friendly” and Trump specifically praised his deadly campaign, saying the Philippine president was “was fighting very hard to rid his country of drugs”.
Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff, twice refused in an interview to say whether Trump had raised human rights concerns. “Obviously, we want to encourage [Duterte] to do better. But this call, the purpose of this call, is all about North Korea,” he told ABC’s This Week.
“Now if we don’t have all of our folks together, whether they’re good folks, bad folks, people that we wish would do better in their country, doesn’t matter. We have got to be on the same page,” he added.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, questioned Trump’s motives for inviting Duterte, saying Manila had no leverage over Pyongyang.
Trump has a potential conflict of interest in the Philippines as his family brand is due to open a skyscraper in Manila. The Filipino developer Jose EB Antonio was named as “special trade envoy” to the US last year, meaning the US president’s family and a Philippine government official are business partners.
Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and assistant, has been the face of promotional material for the building.
Trump told CBS that the threat of a North Korean nuclear strike was more important than other foreign policy objectives in Asia, including a trade deal with China. “Trade is very important. But massive warfare with millions, potentially millions of people being killed? That, as we would say, trumps trade,” he said.
Duterte, an anti-establishment candidate who rode a wave of populism to overthrow the country’s major political players, has sometimes been labelled the “Trump of Asia”. However, he has also referred to Trump as a bigot.
Since taking office in January, Trump has expressed admiration for many of the world’s most prominent authoritarians. He was the first western leader to congratulate Recep Tayyip Erdoğan for his victory in a controversial referendum that handed the Turkish president vast powers. Trump also welcome the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to the White House, despite his crackdown against Islamists, journalists and dissidents.
Trump will visit Asia for two regional summits, one in Vietnam and one in the Philippines, towards the end of the year. Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, was also given a White House invitation over the weekend.
Source: The Guardian