Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said Monday he wanted U.S. Special 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 U.S. troops.
Washington said it had not received a formal request to remove U.S. military personnel. White House spokesman Josh Earnest reiterated that Duterte had tendency to make “colorful comments” and drew a comparison with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump.
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."
Duterte’s relationship with the U.S. has been a bit rocky since he became president in June. Duterte has been openly critical of American security policies aimed to chart a foreign policy that would not depend on America, his country’s treaty ally.
The U.S. military deployed troops to train, advise and provide intelligence and weapons to Filipino troops battling Al Qaeda-linked militant group Abu Sayyaf militants in the southern Philippines in 2002, but when most of them pulled out last year, the U.S. kept a few military advisers.
Duterte hasn’t specified on how he plans to pursue his wishes.
State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday that the U.S. was aware of Duterte’s comments, but was “not aware of any official communication by the Philippine government to that that effect and to seek that result.” Kirby reiterated U.S. commitments to its ally.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the US earmarked $79 million in military aid for Manila. The country is also set to receive $42 million from a White House initiative to build its maritime capacity.
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."
Last week at the ASEAN meetings, Duterte sparked controversy with his comments about President Barack Obama. He used the phrase "son of a bitch" in warning that he wouldn't accept lectures from Obama on human rights, which led to Obama canceling the meeting.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.