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Philippine President Duterte Compares Himself To Hitler

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's head now to the Philippines where tensions have been rising with the U.S. over the rhetoric and tactics used by President Rodrigo Duterte. Since taking office in June, Duterte has already raised serious concerns in the international community for a number of things - calling President Obama an insulting name, for example, but mainly for his role in the mass killings of those suspected of using or dealing in drugs, killings that critics say are indiscriminate and lacked due process. Earlier this week, Duterte raised eyebrows again when he compared himself to Adolf Hitler.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million - what is it? - 3 million drug addicts. I'd be happy to slaughter them.

MARTIN: We called reporter Michael Sullivan in Davao City where Duterte previously served as mayor to ask him how that latest comment was received there.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Well, I think here in the Philippines, it's been received like most of his comments are here. And people either wince or they chuckle, but this is their guy. This is the guy they voted for, and they voted for him for exactly this reason. I mean, he ran on this platform of going after the drug dealers. Remember his famous promise to fill Manila Bay with so many corpses the fish would get fat? And it was pretty much a single issue candidacy, and he won.

And I have to say when I was coming in today to Manila, I was in the taxi with my driver, and I said, look, what do you think of this whole Hitler thing? I mean, this is over the top? And he said, no, I don't care because you know what's happened? Since the war on drugs started, my neighborhood is safer. There's less crime. There's less drugs, and that's fine with me. And that's fine with a lot of people here, Michel.

MARTIN: How big of a problem are illegal drugs in the Philippines - or particularly in the areas where his support is strongest?

SULLIVAN: It's a big problem here. I mean, they have a very large and very bad crystal meth problem, and that, you know, affects all aspects of life. And that's why I think you see so many people approving of Duterte's policies, and that's why you see so many of these drug addicts who have been surrendering. There's been over 700,000 who have surrendered in the three months since Duterte took office because they know he's serious about this. And they think, well, if he's serious about it - number one, I don't want to get killed, and if he is serious about it, well, then maybe I shouldn't be doing this anymore.

MARTIN: There are other issues that have caught the attention of the international community. I mean, Duterte also said this week that routine military exercises between the United States and the Philippines would end after this year, but we understand that officials - other officials later kind of walked that back or softened that position. Is that part of a pattern with Duterte that he makes a provocative statement and that other officials in the government kind of soft pedal it?

SULLIVAN: I think on this U.S. thing, it's really interesting I think. There's a different dynamic going on here. I don't think Rodrigo Duterte really trusts the U.S. And I'll tell you why. While he was mayor here in Davao, there was this incident in 2002 - an American wounded when an explosive device he was keeping in his hotel room detonated, and he was very quickly spirited out of Davao about by shadowy U.S. operatives.

And most people here are convinced he was a CIA operative. And Duterte is still livid about it to this day. And then there's this issue of the U.S. occupation when the Philippines was a U.S. colony after the Spanish-American War, when U.S. troops suppressed the moral people here in Mindanao with extreme prejudice, bottom line - I don't think he trusts the U.S. - maybe not even to honor its treaty commitments if push comes to shove over the South China Sea.

MARTIN: Well to that end, the foreign minister visited D.C. and very clearly stated that although the Philippines will remain an ally, he said that they won't, quote, "forever be the little brown brothers of America." Does that represent a widespread sentiment there, according to your reporting?

SULLIVAN: Honestly, I mean, I think there's this perception that a lot of Americans have - and a lot of Filipinos have - that we have the special relationship. We fought together against the Japanese in World War II, the Filipino diaspora in the U.S. is very large. But the the flipside of that special relationship is the colonization. And people like Duterte, I think, are putting that out there for the first time in a way we haven't really heard of for a long time.

MARTIN: That's Michael Sullivan. He's in Davao City. Michael Sullivan, thanks so much for speaking with us.

SULLIVAN: You're quite welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.