Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte reviews the honour guard upon arrival to the PNP Assumption of Command Ceremony at police headquarters in Manila, Philippines in July. Picture: REUTERS
Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte reviews the honour guard upon arrival to the PNP Assumption of Command Ceremony at police headquarters in Manila, Philippines in July. Picture: REUTERS

Bangkok — Rodrigo Duterte has vowed to give up the swearing that has fuelled a string of diplomatic disputes — and he says he is stopping under direct orders from God.

The Philippines’ president, who has fired verbal abuse at figures ranging from the Pope to US President Barack Obama, sprang his latest surprise on his return from Japan and another leg of his eventful tour of Asia.

Duterte’s zest for outrageous declarations has played well at home but left many outsiders, notably Manila’s traditional allies in Washington, confused about his real thoughts and aims. His tough talk also has domestic consequences: his bloody war on drugs has claimed thousands of lives, including a town mayor and nine of his associates on Friday.

The president announced his epiphany on expletives after arriving in his home town of Davao late on Thursday from his first official visit to Tokyo.

While other passengers on the flight home had slept, he said he had looked out at the sky and heard a voice warn: "If you don’t stop ... I will bring this plane down now."

"And I said: ‘Who is this?’ So, of course — ‘it’s God’," Mr Duterte continued. "So, I promise God to ... not express slang, cuss words and everything."

Duterte, who took office at the end of June, has called both Pope Francis and Mr Obama "son of a bitch" in separate outbursts. He also had to apologise for likening himself to Adolf Hitler and saying he would be prepared to kill millions of drug addicts.

Duterte’s homecomings to Davao have taken on something of the status of confessionals, in which he attempts to clarify or moderate statements he made during his travels. On his return from China last week, he said he had not really meant it when he dramatically announced the Philippines’ "separation" from the US, its security treaty ally.

Yet within days he launched fresh salvoes against Washington, which needs Manila in its efforts to stymie Beijing’s campaign to dominate the region’s seas.

He said during his Japan visit that the Philippines was not America’s "dog on a leash" and would expel US troops within two years.

Duterte’s latest act of post-trip contrition should probably be taken with a pinch of salt, judging by experience and people who know him.

The former Davao mayor’s style — which led him to a big election victory and has won him high approval ratings since — is to speak bluntly, while he delights in wrongfooting those who attempt to analyse him.

He seemed contrarian even as he made his latest announcement. When his tale of divine intervention drew applause, he warned: "Don’t clap too much or else this may get derailed."

© The Financial Times Limited 2016

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