Duterte’s comments on Friday that he wished to kill millions of drug dealers as part of his anti-narcotics war, and those he made about the deaths of millions of Jews, were “two entirely different things”, Ernesto Abella said in one of two statements, which stopped short of an apology.
“The president’s reference to the slaughter was an oblique deflection of the way he has been pictured as a mass murderer, a Hitler, a label he rejects,” Abella said.
“He likewise draws an oblique conclusion, that while the Holocaust was an attempt to exterminate the future generations of Jews, the so-called ‘extra-judicial killings’, wrongly attributed to him, will nevertheless result in the salvation of the next generation of Filipinos.”
The maverick 71-year-old president appeared to liken himself on Friday to the Nazi leader, and said he would “be happy to slaughter” 3mn Filipino drug users and peddlers, adding that he had been portrayed by critics as “a cousin of Hitler”.
“If Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have...,” he said, pausing and pointing to himself.
More than 3,100 people have been killed since “Duterte Harry”, as he has been dubbed, took office on June 30 and kicked off a drugs war that was the bedrock of his election campaign.
Most of those killed were drug users and dealers, with some deaths during shootouts in police operations and others the work of vigilantes, police say. The near-daily tide of astonishing remarks from Duterte has caused outrage in the West, although he is popular among Filipinos for delivering on promises as president and as mayor of the city of Davao for 22 years before that.
The Hitler comments triggered shock and anger among Jewish groups in the United States, which pressured Washington to take a tougher line with the unpredictable leader of a country that has long been a dependable US ally.
Abella said Duterte recognised the deep significance of the Holocaust and said that the initial comparison to Hitler “did not originate from the president”.
“The (presidential) palace deplores the Hitler allusion of President Duterte’s anti-drug war as another crude attempt to vilify the president in the eyes of the world.” Duterte was elected in May on the back of a vow to end endemic problems of drugs and corruption in the country of 100mn people.
When challenged about the drugs deaths, he has insulted US President Barack Obama, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, among others, and the bulk of his criticism has been levelled at Washington.
US defence and diplomatic officials have responded by saying their relationships with their Philippine counterparts will remain business as usual.
Many analysts say Duterte’s meteoric rise to the presidency will not only change the status quo in the Philippines, but may also impact geopolitics and how far he is willing to test partnerships with countries like Japan, the United States and, most recently, Vietnam.
Closely watched will be the extent of his overtures towards China.
Duterte has said that the Philippines, a longtime US treaty ally, was seeking to build “many news alliances” and could turn to Russia and China for help, including on tackling his country’s drug problem.