Anti-American sentiment that the Philippines’ new president has whipped up for months turned violent Wednesday as a police van rammed a crowd protesting outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila. Video footage showed the van dragging a woman along the ground as people, some armed with wooden batons, scrambled to get away.
President Rodrigo Duterte has been seeking to redefine the Philippines’ longstanding defense alliance with the United States since he took office in June. Last month he called U.S. President Barack Obama a “son of a whore” after the White House questioned Duterte’s no-holds-barred war on drugs, which has already killed 3,000. He also sent conflicting signals on the future of U.S.-Philippine military cooperation, calling for booting U.S. Special Forces out of the southern Philippines.
The roughly 1,000 students and workers gathered at the embassy were from the left-wing activist group Bayan, which has organized mainly peaceful protests in front of the U.S. Embassy for decades. But as activists broke through a line of riot police and threw red paint and rocks, police responded with water spray from a fire hose, tear gas and batons.
Protesters claim the police started the violence, but Chief inspector Arsenio Riparip, head of the Manila Police District’s general assignment section, said the group had overpowered authorities and was trying to enter the embassy.
Manila Police Chief Oscar Albayalde insisted the driver was not to blame and said the protesters had been trying to flip the van. “They weren’t really run over,” he said in a statement. Three people were hospitalized for injuries. At least 23 people were arrested.
The protesters were demonstrating against U.S. troops in the Philippines. However, Bayan is not just against American intervention, but also wary of stronger relations with China – which Duterte has been courting lately as he seeks to direct Philippine foreign policy away from U.S. influence. “The Philippines will not be dictated on, whether by the U.S. or China,” the group said in a statement.
At the time of the protest, Duterte was on a visit to Beijing, trying to smooth over relations with China after tensions over the South China Sea territorial disputes under his predecessor. The Philippines is greatly in need of more trade and investment to finance infrastructure projects and Duterte has lately been hinting Beijing is more welcome in Manila than Washington.
While Duterte was in China, thousands of Filipinos began evacuating their homes before Typhoon Haima makes landfall on the main island of Luzon. The Category 5 storm will be the twelfth typhoon to hit the Philippines this year, and is expected to cause the worst damage in years.
The American Embassy in Manila has not commented on Wednesday protest or its ensuing violence.