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Philippine President Heads to ASEAN Meeting in Bali

Jeoffrey Maitem
Cotabato, Philippines
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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addresses congressmen and government officials during the presentation of Republic Act bills at a ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Manila, Oct. 9, 2018.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte flew to Indonesia on Wednesday to attend a gathering of Southeast Asian leaders in Bali, amid questions about his health.

The presidential palace said Duterte was traveling at the invitation of Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who will host Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) leaders in an informal meeting scheduled for Thursday on the sidelines of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund annual meetings, which are taking place this year in Bali.

The Philippine president was expected to “highlight the government’s efforts to improve its performance in achieving the sustainable development goals,” it had set, according to Junver Mahilum-West, an assistant foreign secretary for ASEAN affairs.

The event was a good way to show to the world ASEAN’s cohesiveness, despite problems ranging from territorial disputes pitting some members of the 10-nation bloc against China, and drug problems faced by the Philippines and Indonesia, Philippine ambassador to Indonesia Lee Hiong Tan Wee said.

Arrangements were being made for Duterte and Widodo to hold bilateral talks on the sidelines of the ASEAN gathering, Tan Wee said.

“I think there will be a brief meeting between the two leaders. There are various issues of Indonesia and the Philippines. The trade issue is one of them, the terrorism, the wide Celebes Sea which has always been a problem, although we have done a lot of things to improve that. I think those are the issues that are foremost in the mind of the two presidents,” the diplomat said.

Negative for cancer

Before embarking on his foreign trip, Duterte had admitted to having consulted medical specialists here, but said the tests came back negative for cancer.

Talk about his allegedly failing health resurfaced after he made an unannounced trip to Hong Kong at the weekend. The unannounced trip was kept under wraps, and was apparently hidden even from his spokesman.

On Tuesday night, a frail-looking Duterte said doctors had carried tests and declared him cancer-free, ending speculation from his critics that he was unfit for office and might not able to finish his term. But the president looked physically drained, and at times incoherent.

“It’s negative. They had a suspicion but they had this specimen taken out from both the esophageal tube and somewhere here,” he said. “I am not yet cancerous, so do not be afraid to go near me. I will not contaminate you,” the president, who is 73, joked.

Duterte suffers from Barrett’s esophagus, a serious complication of gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, where the normal tissue lining the esophagus changes to tissue that resembles the lining of the intestine.

The condition could lead to cancer of the esophagus.

“A month ago, I was telling you the truth that I had a colonoscopy and endoscopy in Davao City,” he said.  “Apparently, my doctors here were not really convinced so they had a retake and that was that. And I will show you. I will drink again.”

Luis Liwanag in Manila contributed to this report.

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