Thousands of protesters marched in the Philippine capital Manila and other cities Monday to denounce the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who vowed during his third State of the Nation address before Congress to prolong his administration’s controversial drug war.
In his speech, he said he had never wavered in his commitment to address criminality decisively. The Philippine leader stuck to the speech’s script and delivered it as written – a departure from an often combative approach usually peppered with verbal tirades and profanity directed at his political opponents.
“Let me begin by putting it bluntly,” Duterte said. “The war against illegal drugs is far from over.”
The scourge was so widespread that it had reached every community in the archipelago, the president said.
“This is why the illegal drugs war will not be sidelined. Instead, it will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began,” he warned.
His address was meant to consolidate public support for the 73 year-old president, after bitter feuds with human rights groups and the politically influential church in this predominantly Catholic Asian nation.
In April, the president threatened to arrest International Criminal Court prosecutors if they carried on with investigating him over his administration’s war on drugs, after Duterte had withdrawn the Philippines from a treaty that had established the court.
In other speeches over the past two years, Duterte had publicly waved a list of officials that included police officers, military personnel and judges, accusing them of being involved in the illicit drug trade. In recent weeks, at least four Filipino politicians were gunned down.
While he refrained Monday from directly ordering the police to shoot to kill drug suspects – as he had often done in the past – Duterte said that those engaged in crime knew the consequences of their actions “when they violently resist arrest.”
While delivering his speech he taunted rights advocates who were among thousands protesting in Manila streets against his regime. He brushed off their concerns as “misdirected.”
“Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives,” Duterte stressed, noting that the lives of the country’s youths were being wasted by drugs.
Rights group Amnesty International said Duterte had made the Philippines “a more perilous place than when he came into power" two years ago.
“President Duterte came to power on the back of a strongman image and a promise to be tough on law and order,” said Rachel Chhoa Howard, Amnesty’s Philippine researcher. “The reality is, just two years into this presidency, his disastrous policies have the country in a more dangerous place.”
She said the Duterte administration’s deadly drug war had caused “untold damage and misery", with extrajudicial executions happening nearly every day in homes and on the streets.
Duterte on charter change
President Duterte also used the speech to endorse before Congress planned changes to the country’s constitution, and he sought to assure the public that this wasn’t intended to prolong his presidency.
He said he had no illusions of “occupying this office one day longer that what the constitution under which I was elected, permits.”
Duterte won election to the six-year presidency by a wide margin in 2016, although there have been fears that the increasingly autocratic leader could tweak the constitution to allow him to stay in power longer.
The constitution specifically allows only a single term for a president to guard against the repetition of a dictatorship similar to that of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines for two decades.
“Four administrations before me have all tried to amend the Constitution to be able to introduce amendments,” he said in Monday’s speech. “But none of them was successfully done for one reason or another.”
He was apparently referring to fears expressed last week by senators, who vowed to block any attempts to extend constitutional term limits by changing the charter from the current presidential format to a federal one.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros, a member of the political opposition, said Duterte may have stuck to the script and read his speech, but it was still “a bad movie rerun.”
“Empty rhetoric. Hollow pronouncements. No real achievements. No vision,” Hontiveros said.
“If there was anything good at all that was said, I fear that this was only mentioned to deodorize the stench of death, corruption and incompetence under President Duterte,” she stressed.
Congressman Edcel Lagman said Duterte failed to address the reforms that he had promised the people, and instead focused on what he wanted to pursue politically.
“The people do not clamor for a shift to federalism because the overwhelming majority of them are unaware of federalism, do not care to know about the federal system or do not understand what federalism is all about,” he said. “But going federal is high in the president’s agenda.”
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno, who was removed by her peers in May after clashing with Duterte, joined thousands who protested against the president on Monday.
She said Duterte should be made to answer for ongoing deaths related to his drug war, his attacks on the Catholic Church as well against the press.
“That is why we are fighting now, because that state of the public is unacceptable,” according to Sereno.
Duterte had made personally made it a point to remove Sereno, whom he considered an enemy for telling judges to stand their ground if police came after them. She had also voted against several of his measures, including his order to transfer the remains of Ferdinand Marcos to a heroes’ cemetery.
Froilan Gallardo in Cagayan de Oro City, Philippines contributed to this report.