Thousands of protesters took to the streets in and around Manila on Thursday to denounce what they claimed is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s march toward authoritarian rule marked by abuses in his war on drugs.
Police estimated that at least 20,000 people rallied at several sites across Manila on the 45th anniversary of former dictator Ferdinand Marco declaring nation-wide martial law.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno delivered a speech to those gathered at the Commission on Human Rights, calling out Duterte for the deaths of thousands of drug dealers and users.
The commission has investigated widespread killings in Duterte’s anti-drugs war, which independent investigators placed at more than 8,000 since he took office last year.
“Parents fear it the most when night falls, silently whispering that their sons will be spared,” Sereno said.
She reminded protesters the constitution “remains the Judiciary’s North Star, guiding us as we, through our decisions in our own way, help steer the course of our nation’s history.”
The drug war deaths dwarf the 3,200 people who were killed during the two-decade rule of Marcos, whose 1972 martial law declaration plunged the country into turmoil.
Marcos was removed by a “people power” uprising in 1986, sending him into exile in Hawaii where he died three years later. His wife, Imelda, and children were allowed to return to the Philippines where they have regained political clout.
Sereno said years after Marcos was toppled and democracy reinstalled, “old problems” remained.
Former political detainee speaks
Trinidad Rapuno, who leads a group of former political detainees under martial law, accused Duterte of being “obsessed with martial law and wants to become a dictator himself.”
“We have survived the worst. Fascists like Marcos and Duterte create a mindset of possible violence and chaos in the face of nascent protests,” she said.
She said Duterte favored “militarist policies to kill in the name of the war on drugs.”
Rapuno said Duterte’s “minions” will grab every opportunity to justify a dictatorship, even as the public demands the killings stop.
While many of her group members are aging, she said they would continue to challenge Duterte.
“We fought the fascist Marcos before, we shall fight Duterte’s fascism now,” Repuno said.
Opposition to Duterte, particularly over his war on drugs, intensified after the recent deaths of three teenagers, allegedly killed by police officers carrying out his order.
Critics claim evidence shows the killings were done with impunity. A 14-year-old boy suffered dozens of stab wounds and his face covered in a packing tape.
Previously, Duterte praised police for carrying out the raids based on his order and vowed to protect them from prosecution. The president has since tried to pull back his rhetoric and vowed justice would be served after meeting with the parents of the slain teenagers.
On Thursday, Duterte traveled to Marawi city to rally troops fighting against Islamic State-linked gunmen as protesters gathered in Manila. Previously, the president declared and congress approved martial law on the southern island of Mindanao to allow troops to bring an end to the fighting.
Regarding the protests, spokesman Ernesto Abella said Duterte ordered the police to allow “all forms of mass action to express their grievances against perceived or actual excesses and/or shortcomings of the government.”
He said police have been ordered to “observe maximum restraint and maintain distance from mass action.”
Sen. Leila de Lima, Duterte’s leading critic who is jailed on what she says are trumped up drug-related charges, accused the president of having a “criminal mind.”
“Let us continue this fight for democracy. The president may have brought the country back to the darkest times of our country, but we are united to bring back light and hope,” she said in a statement from her detention cell.
Fellow Sen. Risa Hontiveros, meanwhile, called on Filipinos to strive for human rights and democracy.
“Now is not the time for meek submission, not while innocent lives are slain, hopes are extinguished, and the promise of peace and order is instead stained with bloodshed and grief,” she said.
“Now is not the time to bow our heads and stay quiet. Now is the time to push back, turn the tide and end the madness,” Hontiveros said.