Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is proposing to arm tens of thousands of village chiefs nationwide as a force to back up police in his government’s controversial drug war, but some politicians including his vice president are resisting the idea.
Speaking before newly elected village officials in the southern town of Molave earlier this week, Duterte said he would supply them with low-caliber handguns as he courted their support for the war on narcotics that has left thousands dead since he became president in 2016.
“I know you are afraid because you have no weapons, now that I will give you weapons, you can fight,” Duterte told the officials, according to a transcript made available only on Thursday.
The Philippines has more than 42,000 village chieftains, excluding up to seven council members and youth representatives each.
“I will consult the Cabinet but my proposal is, no heavy firearms,” Duterte said.
“I will not give you the high-powered firearms, only .22 [-caliber] pistols,” he said, adding that village peacekeeping forces – including retired police officers among them – would be the first receiving the firearms.
Village chiefs are a cog in the Philippine electoral process, mainly because they command votes for national posts, and their support is often courted by top politicians. But Duterte postponed village polls last year, citing the possibility that drug traffickers could be bankrolling the campaigns of some candidates.
He said part of their job as elected village officials was to defend the country, but he would file charges against them if they were found to be incompetent.
Duterte’s speech came after his government had pulled out of the International Criminal Court, accusing The Hague-based institution of bias after it launched an examination into killings associated with the Philippine drug war.
The probe was based on allegations made by his ex-police aide and a self-confessed assassin who testified that the president had personally ordered the killings of criminals and political enemies when he was mayor of southern Davao city years ago.
Resistance to plan
On Thursday, Vice President Lenny Robredo bucked Duterte’s plan, explaining that village officials performed executive functions and the police were ultimately responsible for keeping the peace.
“I’m not in favor because that’s not the mandate of village officials. There are many ways to maintain peace and order without arming your village officials,” she said.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, a former national police chief, said laws and procedures would need to be observed if the government carried out the president’s proposal.
“It is not as simple as what the president wants. If the government will provide and issue the firearms, there must be a budget to be deliberated and approved by Congress,” Lacson said.
And even if the village officials themselves bought the firearms out of their own pockets, they would have to apply for permits from police allowing them to carry their guns, he added.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque defended Duterte’s plan, saying it was still being planned.
“I think the grant of a gun license and a permit to carry is still a matter of discretion as far as the Philippine National Police is concerned,” Roque told a news conference Thursday.
“But if you are included in the list of those involved in drugs, you will not be given a handgun. That’s one of the basic safeguards,” he said.
Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.