Law and order and the pursuit of peace were the dominant themes of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address, delivered before Congress on Monday. He reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to rid his country of the drug scourge and announced a ceasefire in the decades-old communist insurgency that has left 30,000 dead.
Of the drugs war he said: “There will be no let up in this campaign… We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier, and the last pusher have surrendered or [been] put behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish”. And those caught persisting in the trade will be shown no mercy.
He urged law enforcement to double and triple their efforts and spelt out the enormity of the battle. “It could take the entire resources of government to fight this war,” he said. The illegal drugs trade is supported by sophisticated technology; the Philippine addicts’ drug of choice, shabu. a methamphetamine, for example, is often produced in international waters on vessels with GPS systems that can give advance warnings of naval patrols.
Duterte is under no illusion that drug traders will relinquish this vast and lucrative market easily. He will seek assistance and cooperation from government agencies in Asia, America and Europe without which the illegal trade in drugs “will drown us as a republic,” he said.
Two years ago the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency claimed that there were 3 million addicts in the country. Today, that number is closer to 4 million. Since 1 July, 120,000 drug dependents have surrendered, 70,000 of which are pushers, and there have been 3,600 drug-related arrests.
Duterte promised the police and its agencies his full support in the fight but warned that if they abused their authority – a reference to officers and officials involved in the drugs trade and other illegal activities – “there will be a hell to pay”. Such offenders he regarded as the worst of criminality and he ordered the National Police Commission to speed up its investigations into cases currently pending against members of the Philippine National Police (PNP). A thorough cleansing of the PNP is a quest for which “I will put at stake my honor, my life, and the presidency itself,” he said.
Turning to the communist insurgency – a 46-year-old conflict between successive governments on one side and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), the New People’s Army, and the National Democratic Front (NDF) on the other – Duterte announced a unilateral ceasefire [with these groups] effective immediately”. He called on the NDF leadership to respond in kind.
The immediate need, he said, is to stop violence on the ground, restore peace in the communities and provide an enabling environment conducive to the resumption of the peace talks. This was a reference to talks scheduled for the end of this month in Oslo, Norway between government representatives and the NDF. These discussions resulted from negotiations between NDF officials and Presidential Peace Adviser, Jesus Dureza, last month. Formal talks between the government and the CPP are scheduled to resume in August.
The president also reached out to Muslim groups engaged in their own war with the government. “We will vigorously address the grievances that have been time and again expressed, not only by the Bangsamoro (Filipino Muslims), but indigenous peoples and other groups for security, development, fair access to decision-making and acceptance of identities,” he said.
He appealed to both the communist and Muslim organisations to make every effort to bring about a peaceful solution to Asia’s longest-running conflicts. In all that time he said: “We are going nowhere. And it is getting bloodier by the day … We will strive to have a permanent and lasting peace before my term ends. That is my goal; that is my dream,” he said.
On the issue of the Mindanao-based terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, Duterte made it clear that its criminal activities would not be tolerated, adding that the full strength of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) will be brought to bear to “crush these criminals who operate under the guise of religious fervor. The AFP shall enhance its capability to search and engage these rogue and lawless elements”.
To this end, he said that his government would strengthen and coordinate with fellow Association of Southeast Asian members, neighbours Indonesia and Malaysia, to rid the waters around them of kidnappings and piracy – Tricky affairs in the neighbourhood – and reinforce the counter-terrorism programme by amending laws covering terrorism financing and cybercrime.