Peace was the thread of President Rodrigo Duterte’s Christmas Message to the Filipino people, delivered on Christmas Eve as this predominantly Catholic nation prepared to celebrate the Nativity of the Prince of Peace.
“Peace remains as one of my main thrusts in governance,” he said. “We, in the government, are walking the extra mile to offer the olive branch of peace to all”. The true essence of Christmas, he added, is built on the message of peace and generosity.
One of the things on his mind will have been the seemingly intractable war between Islamic groups and government forces on the southern island of Mindanao – a conflict that’s been running for nearly half a century and has left more than 100,000 people dead in its wake.
In his first six months in office, Duterte has prioritised finding a solution to the war in the south. He’s negotiated with Muslim paramilitaries and other groups and he’s re-established the broken-down peace talks on the Bangsamoro Basic Law – legislation that would pave the way to establishing a new Muslim autonomous region in Mindanao. That law should have gone through Congress at the beginning of the year, but thanks to political wrangling over the Bill’s constitutionality its passage was stalled.
The talks had received another major body blow following the abortive police raid into territory controlled by two militant groups outside Mamasapano on 25 January this year. In that ill-conceived initiative, 44 members of the Philippine National Police’s Special Action Force were killed. This action earned the distinction of being the biggest single loss sustained by a government elite force in history
Duterte has also beefed up the military campaign against Islamist factions that want no part of peace; among them Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group. He had offered them an olive branch; an offer they declined leaving him to instruct the Armed Forces of the Philippines to intensify their efforts to drive them out. And during his tour of neighbouring countries in Southeast Asia over the last three months, he’s managed to enlist support in that effort – particularly in the waters of the Sulu and Sulawesi Seas
Also on the president’s mind will have been Philippine law enforcement’s war on drugs – a nationwide campaign to eradicate the scourge of crystal-meth addiction that has blighted the lives of millions of Filipinos and that’s had a crippling effect on the economy. But though that war continues to be bloody, for the hundreds of thousands of addicts who surrendered there is now hope as the government expands its outreach rehabilitation programmes and attracts private funding to build more rehabilitation centres.
“Generosity … is sharing what we have with the poor, the downtrodden, and the marginalised,” the president’s Christmas message continued.
The country’s poor will also have been on his mind. “As your president, I will bring food on the table; create more job opportunities; and make our people feel safer and more comfortable,” he said in a clear reference to the government’s socio-economic agenda – aimed at boosting the agriculture and manufacturing sectors and investing a massive PHP8 trillion infrastructure spend over the next six years. These policies seek to lift 9 million Filipinos out of poverty. In October, he signed an executive order that “aims to triple real per-capita incomes and eradicate hunger and poverty by 2040, if not sooner”.
Citing the Christmas story as an inspiration, his wish for the Philippines was peace, order and progress. “I join the Filipino nation in celebrating this year’s most festive season. As we gather with our family and loved ones, let us reflect the significance of the birth of Christ. The Nativity story of more than 2,000 years ago is observed by the Christian faith as a season of peace … join hands to build a peaceful and progressive Philippines,” he said.