Yesterday, the Philippine nation heard from their president, Rodrigo Duterte. The occasion was his second State of the Nation Address (SONA). It was refreshingly frank. It didn’t attempt to hoodwink the people – telling them how wonderful things are in the Philippines; what a great job the government has been doing – as so many SONAs of the past have. It cut straight to the bone. There was no sugar-coating. “Today, a multitude of problems confront us,” he said. “No sooner is one problem solved [when] another surges forth in its place”.
His assessment was stark: “I will mince no words, and neither will I window-dress the situation we are in. Let me answer in two brief sentences. We are in for trouble because we live in troubled and uncertain times. And I fear that things might get worse before they become better”.
It was an honest appraisal and mirrors the reality which most of this nation understands; the same reality which brought Duterte to power. And so while much of Duterte’s speech – effectively a ‘law-and-order SONA’ – will infuriate his critics at home and abroad, for his supporters it will have been music to their ears.
They’ll be happy to learn that the War on Drugs will not abate. Duterte vowed that the anti-narcotics campaign will continue – “no matter how long it takes” and the fight will be as “unremitting as it will be unrelenting”.
As with other grave threats to the nation’s security and wellbeing, Duterte urged all elements of the country to come together and defeat them. “We can, and we will, overcome as we did countless times in the past, [but] only if we work together towards a common goal,” he said.
He directly addressed those who oppose the drugs war, offering them this advice. “Your efforts will be better spent if you use the influence, moral authority and ascendancy of your organisations over your respective sectors to educate the people on the evils of illegal drugs instead of condemning the authorities and unjustly blaming [them] for every killing that bloodies this country,” he said. “Look beyond your biases, your prejudices, your ambition [and] your political agenda”.
The most uncomfortable person in the room right then, judging from the body language, was Vice President Leni Robredo, one of the president’s fiercest critics who’s focused an international spotlight on Duterte’s drugs war and specifically linked it to extrajudicial killings. The Batasang Pambansa Complex in Quezon City was packed to the rafters for this event, but at that moment Robredo looked like she was alone in the room.
At least she turned up though; her former Liberal Party boss, former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, had opted to watch the SONA on TV, away from the cameras in the comfort of his own home; far from the public gaze. His absence from the packed Plenary Hall was made all the more conspicuous by the presence there of former presidents Fidel V Ramos, Joseph Estrada and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
No doubt the Western anti-Duterte media and human-rights organisations will quickly rally to denounce the president’s reaffirming his drugs-war resolve. For them, though, he had this to say: “I do not intend to loosen the leash in the campaign or lose the fight against illegal drugs. Neither do I intend to preside over the destruction of the Filipino youth by being timid and tentative in my decisions and actions”.
But then for his opponents there was an embarrassment of riches in the president’s speech, and it’s hard to know what they’ll attack first.
One thing they certainly won’t be ignoring will be his plea to Congress to reinstate the death penalty for those found guilty of drugs-related offences. “We have to act decisively on this contentious issue”. This isn’t just about deterrence, he said, it’s about retribution. He pointed out that was the reason the capital punishment provision was enshrined in the Revised Penal Code. “In the Philippines, it’s really an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. You took a life, then you must pay [for] it with life,” he said.
Those words will earn Duterte a great deal of condemnation from the likes of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch as well as from members of the US Congress and the European Parliament – not to mention the hierarchical bishops of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church. But, again, for those who’ve lived with the rape and the violence spawned by drugs, Duterte’s firm commitment to the death penalty will resonate well.
As, too, will these remarks: “I will not allow the ruin of the youth, the disintegration of families and the retrogression of communities, forced by criminals whose greed for money is as insatiable as it is devoid of moral purpose. Neither will I be immobilised into inaction by the fear that I will commit an act that will expose me to public condemnation or legal prosecution. You harm the children in whose hands the future of this Republic is entrusted, and I will hound you to the very gates of hell”.
For the millions of Filipinos who’ve had to live close to that hell for so long, this is what they wanted to hear. They’re not expecting an overnight miracle from Duterte – they know better than most how deep the rot of society runs in their country. They simply want their president to maintain his commitment to clearing out that rot – and that’s what he gave them in this SONA.
Duterte’s message on stamping out criminality across the archipelago was unambiguous. “Let us understand this beginning today,” he said. “Either we have laws in this country or we do not. We enforce the laws against the miners and the rich, but I will also enforce laws against anarchy, disturbance, and [those who] create trouble”.
And he added: “Here and now, I will tell you, including the Congress of the Republic of the Philippines: You do anarchy, I will order the soldiers and the police to shoot. Even if I have to bury thousands of Filipinos”.
With that, the likes of twice-failed coup leader, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, were put on notice.
Turning to another pressing problem, the Islamic insurgency in Mindanao – brought into sharp focus two months ago when Islamic State-linked terrorist groups stormed and occupied the Islamic city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur – he defended his decision to impose martial law on the southern island region.
That rebellion, spearheaded by the radical Maute Group, “dealt a terrible blow to our quest for peace, especially now that an alien ideology and a radical shift in purpose have been injected into the local setting,” he said. “I declared martial law in Mindanao because I believed that that was the fastest way to quell the rebellion at the least cost of lives and properties”.
Two days ago, legislators overwhelmingly voted to extend martial-law measures until the end of the year – including the suspension of the writ of Habeas Corpus, allowing the military to arrest, question and detain suspects. And right on cue, his opponents started lining up to criticise that decision. It was the usual chorus line of Liberals and Liberal Party-voting affiliates – senators Franklin Drilon and Risa Hontiveros and House of Representatives member, Edcel Lagman, among them.
Their ‘stated’ objections to the extension is that it’s “too long”; that is has “no factual basis”; that it could “pave the way to a Philippines-wide martial law”. It matters not to them that the extremist groups have declared a caliphate in Mindanao that threatens not just that region but the entire country and the neighbouring lands of Southeast Asia as well.
To those critics of the martial-law declaration he posed this question: “Do you think that if [Islamic State] prevails in this country that you will have a place in their society?”
There was no good news concerning the end of the Battle of Marawi. Right now, the terrorists are holding up to 300 hostages there. They’re in mortal danger which is hampering the retaking of the city by government troops and police units who’ve been instructed to “wait it out”. However, he left those forces in no doubt that he had their backs.
“To those who oppose and think that all these efforts are out of order, I hold myself, me and me alone, should be responsible,” he said. “And I will persist in our goal of attaining peace [up] to the last day of this administration …”
Next, he addressed the perennial problem of corruption, something sadly that’s often defined the Philippines. He said it’s “like a fishbone stuck in the throat. It pains and it is disconcerting. We need to pry corruption from government corpus which is deeply embedded … Believe me, it is easier to build from scratch than to dismantle the rotten and rebuild upon its rubbles”.
Duterte issued a stern warning to employees across government and urged the public to use the complaints hotlines – Malacañang, 8888; the Philippine National Police, 911 – which were launched last August.
Here, he asked for the people’s help: “I cannot stop corruption and wrongdoings if you do not cooperate. You text me … You name the public official. Name his sins in that bulletin and I will take it from there. Do not be afraid about libel. I will take care of that”.
Elsewhere, he ripped into the UN representative in the Philippines for trivialising the effects of drugs and minimising the human rights of drug victims; the media for not reporting accurately and for quoting selectively. He called out the National Democratic Front – the Marxist-Leninist-Maoist coalition – for being a “bully” and an enemy of the state.
Duterte warned online media company, Rappler, that by not being 100% Filipino owned – alluding to its foreign shareholders – it was in contravention of the Constitution. He let it linger there; he didn’t have to say it but the implication was clear – they could be shut down. He threatened mining companies with death by taxation, if they fail to repair damage they’ve caused to the environment.
He urged the Supreme Court to halt the practice of holding-up projects with the issuance of temporary restraining orders – like the one that’s stalled the implementation of the Reproductive Health and Responsible Parenthood Act for the past two-plus years, resulting in the waste of PHP350 million for sub-dermal implants. He warned those evading paying taxes, “This administration will spare no one found cheating the government of its due”.
And he reminded government staff that they work for the public and not the other way round. That they must streamline frontline services and make them more efficient. “The people’s patience is wearing thin. So is mine,” he said.
All in all, then, this was a hard-hitting SONA which left very little doubt as to the president’s commitment to reversing the dark elements of Philippine society which have long stunted the country’s economic development – insurgency, crime and corruption which have deterred investment and kept the Philippines in an economic backwater.
As Duterte explained: “I have learned that economy surges only when there is peace and order prevailing in places where investors can pour [in] their capital and expertise … investor confidence [is] bolstered and fortified only if a potent force and mechanism for [the] protection of local and foreign investments are in place”.
He unmasked the negligence and inaction of the past: “Sadly, although we knew years ago that what was needed or ought to [be done], we did not do [them] because our idea of government was parochial and we could not rise above family, ethnic and clan loyalties as well as loyalty to friends and co-workers. No one wanted to be a snitch”.
What’s abundantly clear from this State of the Nation Address is that while Rodrigo Duterte is at the helm of government whose old ways of doing things have been consigned to the past.
“Despite our recent gains in improving the peace and order situation in the country, there is still so much to be desired and if we are to completely eradicate the menace of illegal drugs, criminality and corruption, we must do it. It is time for us to fulfill our mandate to protect our people from these crimes that have victimised [them],” he said.