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Philippines’ lightning-rod president Duterte charts a surprising course

Philippines’ lightning-rod president Duterte charts a surprising course

The Philippines’ highly controversial president, Rodrigo Roa Duterte, has delivered his first State of the Nation address – and what a spectacle it turned out to be.

It was scheduled to last 38 minutes, but went on for 140. Its tone oscillated between a formal presidential address and free-spirited informality; the hashtag for it, #SONA2016, was trending worldwide for hours after it finished.

As Duterte went on, he visibly relaxed and increasingly wandered off-script with his comments. At times he stumbled over words – but this only added to the impression that he was speaking from the heart. Duterte used the speech to address many of the criticisms against him, particularly his relationship with the rule of law and human rights.

The key themes that ran throughout the address were peace and order, federalism, infrastructure, the national interest, and the needs of ordinary Filipinos.

Duterte confirmed that his already notorious crackdowns on corruption and illegal drugs would be relentless and sustained, but that “vindictiveness was not in my system”. He also called on the Philippines National Police to double or triple their efforts, but warned them not to abuse their authority or there “would be hell to pay”.

He noted that criminals would meet justice either “behind bars or below the ground if they so wish”, but he also clarified that the rule of law would “prevail at all times”. The overall message was that the government will protect the people, that they must obey the law – and that they will have to take their chances if they don’t.

Duterte called for a peaceful end to the violent insurgency in “the Moro country”, lamenting the endless violence there. He adopted a distinctly humanist note: “No amount of cash assistance or the number of medals can compensate the loss of a human life. Sorrow cuts across every stratum of society. It cuts deeply and the pain lasts forever.”

In keeping with that sentiment, he announced an immediate unilateral ceasefire with the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the party’s political arm, the NDFP, immediately welcomed it. Duterte also called for increased cooperation with Malaysia and Indonesia over the fight with the violent Islamist Abu Sayyaf group, and for a peaceful resolution to the situation in the West Philippine (South China) Sea.

Human rights and drugs

Even as Duterte was speaking, the Archdiocese of Manila held a mass to launch its Huwag Kang Papatay (Thou Shall Not Kill) campaign. Since Duterte took office, dozens of suspected drug dealers have been killed by the police or unknown “hitmen”. The Philippines Daily Inquirer has started running a “Kill List” to keep track of these casualties.

Duterte was having none of it. “If you don’t want to die, you don’t want to get hurt, you should not rely on priests and human rights,” he said. He made a direct reference to a widely circulated picture of one of his citizens, Jennelyn Olaires, holding her dying husband after he was shot on suspicion of being a drug dealer, comparing her to “Mother Mary cradling the cadaver of Jesus Christ”.

Duterte is on record as saying that he would give medals to citizens who shoot drug dealers who resist arrest. His response to critics of his human rights record was blunt: “Human rights must work to uplift human dignity. But human rights cannot be used a shield or an excuse to destroy the country.”

Fixing the Philippines

Duterte spent a lot of the speech on his wide-ranging plans for infrastructure, especially rail. These initiatives will be music to the ears of the millions of Filipinos who face a daily struggle across Manila’s gridlocked metropolis. But improved infrastructure isn’t just about personal comfort; it’s also about the national economy, since the Philippines’ poor infrastructure loses it tens of billions of dollars a year.

Manila’s heinous traffic jams are notorious the world over. EPA/Francis R. Malasig

Duterte also used the address to reinforce the need to respect different identities in the Philippines and elaborate on his vision for a federal government. He claimed he would have no problem with the Philippines having a purely “ceremonial” president, and cited France as an example – seemingly unaware that that country’s presidency is actually a relatively powerful office.

Nonetheless, he stated that if a federal republic is established in the Philippines before the end of his term and he is rendered surplus to requirements, he would gladly leave office.

And with that, the Philippines’ still new and highly controversial president greatly clarified a surprisingly conciliatory and optimistic agenda for the next six years. He sympathised with the needs of ordinary Filipinos. He unveiled concrete initiatives to improve livelihood, health, education and women’s rights; he emphasised the imperative to protect the environment and promote peace. The address was designed to appeal to all classes and identities (provided you’re not a criminal).

However, plenty of urgent questions remain unanswered. How is he going to pay for all this? How can he sustain economic growth without degrading the environment? At what point will the Kill List become intolerable nationally and internationally?

And for all that Duterte framed his vision as a commitment to human and national interest, he did so very much on his own terms.

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