In his two-hour State of the Nation address (SONA) on Monday, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte lashed out at critics, promised to continue his bloody war on drugs and praised government security forces fighting Islamist militias in the country’s south. Duterte’s speech often seemed to go off script and was peppered with the usual invectives.
In a statement released before the address, the presidential palace said Duterte’s speech was going to be framed around the theme “A Comfortable Life for All” – focusing on prosperity, law and order, and peace.
But much of Duterte’s address rather focused on lambasting human rights advocates, the media and the international community who have criticized his war on drugs. Duterte also warned during the speech that drug offenders would end up in “jail or hell.”
“Do not try to scare me with prison or the International Court of Justice,” Duterte said Monday. “I’m willing to go to prison for the rest of my life.”
Protesters gather in the streets during Duterte’s address Monday
Facing the opposition
Outside the Congress compound, tens of thousands of activists protested with signs and banners. In an unprecedented move, Duterte met with protestors after delivering his speech in what appeared to be an attempt to address their grievances. Protestors met him with chants of “dictator” and “fascist.” Duterte dared them to attack him right then and there.
Hours before the address, activist group Block Marcos laid out more than 1,000 shoes on the street leading to Congress. “The shoes represent the thousands who can not protest because they have already been killed,” said Lorenzo de Vera, member of Block Marcos.
De Vera condemned Duterte’s promise to be relentless in carrying out his war on drugs that has claimed thousands of lives. “The president is continuing his war on drugs to give a semblance that he is doing something to fight crime when he is simply killing the poor.”
The battle for Marawi
Zia Alonto Adiong, the Joint Task Force Marawi spokesperson, flew to Manila from Marawi to attend the address.
Adiongs’ hometown of Marawi on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao was overrun by the ISIS-affiliated Maute terror group last May. The siege has been marked as the biggest crisis to face the Duterte administration. Durtere declared martial law in the entire Mindanao province for an initial 60-day period.
An air attack on Islamist insurgents in the southern Marawi city
Adiong acknowledged the good points raised by the Duterte on the environment, but admitted that he had hoped that the President would outline concrete action plans for the hundreds of thousands who have been displaced by the ongoing siege of Marawi that has lasted three months.
Government statistics estimate that more than 500,000 have been displaced. Aerial bombings and airstrikes have made for an uncertain future for people who have lost their homes.
Duterte commiserated with the plight of Marawi residents but focused more on military solutions like building defense capabilities.
“I understand the president’s declaration of support for the military, but it is not only the soldiers who are dying. Evacuees are also dying,” Adiong told DW. “The SONA would have been a perfect opportunity to lay out plans for taking care of the evacuees and the rebuilding of Marawi,” he added.
Last Saturday, an overwhelming majority of Congress approved Duterte’s request to extend martial law covering the entire province of Mindanao until the end of the year.
A traumatic experience with martial law during the years of the Marcos dictatorship has left Marawi residents anxious. “I was hoping the president would give solid reassurance that the implementation of martial law would not only benefit the military but also civilians,” said Adiong.
In a protest vigil that started the previous night, minority opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros said that she was expecting Duterte to deliver a “fake SONA” filled with lies and half-truths.
Hontiveros compared the rambling SONA to “a bad open mic performance.”
“It’s all sound and fury. His platform for governance and strategic direction remain unclear,” Hontiveros said to reporters coming out of the session hall. “Whatever good (points) the president raised have been outweighed by his disdain for democratic governance.”
Duterte’s address disheartened civic leader and LGBT activist Meggan Evangelista. Duterte flaunted his adultery, spewed expletives and promised to be “unrelenting” in the brutal war on drugs and lawmakers in attendance welcomed it with laughter and applause.
“Ramblings of a crazy old strongman-wannabe do not mean anything to me,” Evangelista told DW. “What breaks my heart are the applause and the laughs he elicits. I don’t get it. How have we come to this? It makes me want to cry.”
Read: Duterte’s real motives behind imposing Philippine martial law
Contoversy isn’t everything
“There were excellent points by the president on climate change, the environment and very strong words against mining. The strongest by any president so far,” lawyer and former environment undersecretary Tony La Viña told DW.
La Viña lauded Duterte’s call to create a disaster agency and his call to pass the Land Use Act, which calls for a land allocation strategy that will promote sustainable use of the country’s natural resources.
In the context of the address, Duterte also submitted his proposed PHP 3.7 trillion (62.7 billion euro) 2018 budget to Congress. According to the Department of Finance, the proposed budget is a 12.4 percent increase from the 2017 budget of PHP 3.3 trillion (56 billion euro).
The largest budget allocations have been earmarked for the education sector and the government’s ambitious infrastructure development program in line with the Duterte administration’s thrust to reduce poverty and promote economic growth.