Philippines: Amid peace talks and mass killings, Duterte 'fine tuning message for elites'

Newly elected Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte campaigning for the May presidential elections.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, elected in May on a platform that combined pledging to defend ordinary citizens against a corrupt elite with carrying out extreme repression against drug users and other “criminals”, gave his inaugural state of the nation address on July 25. The statement below was released by the socialist Party of the Labouring Masses in response.

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President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address (SONA) failed to live up to the expectations of the masses, especially the workers who were waiting for clear pronouncements on eliminating job contractualisation and providing more worker benefits.

The key pronouncement was Duterte's call for a unilateral ceasefire with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)-New People's Army (NPA)-National Democratic Front (NDF) and the start of peace negotiations with them. (The CPP-led NPA has waged an armed struggle against the Filipino state since 1969).

We welcome this initiative and add our voices for the release of all political prisoners as an imperative toward meaningful political negotiation.

While the arms will be stilled, the mass movement should be further energised and take the centre stage during the talks. This will ensure the negotiations will continue on a course favourable to the masses.

The entire working class has a stake in the outcome of the talks. We call on all left and progressive forces to support the substantive demands that will render justice to the dominated and oppressed classes in society, and uplift the situation of the country in general.

We observe, however, that aside from the unilateral ceasefire and the issuance of an executive order on Freedom of Information, there is nothing more politically substantive in the SONA declaration. The Congress version of FOI, which will cover not only the executive but other branches of government, has yet to be done.

The SONA took much time to announce some systems of operation that the government should have done long ago to alleviate people's sufferings when dealing with them. These include cutting down on government processing time for documentation, setting up a one-way stop house for all services, increasing train services, extending passport life, and the like.

The SONA also affirms our worst fear that the government will continue with its “War on Drugs” operations that have turned several communities in the country into a killing field.

While correctly acknowledging that human rights should uplift human dignity, the president turned this argument around by saying that it cannot be used as a shield to destroy the country.

The statement is unclear. But if the president means that the critique of killings is becoming an excuse to reject his government, the killings itself will lead to that. Human rights advocates condemning the killings are merely defending the poor from this retribution. Human rights advocacy needs no excuse for its existence.

The killings, however, have become the Achilles heel of this administration. It is not implausible to think that the anti-Duterte section of the elite — under whom some of the most heinous violations of human rights have occurred such as with the Maguindanao, Mamasapano and Kidapawan massacres — will use this as an excuse to oust him from power.

It is in the interest of the present administration to use all its power to stop the killings of the poor victims of the drug trade (whether they are pushers or users) and concentrate on the top coddlers and the big capitalist drug lords.

Human rights that uplifts dignity also means that the president should focus on poverty eradication measures to ensure the success of the war on drugs campaign.

Some of the highlights of anti-poverty alleviation were also mentioned in Duterte's nearly two-hour speech, but these need more specific elaboration, like universal health insurance, the no-demolition without relocation policy and the like.

Without clarification, these measures may be no different from the inadequate measures undertaken by previous administrations.

This means that the SONA has been deliberately fine-tuned to the ears of the ruling elite and their representatives who have flocked to the assembly. Save for some embellishments, the economic and political programs enunciated in the speech still conform to neoliberal paradigm and the needs of elite politics.

Duterte has raised the level of expectations of the masses during his presidential campaign. It is less than a month since he took office. But the lesson seems to be clear: we need to continue to be on the streets and to expand and strengthen the mass struggle as the proper venue and recourse for change in society today.