Philippines: Protests, repression as Duterte pushes towards dictatorship

July 31, 2017
Protest against President Rodrigo Duterte's July 24 State of the Nation speech in Manila.

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s annual State of the Nation (SONA) address on July 24 reflected his government’s increasing trajectory towards dictatorship. Outside, protest marches converged on the parliamentary complex at Batasan, reflecting the growing grassroots opposition to the worsening dictatorial trend.

Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies are not just reflected in his moves to rehabilitate the legacy of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos or in his rhetorical style that outdoes Donald Trump in misogyny, narcissistic contempt for rule of law and foul-mouthed abuse and threats against opponents.

Neither is it just his moves to reintroduce the death penalty and lower the age of criminal responsibility to nine.

The most alarming reflections of Duterte’s path towards dictatorship are the declaration of martial law in the southern island of Mindanao (and the turning of a police operation there into a military conflict that has so-far killed at least 680 people and displaced more than 260,000) and a “war on drugs” that has involved more than 12,000 extrajudicial executions in poor neighbourhoods.

At the protests against the SONA address, activists from Block Marcos, a youth-based group formed to oppose Duterte’s rehabilitation of Marcos last year, left thousands of pairs of shoes to symbolise the victims of extrajudicial killings.


Martial law was originally declared in Mindanao for 60 days on May 23, but on July 22 its duration was extended to the end of the year. Activists fear that Duterte’s agenda is to extend it nationwide. Already some local governments outside Mindanao have instituted repressive measures targeting the Muslim Moro community from Mindanao.

The pretext for the initial martial law declaration came after an attempt to arrest Isnilon Hapilon, a leader of the Abu Sayyaf kidnapping gang, turned into a shoot-out with Hapilon's supporters in the city of Marawi.

Duterte’s response was a full-scale military assault, including air strikes. At least 59 of the deaths have been displaced civilians killed by dehydration or “diseases contracted due to living in congested evacuation camps,” the Philippine News Agency reported on June 16.

The renewed war in Mindanao violates one of Duterte’s election promises — to find a negotiated solution to Mindanao’s multiple insurgencies. Peace talks with Moro nationalist and leftist guerrilla movements have been scuttled by the fighting and martial law declaration.

The conflict in Marawi has also caused Duterte to go back on another of his promises: to break the Philippines’ strategic subservience to US imperialism.

Duterte continues to use demagogic anti-American rhetoric, but US special forces have been aiding the government’s assault on Marawi at least since June.

“At the request of the government of the Philippines, US special operations forces are assisting the [Armed Forces of the Philippines] with ongoing operations in Marawi,” a US embassy spokesperson told Reuters on June 10.

Never far behind when the US goes to war, Australia dispatched two AP-3C Orion surveillance planes to Marawi on June 23.

Attacks on workers and poor

Duterte’s May 2016 landslide election victory was the result of anti-capitalist as well as anti-imperialist demagogy. But in this too he has quickly reneged on his promises.

Trade union federation Solidarity of Filipino Workers (BMP) has pointed out that supposedly anti-contractualisation legislation actually institutionalises contractualisation.

Likewise, a much-hyped tax reform law that supposedly will benefit the poor will actually make the bottom 60% of households pay more tax through an expansion in sales tax.

The mass killings on the pretext of the “war on drugs” is Duterte's actual response to poverty. Based on fanciful claims about the extent of illicit drug use in the country, the killings by police and vigilantes (often the same people), and the gruesome public displays of the victims' bodies, are designed to terrorise poor communities.

The result has been that Duterte has lost popularity among the poor, but made corresponding gains among the gated community-dwelling middle classes who view the impoverished masses as dangerous and needing to be kept under control.

Describing the “war on drugs” as a “war against the poor”, Ellecer Carlos, spokesperson for the In Defence of Human Rights and Dignity Movement (iDEFEND), said in a recent submission to the US Congress's Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Hearing: “We now have two wars in the Philippines — war on drugs and the war on terrorism. Both have the same root cause, lack of social justice/widespread abject poverty and lack of opportunities.

“Because he is bankrupt in real programs to address these, he opts for violent solutions to both. Both are being framed to be linked as one problem-narco terrorism.”

IDEFEND is a broad coalition of grassroots groups resisting the campaign of extrajudicial killings. It is one of several examples of coalition building by labour, women’s, students’, community and left-wing activist groups opposing Duterte’s march towards dictatorship.

Organising against dictatorship

On July 20-21 a National Conference Against Dictatorship was held in Manila, bringing several such groups together including the BMP, Block Marcos and the socialist Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM).

A common theme of speakers at the conference was that the neoliberal governments that had ruled the Philippines since the 1986 overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship in a mass democratic uprising (known as the EDSA Revolution) had dramatically worsened poverty, paving the way for Duterte’s rise.

Left-wing writer, activist and former member of Congress Walden Bello said: “We cannot understand why [poor people] swung behind Duterte unless we take into consideration the spectacular failure of what I have called the ‘EDSA Republic’ to meet their expectations during its 30-year reign. Instead of democracy, the EDSA Republic gave them oligarchy and massive corruption.

“Instead of security, it generated rampant criminality. Instead of providing opportunity, it deepened poverty and inequality. Instead of affirming the dignity of the poor and marginalised, it robbed them of it.

“The hypocritical democracy of the EDSA Republic is the principal reason why they are willing to give Duterte’s authoritarian project a chance.

“The people must understand that the democracy we uphold is not the old discredited electoral democracy where the elites bought and manipulated elections to keep themselves in power, a system that was democracy in name but oligarchy in essence …

“We must make sure that our compatriots see us as fighting for the future, and not for a return to the discredited past. In other words, we cannot afford to have people associated with the old order … be identified as leading the anti-dictatorship struggle.”

PLM leader Sonny Melencio said: “The project today is a coalition against dictatorship … But it has to go beyond that. This is the lesson that we, as survivors of martial law and as veterans of the anti-dictatorship struggle, have come to know.

“We can have a broad united front against dictatorship, but it doesn’t say much about the alternatives. We can frustrate the march towards dictatorship, but are we ready to accept the recapture of power of the traditional elite … forces?

“If we do not, then we have to agree on a clear political program that expounds our demands and aspirations as an independent force from the traditional and elite political forces.”

In a speech at the protest against Duterte’s SONA, Melencio pointed out that the traditional elites were now lining up with Duterte.

“Duterte is clearly not the sole problem,” he said. “The entire bureaucracy seems to have lined up with Duterte.

“This government is indeed not yet a one-man dictatorship, but it is very much a dictatorship of the trapos, the warlords, and the dynasties which comprise Congress.”

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