By Claire Heffron
Rodrigo Duterte’s ultimate goal for the Philippines is unity among Filipinos. A leader who speaks not of leadership or being privileged, but what is good for the people. In his first State of the Nation speech he has highlighted his election campaign promises – fair law and order, economic development, and better-quality government provisions.
The continuing theme? He is ready to wage war against anyone or any group that “makes a mockery of our laws,” but seems eager to unite groups, where possible, behind a banner of positive national interest. So it is peace, he wants. Just as long as you are not a criminal or a drug dealer.
He is the president, that according to Filipinos, has already achieved more than all of the previous presidents’ in less than a month. Drug addicts are apparently surrendering and promising to change their lives. Drug lords are threatened like never before. And his 90-minute speech indicated no change in this push for cleaner streets.
Duterte says he will remain committed to his all-out campaign against drugs and corruption, even ordering the Philippine National Police to “enhance its efforts” to stop the illegal drug trade. The 67-year-old claimed, “We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last supporter and the last pusher have surrendered or put behind bars or below the ground if they so wish.”
Violence is a barrier
For many others, however, he wanted to bring peace where there was currently violence. Warfare with fellow Filipinos is one of the many inhibitors of the country’s future development and economic prosperity, he exclaimed, saying he would try to end the country’s Communist insurgency by pacifying them with government positions and inspiring them to join the war on drugs.
At the same time, the straight-talking president called for a ceasefire with the armed group the New People’s Army (NPA), announcing that all initiatives against them would be terminated. The armed group didn’t respond and a few days later a clash between a troop of fighters and a military unit left one soldier dead.
In the wake of that callous move Duterte quickly withdrew the offer of a truce but still intends on peace talks. He explained, “I expect and call on our fellow Filipinos in the National Democratic Front and its forces to reply accordingly.” Formal peace talks will take place in Norway next month.
On the other hand, extremist Islam group Abu Sayyaf would feel the, “full force” of the Philippine army , describing them as, “criminals who function under the excuse of religious fervour.” He is planning to increase coordination on anti-terrorist work with Malaysia and Indonesia and will reinforce the government’s counter-terrorism programme by amending laws on funding terrorism and cyber-crime.
At the same time Duterte underlined this was not a religious issue, rallying that he will do whatever is possible to foster good and friendly relationships between the country’s Communists and Muslims. He is “pro-Muslim,” he says, advocating tolerance and friendship with other faiths and cultures – even the extremist groups that thrive within the jungles of Mindanao.
And in a spill over from his pre-leadership days, building peace in Mindanao is one of the priorities of his month-old administration. He will try to talk to representatives of Muslim groups and hear their concerns, he explained. It is time to bring an end to urban terrorism.
On the thorny issue of the South China Sea, Duterte commented that he stands by the Hague Tribunal’s decision to strike out China’s claims to expansive swathes of is country’s territorial waters. He told his people, “We strongly encourage and respect the result of the case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration as a significant contribution to the ongoing efforts to follow a peaceful resolution and management of our disputes,”
He also marked his card as a reformer, saying he would not dwell the mistakes of previous administrations which would only, ”pull us back,” as, ”Finger-pointing is not the way, that is why I will not waste precious time thinking about the sins of the past or blaming or those alleged to be responsible for the mess that we are in and suffering from.”
In all it was a mixed bag from the President. Definitely strong words, but weakly delivered as he made jokes and stumbled. However, with such will, ambition and popular support for lasting peace and harmony his drive for reconciliation may see the first significant and meaningful steps to ending armed conflicts in many years. Strong words, big ideas – but has he got the strength to deliver?