MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte hailed his signature drug war policy yesterday, but lamented there was a “long way” to go in the controversial crackdown that has killed thousands of people. In his last State of the Nation address before stepping down next year, Duterte frequently went off script and struggled to follow the autocue as he railed for nearly three hours against communists, child abusers and corrupt officials.
As expected, Duterte used the annual speech to boast about the government’s performance in the past five years-including its handling of the coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 1.5 million people and shattered the economy. But the 76-year-old strongman also devoted large chunks of the rambling address to his “unyielding” anti-narcotics campaign that has officially killed more than 6,000 people. Rights groups put the figure in the tens of thousands and International Criminal Court prosecutors are seeking to investigate the campaign.
Duterte defended the crackdown, saying it had “led to the surrender of millions of drug dependents and neutralisation, capture and prosecution of thousands of drug personalities”. And it was not over. “While we have made great strides in ending rebellion and insurgency in various parts of the country, we still have a long way in our fight against the proliferation of drugs,” Duterte told the audience of lawmakers, diplomats and judges.
It was the sixth and last State of the Nation address for the populist leader, who is barred from seeking re-election next year. He has flagged a possible tilt for the vice-presidency. Hours before the speech, around 3,000 protesters marched along a major avenue demanding an “end” to Duterte’s presidency. The drug war, the pandemic and the possibility of the president’s daughter succeeding him next year were key concerns. “We know how the Duterte administration ran the country in the last five years where there’s hunger, there were deaths, killings, injustice, tyranny,” said political satirist Mae Paner.
“It just has to stop now.” Maristela Abenojar, a nurse wearing a white PPE suit, said health workers had been treated as “sacrificial lambs” in the pandemic. “Many of us are not only getting sick, we are also dying,” the 59-year-old told AFP. During the speech Duterte urged people to get inoculated against COVID-19, warning another lockdown could be needed if the highly contagious Delta variant gets out of control. “The health and safety protocols we put in place have proven effective in slowing down the spread of the virus but the best solution is still vaccination,” Duterte said.
More than six million people have been fully vaccinated since the glacial vaccine roll-out began in March-about five percent of the country’s population. On Friday the government sent millions of children back into lockdown and tightened other restrictions as hospitals prepare for a spike in cases. But Duterte admitted “we cannot afford more lockdowns lest our economy bleed to the point of irreversible damage”. – AFP