The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, gave his first state of the nation address (SONA) on 25 July, almost a month after his inauguration.
?The president touched on a wide range of policy issues in the 90-minute address, but emphasised two with particular relevance for domestic security: the peace process with the country’s communist insurgents, and his hardline policies against drug offenders. While the new president’s outreach to communists is a positive step towards resolving a decades-long conflict, we have concerns about the knock-on effects for security and the rule of law of his approach to policing.
The president announced a unilateral ceasefire with communist groups who have been leading an insurgency in the country since the 1960s. Duterte said the ceasefire would be effective immediately and asked the country’s communist insurgent group, the New People’s Army (NPA), to do the same before the resumption of peace talks in Norway on 20 August.
As far as we have seen, neither the NPA, nor its political wing the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), have announced a ceasefire in response to Duterte’s call. But a spokesman for the National Democratic Front (NDF), of which the NPA is a member, told AP that the groups were waiting for written confirmation of the truce before ‘reciprocating positively’. In the meantime, violence continues. On 27 July, NPA militants reportedly ambushed a battalion of Filipino soldiers in the north of Davao del Norte province. One soldier was killed and four were injured.
Despite the continuation of NPA attacks in recent years, primarily against security forces in remote rural areas, the group has not expanded its territorial control or influence and, according to reports in the local media, has struggled to recruit new members. In addition to an increasingly weak military position, the communist economic narrative has also been undermined. The previous government has successfully invested significant funds into economic development programmes in regions with high levels of communist support – even if economic inequality and discontent remain significant problems.
From this weakened position, it appears to be increasingly in the interest of the CPP, NPA and NDF to agree a peace deal with the government, particularly considering the more conciliatory tone from the new president. After winning power, Duterte offered cabinet positions to the exiled leaders of the CPP and NDF. And he has signalled that he is willing to compromise on the demand by rebel groups that captured insurgents be released, something that the previous government consistently rejected.
While attempting to resolve the long-running insurgency, the new president again emphasised that his primary domestic security priority is tackling drug-related crime. During the SONA, he said ‘we will not stop until the last drug lord, financier and pusher have surrendered or been put behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish’. The sometimes reliable Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper reports that there have been at least 364 drug-related killings by police since Duterte took office. Police put this figure at 239. Either way, this is a significant increase on the 39 deaths recorded in the four months prior to Duterte’s election.
This hardline stance appears to be domestically popular, but as we have warned before it raises questions about the rule of law in the country. The top bar association in the Philippines, the IBP, released a statement on Tuesday saying that Duterte’s policies seem to have ‘lost sight’ of the rule of law. And even the president seems to be aware of the potential for extrajudicial police killings; he warned during the address that there would be ‘hell to pay’ for officials who abused their authority. However, given the domestic popularity of his stance so far and its centrality to his election campaign, we believe it is unlikely that Duterte will take substantive action to prevent such incidents in the near to medium term.
Image: Duterte clothing advert; Redrock Dezigns & Prints YouTube screenshot