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Duterte pledges ‘unrelenting’ drug war

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (center), gestures as he delivers his state of the nation address, while Senate President Vicente Sotto III (left), and House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (right), listen, at Congress in Manila on July 23. (AFP)

MANILA, July 23, (AFP): Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pledged on Monday to press ahead with a war on drugs that has already killed thousands, and castigated critics of his signature initiative. Duterte opened his annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) with a defence of the narcotics crackdown that is now in its third year and remains largely supported in the Philippines despite fierce international censure.

“Let me begin by putting it bluntly: the war against illegal drugs is far from over,” he told hundreds of assembled lawmakers, celebrities and dignitaries. “It will be as relentless and chilling, if you will, as on the day it began.” Duterte launched the crackdown shortly after coming to power in June 2016. Since then authorities claim 4,354 alleged drug users and dealers have been killed in police operations. However, human rights groups and critics say the true number of dead is at least triple that.

They say the killing could amount to crimes against humanity. “If you think that I can be dissuaded from continuing this fight because of demonstrations, your protests which I find misdirected, then you got it all wrong,” he said, referring to critics. “Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives,” he added. This year’s address was marked by high drama as political infighting in Congress delayed the passage of autonomy legislation for the nation’s Muslim minority. After years of political wrangling and negotiations, a final draft of the proposed law was on the point of being approved and sent to Duterte for his signature. But a fight for control of the top leadership post in the House of Representatives led to the delay of a final vote.

Duterte, who uncharacteristically stuck to a prepared speech, promised the legislation would still move forward. “When the approved version is transmitted and received by my office… I intend to – give me 48 hours – to sign it and ratify the law,” he added. The measure is the key missing element in a languishing peace pact with the largest Islamic rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Along with other guerrillas, it waged a rebellion that has claimed about 150,000 lives since the 1970s.

The law aims to reinforce a historic but fragile 2014 peace deal under which the MILF will give up its quest for an independent homeland in the southern island of Mindanao in return for self-rule in a new region. Both sides believe that creating the area will deter extremism in a region where brutal poverty and perennial bloodshed has fuelled recruitment by radical groups. “I have made a pledge that ISIS terrorists or groups or allies will never gain a foothold in our country,” Duterte said, referring to the months-long seige last year of the southern city of Marawi by jihadists.

“We owe it to our fallen soldiers and police officers in Marawi and elsewhere to put an end to the bloodshed and seek the path of true peace,” he added. In related news, as Duterte arrived on a helicopter in the heavily secured congressional complex, Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, backed by dozens of allied legislators, took the main seat in the center stage of the House’s plenary hall in a sign that she was taking over the post of House Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez. Arroyo, a former president, tried to speak from the stage during the dramatic standoff but her microphone was turned off. She tried to yell, apparently to explain what was happening, but later stepped away from the stage, waving at the crowd.

Alvarez, along with Senate President Vicente Sotto III, fetched Duterte and led the visibly confused leader to a holding room as the dispute over House leadership unfolded in the chamber, which was packed with diplomats, legislators and other dignitaries for Duterte’s speech. Alvarez and Arroyo are both Duterte allies.

Thousands of protesters rallied outside the House, where Duterte was to speak. “We find it unfortunate that the Bangsamoro Organic Law was not ratified before the adjournment of today’s session,” presidential spokesman Harry Roque said. “We consider this as a temporary setback.” There was no immediate reaction from the Muslim rebels over the latest difficulty in achieving the Malaysian- brokered peace deal, which seeks to replace an earlier povertyand conflict-wracked autonomous region with a potentially larger, better-funded and more powerful region for minority Muslims in the south of the largely Roman Catholic nation.

In 2008, a planned signing of a preliminary pact was scuttled when opponents went to the Supreme Court, which declared the agreement unconstitutional. New fighting erupted when three rebel commanders attacked Christian communities, leaving more than 100 people dead and about 750,000 villagers displaced before a cease-fire ended the violence.

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