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Domestic turmoil in the Philippines

Ana P. Santos Manila
November 15, 2017

Massive protests against US President Trump on the sidelines of the ASEAN summit have been a distraction from the real issue of Philippine President Duterte's sinking popularity. Ana P. Santos reports from Manila.

Philippinen ASEAN Gipfel Protest gegen Trump
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/A. Favila

After President Trump left Manila on Tuesday, thousands of exhausted protesters gathered to rest in a public park. For five straight days, they had been protesting the US President's visit to the Philippines for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit

They marched under the scorching sun, burned effigies of Trump, shouted "ban Trump" and called him a "fascist imperialist leader."  Dozens of protesters reportedly suffered minor injuries when riot police used water cannons to bar them from entering the US embassy and the ASEAN summit venue.

Organizers estimated that more than 9,000 students, laborers, indigenous people, Muslim organizations and LGBT groups came from different provinces in the Philippines to converge on Manila to oppose Trump's visit.

Duterte's domestic disappointments

But the street protests in Manila were also a result of Filipinos' growing frustration with President Duterte. Demonstrators demanded attention for a wide range of issues, including changing unjust labor practices, stopping extrajudicial killings, advancing human rights and improving social protection for Filipinos.

Philippinen ASEAN Protest
Protesters in Manlia are blasted with water cannons Image: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/G. Calvelo

Disenchantment and disappointment with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was something many protesters had in common. Detractors say Duterte has not delivered on his campaign promises and has flip-flopped on the very policies that got him elected.

Certainly, Duterte, a blustering leader notorious for his profane verbal tirades, is not the first politician who has reneged on his campaign promises. But for many of the protestors, more than any other candidate, Duterte was someone they could trust to champion their hopes and aspirations.

When Duterte swept into the presidency in June 2016, his trust ratings were a record high 91 percent. Surveys released this month revealed that only 35 percent of Filipinos believed Duterte could fulfill his promises.

It was consistent with trust ratings that dipped to 48 percent last October, following waves of protests against extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users along with Duterte's rising authoritarianism.

Indigenous outrage 

Philippinen ASEAN Protest
Demonstrators protest Trump on TuesdayImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/A. Favila

Rius Valle, a member of the indigenous communities from Mindanao in the southern Philippines, was at the protests in Manila along with fellow community members.

Valle and the indigenous communities he represents have been working with Duterte since 2014 to address reports that communist insurgency groups were using tribal areas as a base for their operations.

In July, Duterte threatened to launch air strikes on their tribal schools, which he claimed were being used as a cover to teach children communism and subversion. In a panic, residents vacated their homes and remain displaced until now.

The threat came after reports of communist rebel attacks that included a road gun battle that injured members of Duterte's presidential guards.

"President Duterte knows that's not true. He has been to our communities. We have had dialogue with him. He knows us," Valle told DW.

"We all voted for him. Now he says he will bomb us? I am past disappointment. Now I am very angry," said Valle.

Conflicting reports on human rights

Human rights advocates had hoped that President Trump would use the ASEAN summit as a venue to echo the chorus of global condemnation of Duterte's drug war that has killed thousands of mostly poor young men.

In a media briefing after a meeting between Trump and Duterte, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said that human rights were not discussed. However, the White House later released a joint statement saying that "both sides…agreed to continue mainstreaming the human rights agenda."

Other leaders present during the summit mentioned human rights in meetings or various functions. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Truedeau reportedly raised his "concern" about the rising death toll of drug-related killings during his own bilateral meeting with Duterte.

Duterte called it "a personal and official insult."

Drug war is Duterte's only deliverable

Presidential spokesperson Roque told DW that the vigorous protests were proof that the country enjoys freedom of expression, contrary to claims that Duterte is cracking down on dissent.  

But protesters insist that Trump and Duterte are turning into dictators.

	Philippinen ASEAN Gipfel in Manila
Trump and Duterte meet before the opening ceremony of the ASEAN summitImage: Reuters/M.R. Cristino

"Duterte claimed to be the first leftist socialist president in history," Teddy Casiño, representative of Bayan (New Patriotic Alliance), a left-wing coalition of labor and peasant groups, told DW.

Duterte seemed to have supported this claim when he opened peace talks with the communist groups, gave some known leftists cabinet positions and said he would cut ties with the US to pursue an independent foreign policy.

"These are the issues that speak to the people protesting here. The other presidents did not pretend to acknowledge these issues. We thought Duterte was different," added Casiño.

Other protesters said there is one campaign promise that Duterte has delivered on - the crackdown on illegal drugs.

"If he could only apply the same political conviction and legislative support that he applied to the war on drugs - minus the killings - then he could keep his promises," Claire Balabbo spokesperson for the labor alliance PAMANTIK-KMU, told DW.

PAMANTIK-KMU was protesting on behalf of millions of laborers to remind Duterte of this campaign promise to end the practice where employment contracts are deliberately terminated before six months to avoid paying benefits that are due to regular workers.

"It's been more than a year. We're here to collect on the promises he made. The war on drugs can't be the only government policy this administration is capable of carrying out," said Balabbo.

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