The State of Duterte’s Philippines
On July 25, 2016, Duterte delivered his first State of the Nation Address. It was clear from the beginning that his SONAs would be unlike any other that the Philippines had seen before. With each one, he ushered in an unprecedented era of Philippine politics, one where violence is accepted as an ideal answer to criminality, and vulgarity is lauded as a demonstration of relatability.
His presidency has shaped the Philippines today in more ways than one, and his State of the Nation Addresses have been a clear representation of his journey from his inauguration to the final year of his administration.
“The fight against illegal drugs will be relentless and sustained.” (SONA 2016)
The focal point of Duterte’s presidency has been his struggle with the crisis of illegal drugs in the Philippines. Even as a presidential candidate, this was the defining platform that brought him to the awareness of most Filipinos.
During his first SONA, he established his belief that drugs were a primary source of crime, and made it clear that his presidency would put an end to the drug crisis in the country. He has continuously reminded the public that his administration will not be barred by law from committing violent acts — going so far as to say that he would protect members of the Philippine National Police (PNP) even if they killed “1,000 persons.”
His statements on illegal drugs have increased the stigma against drug possession, and the inhumane nature of his approach has created a culture of insensitivity to violence in the country.
After the initial stages of his drug war, reports of extrajudicial killings had become the norm for Filipinos, and while it is still something that human rights advocates fight against, most have simply been forced to accept it as the reality of Duterte’s presidency.
“I assure you, this will be a clean government.” (SONA 2016)
With the Philippines’ history of graft and corruption, it was no surprise that one of Duterte’s first orders of business was to create a “clean government.”
In his first SONA, he announced the establishment of the 8888 hotline for citizen complaints of poor government practices. He vowed to end corruption and promised that all those who participated in it would “have their day in Court.”
In the five years of his presidency, Duterte’s administration has been hounded with multiple accusations of graft and corruption. One public instance of this was the 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games hosted by the Philippines. Reports on the overall lackluster quality of the event, in spite of the $146 million budget allocated for it, forced the question of corruption present in its planning and execution.
Despite any efforts or vows he might have made to establish a “clean government,” Duterte entered his final year of presidency with over 200 complaints directed to the Task Force Against Corruption (TFAC).
“We owe it to our fallen soldiers and police officers… to put an end to the bloodshed” (SONA 2018)
Under Duterte’s presidency, civilian trust in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the PNP has dwindled. In the past year alone, two videos of police brutality went viral on social media, and based on previously reported cases, these were not isolated incidents.
Another contributor to distrust in the AFP and PNP would be the Battle of Marawi. In a highly controversial move intended to put an end to the terrorist rising in Marawi, Mindanao was placed under martial law from May 2017 to January 2020.
In his third SONA, Duterte expressed his hopes for the rehabilitation of Marawi and the entirety of Mindanao by the end of his term. However, as of Duterte’s final SONA, Marawi has yet to fully recover. In the time since the siege ended, reports of human rights violations and incessant violence perpetrated by the AFP and PNP forces in Mindanao have only increased.
[On the West Philippine Sea dispute] ;”The avoidance of armed conflict and protection of our territorial waters and natural resources require us to perform a delicate balancing act.” [on the West Philippine Sea dispute].” (SONA 2019)
As the Philippines approached the fourth year of Duterte’s administration, tensions continued to run high with Chinese troops seizing control of the long disputed waters of the West Philippine Sea. Conflicts with the Chinese over Asian maritime issues date back to the 1980s with many of them still unresolved. As struggles for power and sovereignty raged on, President Duterte chose instead to invite the Chinese into Philippine waters.
In his fourth SONA, Duterte asserted that the Philippines’ territorial rights over the West Philippine Sea could not be implemented, saying that it would risk war with China. Duterte then went on a tangent about his past conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Within those moments, his address crescendoed into emotional rambles that defended the wishes of another country, while his own was left stranded in confusion and disdain.
In an attempt to soften the blow, Duterte reassured us, saying:
“That is why I will do [it] in [a] peaceful way, mindful of the fact that it is our national pride and territorial integrity that are at stake […] Of course we will do [it] in due time.”
Two years have passed, and the sight of ships in the West Philippine Sea only continues to strike fear in the hearts of many who rely on those waters.
“Media is a powerful tool in the hands of oligarchs like the Lopezes who use it in their battle with political figures. I am a casualty of the Lopezes during the 2016 elections.” (SONA 2020)
The shutdown of the ABS-CBN network quickly sparked controversy, and due to his administration’s rough track record with the media, Duterte was compelled to comment about it in the first five minutes of his 2020 SONA. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, the presence of such media giant was vital in sustaining the lives of Filipinos, yet the President chose to prioritize the fact that his 2016 candidacy had been affected by the Lopezes.
He previously remarked that his decision to push through with its shutdown was free of bias. However, the true intentions were blatantly clear after the President expressed his distaste for Senator Frank Drilion, oligarchs, and the founders of the ABS-CBN Corporation, the Lopezes.
Press freedom has consistently struggled under the reigns of power. For the Lopez Family, the words of President Duterte ring similarly to the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who formerly criticized them with the same concerns. The traces of history remain, with Duterte going so far as to praise himself for eliminating oligarchy without declaring martial law. But at what cost?
“Rest assured that we will not dodge our obligation to fight for human rights,” the President remarked as he shut down those who continued to fight for the press — one of the lifelines of human society.
These words have never been more sour.
“From the rubbles of adversity, a more resilient and stronger nation built on Bayanihan and Pagkakaisa shall rise.” (SONA 2020)
The world came to a halt when the first COVID-19 case in the country was reported. Panic and fear riddled streets, while feet raided supermarkets.
By the time Duterte delivered his fifth SONA, the pandemic’s effects on the country were at its worst. As expected, the President stressed on how the pandemic had affected the nation, expressing his gratitude for the people dedicating their lives to bettering a seemingly hopeless moment in history.
There was care in discussing the accomplishments of the government to address those struck by the pandemic, and what was done to mitigate the damage. He was also unafraid to admit the government’s shortcomings, noting that he and his administration had been far from perfect.
He spoke like a leader — he spoke in a way that was expected of him. But, however heartfelt and true these sentiments were, he failed to concretely address just how many cases were recorded in the country, and what was going to be done about it.
The Filipino people did not vote for Rodrigo Duterte only for him to deliver false promises. Undoubtedly, his rigid and strict demeanor proved enough to instill order in the likes of Davao. Yet, a mere 5 years later, this strength has withered in the face of national responsibility.
Throughout the course of his presidency, Rodrigo Duterte has made a name for himself — whether it be one of fame, infamy, or both. This has caused the SONA to become a stage for entertainment, rather than an opportunity to address where the nation stands in current events and issues.
President Duterte, in a great number of his addresses, has made headlines with remarks that are less presidential and more controversial. Sexist and misogynistic remarks, jokes that poke fun at tragedy, and even inciting violence against his own people are trends in his public appearances.
[President Duterte on the Philippine water crisis in 2019]: “You have to change the system immediately. I was in Davao during the 3-day water crisis, I was afraid that my girlfriend would not be able to take a bath and she [would] smell like hell.”
The danger behind Duterte’s SONAs are not only the falsities and inconsistencies he preaches in line with the actions of his administration, but also his failure to recognize the weight of his words. They have been reduced to headlines and boxes slapped on “SONA Bingo” posts. Rarely do we see the hopes and dreams, and the long-awaited changes people yearn for, become reflected into reality.
As his presidency comes to a close, Duterte leaves the Philippines a fractured country. While he may prefer “not to rue or second guess” his term, the state of the nation today is what Filipinos will have to carry with them generations into the future. For better or for worse, Duterte has changed the course of Philippine history.
With the 2022 presidential elections approaching, it is important for Filipinos to decide what they want the country to become. We may not be able to rewrite the past, but we have a say in the future. With all that we have learned as citizens of Duterte’s Philippines, we must now decide what we want the future state of our nation to be.