News Analysis

Duterte's national address offers no big picture of presidency beyond war on crime

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stands in between Senate president Aquilino Koko Pimentel (left) and Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez at his first State of the Nation Address on July 25, 2016.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte stands in between Senate president Aquilino Koko Pimentel (left) and Speaker of the House Pantaleon Alvarez at his first State of the Nation Address on July 25, 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

MANILA - With his propensity to go off script, populist firebrand Rodrigo Duterte managed to stretch his first State of the Nation Address as Philippine president to over an hour and 30 minutes.

His spokesman had said the speech was timed, during practice, at just 38 minutes.

It was long, and in a half-rambling way, sincere. But it offered few surprises.

There were a myriad of talking points in the speech on Monday (July 25), but the pieces still did not add up to a detailed big picture of Mr Duterte's presidency outside his single-minded war on crime.

As he moved from reading off his prepared speech to talking freely, Mr Duterte spoke about crime at the beginning, middle and end of his speech.

There were also a declaration of a unilateral ceasefire with communist rebels, a heaping of praise for his environment minister, a recalibration of his view on climate change, a promise to cut personal and corporate income taxes, a push for federalism and a birth control law, as well as an appeal for Congress to grant him emergency powers to deal with metropolitan Manila's worsening traffic problems.

But they were mostly bullet points.

Regarding China, Mr Duterte had few words to say.

He said he will "strongly affirm and respect the outcome" of an arbitration case at The Hague that handed the Philippines a sweeping verdict over China.

An international tribunal had struck down Beijing's expansive claims over the South China Sea.

Referring to the waters as the "West Philippine Sea", Mr Duterte said the ruling was "an important contribution to ongoing efforts to pursue a peaceful resolution and management of our disputes".

But it was crime that was clearly on Mr Duterte's mind as he addressed his nation.

"During my inauguration, I said that the fight against criminality and illegal drugs and corruption will be relentless and sustained. I reiterate that commitment today… We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier, and the last pusher have surrendered or put behind bars - or below the ground if they so wish," said Mr Duterte.

Addressing criticisms that his war on crime has led to a culture of impunity, he said: "Human rights must work to uplift human dignity. But human rights cannot be used as a shield or an excuse to destroy the country, my country, your country," he said.

Human rights campaigners have been alarmed by the rising body count in Mr Duterte's war on crime.

Each day, according to the latest tally being compiled by local newspapers, 11 suspected drug traffickers and users are turning up dead.

But the overall response from a population fed up with criminals running almost unchecked has been one of wary acceptance.

Again addressing criminals, Mr Duterte said: "If you do not want to die, you do not want to get hurt, do not run to a priest or invoke human rights. They will not to be able to stop death… I keep saying, do not do it because we will have a problem. He who is the cause of the cause is the cause of them all."

Yet, Mr Duterte also conceded that drug trafficking may even be too big for him to completely eradicate, as it crosses borders.

"The ones that we catch and run after are just the lieutenants. I want to kill the drug lords, but I will have to go to another country and ask permission from this country if I want to slaughter these idiots for destroying my country," he said.

For political analyst Richard Javad Heydarian of De La Salle University, there are nuances to Mr Duterte's take on human rights, as it relates to criminality.

"Human rights must be in harmony with the interest of the community. It is more collectivist, unlike in the West where the focus is on the individual."

Veteran journalist Marites Vitug said while Mr Duterte's speech was expansive, it lacked the big picture "and maybe the long view".

"Everything seems subsumed under the war on drugs," she said.

rdancel@sph.com.sg