DAVAO (THE PHILIPPINE INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Philippine President Duterte has said he would "invite for coffee" the police officer who drove the van that plowed through a crowd of protesters on Wednesday (Oct 19) outside the United States Embassy in Manila, to ask him why he did it.
While maintaining he was not justifying the acts of PO3 Franklin Kho, Mr Duterte said on Friday (Oct 21) that the officer-who was caught on video running over some protesters and bumping several others-may have been under stress at the time.
"I will try to talk to him peacefully, invite him for coffee. I will also talk to the activists," Mr Duterte said. "(The Manila policemen) were surrounded by a group of militants."
"Nobody would do that. Maybe he was under stress. They might have ganged up on him," the President added, stressing he wanted to know what really happened. "I'm trying to look at it from different dimensions."
Around 60 policemen, including Kho, were relieved of their duties pending investigation into their roles in the dispersal of the protesters, who were mostly from Sandugo, an alliance of Moro and indigenous peoples who were in the capital to air grievances.
Sandugo coconvenor Piya Macliing Malayao, one of those severely injured, said her group was ready to have a dialogue with Mr Duterte and "clarify the events that transpired during the violent dispersal".
Mr Duterte may not be justifying the police actions, Ms Malayao said, but it was clear that the President had heard only the law enforcers' side.
"With all due respect, Mr President, the initial briefing you might have been given on the incident might be lacking," she added.
"For one, various video footages of the incident show that the police vehicle (had) much space to manoeuvre. Yet PO3 Kho recklessly drove (forwards and backwards), toppling many protesters who were still reeling from the effects of tear gas released moments earlier," Ms Malayao said.
She said Mr Duterte “really needs to be given a full view of what transpired, as it is apparent that he has been given limited information on the incident”. “At least, he admitted that he still needed to know what actually transpired. Initially, we are relieved by his pronouncement that he will be meeting with both the police and the demonstrators and personally do the questioning,” Ms Malayao said.
"The violence we experienced in front of the US Embassy mirrors the violence we face in our homes and ancestral lands," added Ms Malayao, who is now on crutches.
Mr Duterte said he will talk to both sides because there’s no more room for fighting now that his administration is pursuing talks with the Communist-led National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
“There’s no more left here, we are talking,” Mr Duterte said. “I don’t want a quarrel between the police and the militants... It’s about time that we treat this with civility."
“I’m praying to God we will succeed in the peace talks,” he said.
Mr Duterte also stressed that policemen should not be allowed to carry firearms during demonstrations. “The most that the demonstrators can do is to cause damage,” he said, “I don’t want to see firearms during demonstrations, no M16s, we are not fighting here.”
“Those are anathema in the modern sense of the word,” he said. “There’s always the right to dissent, that’s part of the territory of democracy."
Also on Saturday, a lawyer assisting the protesters said administrative and criminal charges would be filed on Wednesday in the Office of the Ombudsman against the policemen involved in the violent dispersal.
Mr Ephraim Cortez, secretary-general of the National Union of Peoples' Lawyers, said charges for attempted murder were being prepared against Kho and Senior Superintendent Marcelino Pedrozo, the Manila Police District deputy director for operations.
"Our case is very strong but we need to identify the other policemen who are involved, especially those who ganged up on a jeepney driver," Mr Cortez told the Inquirer in a forum held in Quezon City. Among those he wanted named was the officer who was seen wielding a pistol during the dispersal.
A Sandugo representative called for the creation of an independent fact-finding team.
"We do not trust the investigation to be conducted by the Philippine National Police," said Mr Jerome Succor Aba of Suara Bangsamoro and one of the protesters run over by Kho.
Mr Aba recalled that when farmers holding protests in Kidapawan City were "massacred" in April this year, the police investigation then did not produce any concrete results.
“We look forward to sitting down with the President and talk to him about our call for the abrogation of lopsided treaties with the United States, along with the pull-out of US troops and installations in the country, and the call for accountability against the historical injustices perpetrated by US imperialism against the Moros and indigenous peoples—calls that are necessarily connected with his announcement of separation from the US both militarily and economically,” Mr Aba said.
The National Democratic Front (NDF) in Southern Mindanao said US imperialism and “rabid anti-Duterte clique of the ruling class” were to be blamed for the violent dispersal of the rally.
“Wednesday’s violent dispersal showed only too clearly the extent to which the reactionary state armed forces will employ in order to protect US imperialist interests in the country,” Mr Rubi del Mundo, the NDF Southern Mindanao spokesman, said in a media statement.
“This recent attack on our national minorities in defense of US imperialism should therefore only strengthen the President’s resolve to abrogate all onerous economic and military agreements with the United States and continue to push for an active and independent foreign policy,” Mr Del Mundo added.