MANILA (AFP) - Firebrand Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte threatened on Tuesday (Oct 17) to scrap by next year the "jeepneys" that have become a national symbol, as he became embroiled in a showdown with the mass transport industry.
The flamboyantly-decorated but smoke-belching vehicles were originally converted from surplus World War II US army jeeps but now largely use reconditioned diesel engines from Japan.
Citing pollution and health concerns, Mr Duterte said on Tuesday the old jeepneys would have to be switched for modern and less-polluting versions by 2018.
His threat came after a two-day strike by jeepney operators led by the transport group PISTON, which had previously rejected the modernisation scheme.
"You know, you are poisoning the people... one third of Filipinos are poor and they will die from lung cancer because you do not want to fix your used engines," Mr Duterte said in a speech to military men, referring to the jeepney operators.
"This is what I will do: either you must modernise next year those jeeps of yours, you must sell them to the junkyard. Next year I do not want to see any single PUJ (public utility jeepney.) All those still operating will be towed off the streets," he added.
For decades the colourfully decorated jeepney has served as the main form of public transport and a symbol of Filipino creativity.
The government wants them replaced with less polluting vehicles, either with better engines or electrical power and with modern safety measures.
PISTON president George Mateo said Mr Duterte's threat was unrealistic as it would take more time to replace the 240,000 jeepneys across the archipelago.
While the government had offered programmes to help the jeepney owners replace their old vehicles with new ones, Mr Mateo said the new versions were too expensive and the ownership schemes would displace small operators.
He charged that it was Mr Duterte who had previously challenged them to stage a transport strike, resulting in their protest on Monday and Tuesday which forced the government to call off school classes and shut government offices.
"He is arrogant, anti-poor," said Mr Mateo.
Despite threats to arrest jeepney operators, Mr Mateo warned of a bigger transport strike if Mr Duterte pushed through with his plan.
"We have no choice but to fight back."