THOUSANDS of President Rodrigo Duterte’s critics and supporters held rival rallies Thursday, taking emotional national debates over his deadly drug war and martial-law threats to the streets.
The Catholic Church urged Filipinos to demand change—as promised by President Duterte—as the religious also joined demonstrations marking the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Police in battle gear were mustered to keep order as protesters held a series of rallies across the capital of Manila, using the 45th anniversary of martial law to warn that Duterte was just as violent and authoritarian as Marcos.
“Our country is turning into a graveyard. People are getting killed everyday and we bury the dead everyday, just like in the time of Marcos,” anti-Duterte protest leader Pedro Gonzales said.
But supporters of Duterte also turned up in large numbers, reflecting his popularity with many Filipinos who see him as a charismatic, anti-establishment politician who is their best chance to quell crime and corruption.
Duterte vowed in last year’s election campaign to eradicate illegal drugs in society by killing up to 100,000 traffickers and addicts.
Since he assumed office 15 months ago, police have reported killing more than 3,800 people in anti-drug operations.
The crackdown has triggered wider violence with thousands of other people being murdered in unexplained circumstances that rights groups partly attribute to vigilante death squads.
Gonzales led about 300 people to the gate of the Philippine military headquarters.
Hoisting “No to Martial Law” and “Stop the Killings” banners, they burnt a poster bearing a composite picture of Duterte and Marcos, and captioned “Fascist,” as about 70 unarmed policemen blocked their way.
Police said thousands of anti-Duterte protesters as well as his supporters later gathered outside Malacañan Palace.
The anti-Duterte crowd burned a “Rody’s Cube,” wooden block art styled after the Rubik’s Cube 3-D puzzle with the interchangeable faces of Marcos, Duterte, Hitler and a puppet.
“Never Again! Never Again to Martial Law!” protesters chanted as they turned then burned the cube.
The protesters were backed by the political opposition and leaders of the Catholic Church, signaling a rising opposition to Duterte.
Vice President Leni Robredo and Duterte’s predecessor, former President Benigno Aquino III, both critics of the incumbent leader, attended a separate mass for the drug war dead Thursday.
“The good part of this is there are so many people concerned, from different ages,” Aquino told reporters.
Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, denounced the drug killings at another mass Thursday, saying Catholics must “do more” than lighting candles for the dead and helping orphans.
“Stand up. To keep quiet in the face of evil is a sin,” he said.
Manila police said about 5,000 people took part in the anti-Duterte protest near the palace, where about 3,000 supporters of the President also gathered nearby.
A pro-Duterte rally attended by 12,000 people was held in front of a Catholic Church just over a kilometer away, police added.
Villegas, in a message to the faithful, urged them to stay vigilant and to demand that President Duterte keep his promise of change.
“We have a right as people to demand change. We voted for change and we want to see it. Keep on demanding it. Do not relent. Do not tolerate excuses and jokes. Demand the change promised,” Villegas said.
The CBCP president said the country needs change for the better and “not the change from life to death” or “the change of darkness into deeper darkness.”
“Wrong is wrong and right is right. When they confuse one for the other, stand up and correct the wrong with courage but with love. Stand up. To keep quiet in the face of evil is a sin,” Villegas said.
Calling citizens to a renewed sense of nationalism, the prelate drew comparisons with the dark period of the Marcos dictatorship and the present socio-political issues facing the country.
“We have only martial law in Mindanao but the murders are all over—more than 13,000 now since last year. Killing the poor and the poorest is the only solution they know to stop crime. Fake news abounds and liars succeed to mislead and confuse,” said Villegas.
He also decried the House of Representatives for voting to slash the Commission on Human Rights’ budget to P1,000.
“Decency has given way to cuss words. The respectful and the polite are ridiculed and the rude and ill-mannered are the new saints. Human rights and the indigenous peoples are worth one thousand pesos,” he added.
“We must stand up for the real Filipino. We are honorable. We are respectful. We are pro-life. We are honest. We are brave. We are losing our national soul to the Father of Lies and Prince of Darkness,” the bishop said.
A group of human rights lawyers named Artikulo 3 said there was no longer any doubt that extrajudicial killing is a state policy.
“For over a year, the authorities duly tasked to protect the people have blatantly disregarded human rights. The body count continues to pile up in a drug war that President Duterte himself admitted he cannot win,” the group said.
“As human rights lawyers and as Filipinos, we say today enough is enough. Today, as we commemorate September 21, the start of a dark chapter in our history, we stand with every Filipino in demanding an end to extrajudicial killings.
“President Duterte has singled out human rights lawyers and advocates in his many tirades, to the point of encouraging the police to shoot us. But we will not be silenced nor will we be cowed into submission and blind obedience,” the group said.
Liberal Party president Senator Francis Pangilinan said he was surprised when President Duterte declared Sept. 21 a National Day of Protest.
“Actually, it’s surprising. There’s a protest today because some of the actions of this administration were bad. So, I do not know. Perhaps he should be thrown that question,” he said.
Senator Risa Hontiveros said the Duterte administration was an authoritarian regime characterized by a policy of killing, the use of fake news as a political tool to stifle dissent, and “palpable hatred and persecution of women leaders who dare stand up to blatant disregard for democracy.”
“It is Marcos-inspired. It is modern-day Philippine autocratic governance. It has little or no regard at all for the rule of law and civil liberties,” Hontiveros added.
She urged all democracy-loving Filipinos to push back and turn the tide in favor of democracy and human rights.
“Now is not the time for meek submission, not while innocent lives are slain, hopes are extinguished, and the promise of peace and order is instead stained with bloodshed and grief,” she said.
Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, vice chairman of the ruling PDP-Laban party, said no government fuds were used in the staging of a pro-Duterte rally in Plaza Miranda. He said the rally was an opportunity for the public to express their support for Duterte, and urged “the majority” not to remain quiet.
Thursday’s protests were also joined by leftist farmers and fishermen’s groups.
The Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas said protests would continue beyond Sept. 21.
On the eve of the Sept. 21 protests, administration congressmen restored the budget of the Commission on Human Rights, after their move to slash it to only P1,000 for 2018 triggered widespread criticism.
Majority Leader Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas said Wednesday night’s decision to restore the commission’s funding to P623 million was because they had extracted an agreement from the commission to look at issues other than the drug war.
The commission’s chief, Jose Luis Gascon, confirmed on Thursday he had met House leaders the previous day to discuss the proposed budget cut.
But he did not confirm Fariñas’s version of the outcome, and emphasized that the commission would require even more money if it was to begin investigating alleged abuses by groups outside of government.
“I clarified that we already have programs for promoting the rights of all,” Gascon said.
“If we were to significantly expand our investigation work beyond violations of state authorities, it will require more funds beyond that currently in (the proposed budget).”
The opposition Liberal Party said the restoration of the commission’s budget was a victory for the many groups that voiced outrage at the initial decision.
“It is a win for human rights, for collective action, and for truth and reason,” the party said.
Duterte on Saturday likened Gascon to a “pedophile” and called him a “son of a whore” for expressing concern over the police killing teenagers in the drug war.
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