Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday defended his administration’s COVID-19 response and pledged to fight the pandemic with the “same fervor” as his notorious war on drugs as the country’s cases grew to 82,040 with almost 2,000 deaths.
Duterte, in his annual State of the Nation address, also took aim at “oligarchs” including the owners of the recently shuttered broadcast giant ABS-CBN, calling himself a “casualty” of their alleged opposition to his 2016 presidential campaign. Duterte’s spokesman had earlier called the president “completely neutral” in the recent congressional decision to reject the network’s franchise renewal.
The address came amid growing concern over the stalled Philippine economy, along with local and international criticism of rights abuses at the hands of military and police forces in the wake of a controversial new anti-terrorism law.
Dozens of protesters were arrested ahead of the address, including five members of a progressive transport group and five others carrying protest materials while riding a jeepney. No permits were issued for mass gatherings in Metro Manila, which remain banned with the exemption of the University of the Philippines campus in Diliman, Quezon City.
In Cavite, just outside of the capital, 64 people en route to a protest were released Monday evening after being arrested at around noon.
Duterte’s address began with a broadside against the owners of ABS-CBN in its first five minutes, and the president later threatened to shut down the nation’s two largest telecommunications companies if their services do not “improve” by December.
His repeated condemnations of “oligarchs,” along with an economic recovery plan that remains short on specific details, led to rebukes from business groups and analysts worried the takeover threats and uncertainty could give pause to potential investors.
Duterte also said he had asked Chinese leader Xi Jinping to give the Philippines priority access to a COVID-19 vaccine should they develop one and reiterated his desire to maintain a friendly diplomatic relationship with Beijing. “Unless we are prepared to go to war, I suggest that we better just cool off,” he said.
He also went off script to say Beijing was “in possession” of the South China Sea and dismissed criticism that his government has not done enough to protect Philippine claims in the disputed region.
“China is claiming it. We are claiming it. China has the arms. We do not have it,” Duterte said. “So, it’s as simple as that. They are in possession of the property… so what can we do?”
Duterte rejected a reported plan for the United States to return to its former naval base in Subic Bay, saying he feared “war would break out” should the U.S. reestablish bases in the Philippines.
“I have nothing against America. I have nothing against China,” he said. “But if you put bases here you double the spectacle of a most destructive thing.”
Duterte terminated a key military agreement with the United States in February, although he reneged by suspending its termination in June. That agreement allows U.S. forces to be present in the Philippines and to participate in joint exercises with Philippine troops.
It was one of many tangents the president embarked upon during his speech, which Cabinet officials had earlier said would focus on the pandemic response and the administration’s plan for recovery.
Duterte said that the Philippines, which has instituted one of the world’s strictest lockdowns, was not yet ready to reopen the economy to its previous levels. “Whatever good it can produce will only be gobbled up or be outweighed by the bad it will generate,” he said.
He called on Congress to pass relief bills aimed at providing support to hard-hit businesses, including corporate tax cuts, along with skills training programs for returning overseas Filipino workers, deferrals of rent and loan payments from banks, and additional cash aid to poor citizens.
Duterte’s COVID-19 response has elicited criticism for the heavy involvement of military and police forces tasked with enforcing quarantine regulations. Critics say that has led to human rights abuses, which could be worsened by the new anti-terror law.
The president dismissed this, however, pledging to continue his deadly drug war and calling to bring back the death penalty by lethal injection for drug-related crimes. “If you go back to your old ways, bodies will pile up again like before,” he said. “I will certainly hunt you down.”
Duterte, after asking the public to help the government in its COVID-19 response, called on the country to “fight this pandemic with the same fervor as our campaign against illegal drugs, criminality, insurgency, and high places.”