Top issues and controversies under Duterte
MANILA, Philippines – When longtime Davao City mayor Rodrigo Duterte became the 16th president of the Philippines, he made a vow: change was coming.
In a country still plagued by corruption and a serious drug problem, things would be different.
While massively popular and backed by 16 million Filipinos who voted him to power, Duterte has been amassing critics from Day 1. Among their chief complaints: Duterte's hardline stance against drugs and criminality, his apparent disdain and flippant disregard for human rights, his brash manner of speaking that spared no one, and his new alliances with China and Russia at the expense of long-time ally, the United States.
Even before he assumed the presidency, he had already caused a stir when he attacked two institutions: the media and the Catholic Church. In May, he accused the Church of hypocrisy, and said corrupt journalists were legitimate targets of assassination.
In his first year in office, Duterte has been a constant newsmaker, stirring controversy with his statements that required back-and-forth clarifications from his aides. He was the driving force behind the many other newsworthy events that happened under his watch: the jailing of Senator Leila de Lima, the hero’s burial for the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, and – the most defining achievement of his administration so far – the alarming body count in his bloody war against drugs.
His first year term was also marked by shake-ups in power dynamics in Philippine politics, and the threat of terrorism looming over the country.
Rappler looks back at the issues and controversies that dominated each month of the Philippines’ first year under the Duterte presidency.
Duterte is sworn in as president the afternoon of June 30. Only a few hours after taking oath, he issues a warning to drug addicts that had become the all-too-familiar promise throughout the campaign season.
Like in previous occasions, Duterte warns Filipinos to stop using drugs or face death. In a previous speech, he told communities to be on the lookout for drug use in their respective communities. He says that they can even make the arrest themselves – and, should the suspect resist or fight, it would be acceptable to kill.
His speech at the Delpan Sports Complex echoes a similar vein.
“’Yung mga adik ho diyan, kayo na lang ho ang pumatay. Kung anak niya, ikaw ang pumatay. Kung anak niyang adik, kayo ang pumatay para hindi masyadong masakit,” he says. (If someone’s child is an addict, be the one to kill them, so it won’t be so painful to their parents.)
The President has made several of these such statements over the months, although he would then clarify that it should only be done if the suspects resist arrest. (READ: Shoot to kill? Duterte's statements on killing drug users)
In the first month of the government’s anti-drug war, at least 65,000 people suspected drug users and pushers surrender to the police, as the body count in the crackdown starts to climb. Many have already been killed in police operations and vigilante killings while only one drug lord has been killed. While many support the anti-drug campaign, others remain skeptical as to whether or not the crackdown targets only the poor.
As the body count rises, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) expresses alarm and calls for an investigation. The ICJ would be just one of several other international organizations to condemn the government’s war against drugs.
In the Senate, vocal Duterte critic Senator Leila de Lima files a resolution to initiate a probe into the spate of drug-related killings.
In the Cabinet, the President finally offers Vice President Leni Robredo a Cabinet post, after delaying giving her an appointment because of his friendship with losing vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr.
Meanwhile, former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo is acquitted of plunder after nearly 4 years of hospital arrest.
After nearly two months after his last press conference with private media, the President ends his media boycott and takes questions from reporters.
In response to De Lima’s bid to probe the spate of drug-related killings, Duterte’s allies in the House of Representatives file a resolution to investigate the alleged proliferation of drugs in the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) back when De Lima was justice secretary.
This would kick off the public trial of the neophyte lady senator: the House would hold several hearings not only on the alleged drug use in NBP, but also on De Lima’s private life and affair with her former bodyguard and driver. The House hearings would later culminate in the senator’s arrest and detention.
In the same month, Duterte releases a matrix of the drug prison trade, which allegedly involves De Lima, former Pangasinan governor and current Pangasinan 5th District Representative Amado Espino Jr, Pangasinan Provincial Administrator Raffy Baraan, and general Franklin Bucayu, among others.
Duterte also names 158 individuals from the judiciary, local government, military, and the police who are allegedly involved in the illegal drug trade – either as protectors, users, or drug lords.
Fact-checking by Rappler shows, however, that there are several errors and inconsistencies in the drug lists released by the President, despite his claims of extensive vetting.
Meanwhile, the Duterte government resumes peace talks with communist rebels, aimed at ending one of the longest-running insurgencies in the world.
On September 2, an explosion rips through a night market in Davao City, Duterte’s own hometown. The bombing is later blamed on members of local terrorists, the Maute Group.
The incident prompts Duterte to declare a state of lawlessness in the country, which remains in effect 9 months later.
In early September, Duterte makes his first foreign trip as head of state, attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Laos.
But before leaving for his first international summit, Duterte quickly makes international headlines when he slams then-US president Barack Obama, warning the US leader not to criticize him on human rights issues brought about by the Philippines’ controversial drug war.
His rant against Obama – where he uses the phrase “son of a whore” in Filipino – is reported by some groups as being a reference to the US president. (READ: How media groups wrote about Duterte’s rant vs Obama)
Meanwhile in the House of Representatives, Duterte critic De Lima faces an investigation on the alleged drug trade in the NBP, but she refuses to attend, calling it a “sham inquiry” and a mere ploy to discredit her.
In the second House investigation, De Lima is accused of using drug money to raise funds for her senatorial bid in the 2016 elections.
In the Senate’s probe on extrajudicial killings related to the drug war, De Lima presents Edgar Matobato, a self-confessed hitman and member of the so-called Davao Death Squad. Matobato testifies that Duterte ordered the group to execute people back when he was Davao City mayor.
At the end of the month, Duterte again stirs up international reactions when he draws parallels between his drug war and the annihilation of 3 million Jews during the Holocaust. Duterte also says he was being portrayed as a “cousin” of Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.
Duterte visits China to strengthen diplomatic ties between the two countries amid tensions in disputed South China Sea territories.
During a trade and investment forum in Beijing, Duterte announces the Philippines’ separation from the United States and his decision to move closer to China, although the US embassy reports that no formal request was made to sever Philippine-US ties. Duterte’s Cabinet members later clarify the President’s statements, and Duterte himself says two days later he was not cutting ties with the US.
Around mid-October, the President signs an administrative order creating a presidential task force to probe media killings. This comes several months after he was criticized for remarks he made as president-elect, when he justified the killing of corrupt members of the media.
He also resumes his word war with the Catholic Church, cursing bishops and priests who criticized his war against drugs. Duterte has been at odds with the religious institution even before he assumed the presidency.
Senator De Lima continues to face House probes. Leaders of different gangs inside the New Bilibid Prison claim De Lima allegedly received drug money payoffs to fund her senatorial bid. She also faces scrutiny of her relationship with her driver and alleged bagman Ronnie Dayan.
On October 19, police clash with protesters outside the US embassy in Manila. Several protesters, mostly indigenous peoples protesting alleged military and US presence in their ancestral lands, are injured after a van repeatedly runs over the rallyists.
On November 5, Albuera Mayor Rolando Espinosa Sr – who has alleged links to the drug trade – is killed inside his jail cell in a reported shootout with personnel from the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group (CIDG).
On November 8, the Supreme Court issues its verdict that paves the way for a Duterte campaign promise: the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery).
Just days later, Marcos is buried with full military honors at the Heroes’ Cemetery, in a move that catches many by surprise.
The sudden burial of Marcos – “like a thief in the night,” as critics called it – sparks outrage, especially among those who suffered human rights abuses under the Marcos regime. Thousands of protesters, mostly the youth, stage protests nationwide, which would last until November 30.
Meanwhile, the Philippine peso drops to an almost 8-year low against the US dollar.
In mid-November, Duterte's allies downplay the President's earlier statements that he was "tempted" to declare martial law to solve the drug problem in the country.
The Judicial and Bar Council also holds public interviews for candidates vying for the seats of two retiring Supreme Court justices.
On December 6, the National Bureau of Investigation says the death of Albuera Mayor Espinosa was a "rubout" and recommends criminal charges against the CIDG operatives involved.
Five months since the President offered Robredo a Cabinet post through a phone call, the Vice President resigns from the Duterte Cabinet.
Robredo announces her resignation from her post as housing chair after she receives a text message from Cabinet Secretary Jun Evasco Jr, “to desist from attending all Cabinet meetings starting December 5.”
Meanwhile, a bill for the reimposition of the death penalty hurdles the House committee level. In response, the United Nations warns that the Philippines will violate international law if it reintroduces capital punishment.
Duterte also revives concern about his health, after he admits that he used to take fentanyl, a powerful painkiller often prescribed for cancer pain and other chronic ailments, because of a spinal injury from previous motorcycle accidents.
On Christmas Eve, an explosion outside a church in Midsayap, Cotabato injures at least 13 people. Duterte links the bombing, as well as the September blast in Davao City, to the international terror group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
A survey also shows that most Filipinos are worried about becoming the next victims of the drug war, and that the issue of extrajudicial killings in the country is a serious issue.
The public image of the Philippine National Police (PNP) takes a beating after news surfaces that a Korean businessman, Jee Ick Joo, had been strangled to death in October 2016 at the hands of policemen inside Camp Crame, the police headquarters in Manila.
The Duterte administration apologizes over the incident and promises justice for Jee. The PNP, having long been under fire for its efforts to eradicate the drug problem, is further scrutinized after this incident. In light of this, the government suspends its anti-drug war on January 30.
On January 26, the first petition against the PNP’s Oplan TokHang campaign is filed before the Supreme Court (SC), seeking protection for the families of victims killed in the anti-drug operations. Several days later, the SC issues a writ of amparo for the victims’ families.
Meanwhile, the Armed Forces of the Philippines vows to crush local terror groups, particularly the Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, within 6 months.
At around this time, pro-Duterte bloggers draw internet buzz over “Leni Leaks" or the supposed leak of online messages about Robredo’s supporters supposedly planning propaganda against Duterte.
Duterte scraps peace talks with communist rebels, blaming the rebels for the collapse of the negotiations after they supposedly violate the ceasefire agreement.
In the mining sector, the industry is shaken up after environment secretary Gina Lopez announces the closure of 23 mining operations. Duterte, who has expressed support for Lopez, says there was nothing he could do about the closures.
After several months of controversies, De Lima is ordered arrested, days after the Department of Justice files charges against her for allegedly receiving drug money from convicts. Her former driver Ronnie Dayan is also arrested.
Following her arrest, the Senate strips 3 Liberal Party (LP) senators and their ally of committee chairmanships, prompting the LP senators to shift to the minority bloc.
On February 20, retired Davao policeman Arturo Lascañas appears at a press conference to corroborate earlier claims by Matobato on Duterte’s involvement in the so-called Davao Death Squad.
On February 27, the Abu Sayyaf beheads a German national, the 3rd foreigner to be beheaded by the local terror group in the last 10 months.
Two months after it was suspended, the PNP relaunches its war on drugs, vowing to make it “less bloody, if not bloodless.”
Despite fierce criticism, especially from the Catholic Church, the House of Representatives approves on 3rd and final reading the controversial death penalty bill, which would punish drug-related crimes with either life imprisonment or death.
The Commission on Appointments rejects the appointment of Perfecto Yasay Jr, then the foreign affairs secretary, over questions on his citizenship. Rappler earlier reports| that Yasay had lied under oath and had owned a US passport, despite his denials.
Meanwhile, European lawmakers call for the release of De Lima, urging the government to ensure a fair trial and to drop politically motivated charges against her.
Robredo also faces a storm of criticism, after she sends a video message to a UN meeting side event where she mentions the rising body count in the Philippines’ drug war.
A group calling themselves the "Impeach Leni" movement prepares an impeachment complaint against the Vice President, accusing Robredo of peddling lies.
This comes after an impeachment complaint is also filed against Duterte, alleging that he culpably violated the Constitution, engaged in bribery, betrayed the public trust, committed graft and corruption and other high crimes.
On April 11, at least 10 people are killed after government forces foil an attack by the Abu Sayyaf group in Bohol.
As of mid-April, over 7,000 Filipinos have been killed in the anti-drug war. The death toll includes both the people killed during police operations and vigilante-style killings.
The Philippines also hosts the 30th ASEAN Summit and related meetings.
Duterte and his fiercest critic, Senator De Lima, are featured on the TIME list of the 100 Most Influential People in the world. Duterte's write-up is written by former Colombian president César Gaviria, while De Lima’s write-up is written by former United States ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power.
On April 24, Filipino lawyer Jude Sabio files a complaint against Duterte and several senior government officials before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for alleged "mass murder" in the Philippines.
The Supreme Court moves forward with the electoral protest filed by losing vice presidential candidate Ferdinand Marcos Jr against Robredo.
Also in April, the issue of idle government housing comes to light following the takeover by members of urban poor group Kadamay of vacant housing units in Pandi, Bulacan.
Meanwhile, a survey sees Duterte’s trust rating dip. While he gains more approval and trust from well-to-do Filipinos, the President appears to be losing trust among the poorest.
The Court of Appeals acquits alleged pork barrel scam mastermind Janet Lim Napoles in the illegal detention case against her, reversing the 2015 conviction of a Makati court.
In one day, the House justice committee junks the first impeachment complaint filed against Duterte, finding it sufficient in form but insufficient in substance.
In Malacañang, Duterte appoints longtime supporter Mocha Uson as Palace communications assistant secretary, saying it was payment for a debt of gratitude for the popular blogger’s support during the campaign. The move draws divided reactions on social media.
The Duterte administration defends its anti-drug war and human rights record before the UN. The Philippine delegation argues that illegal drug use has been a longtime problem in the Philippines and needs to be urgently addressed through the drug war. Although they acknowledge that human rights violations may have resulted from the summary executions, they maintain that these are not state-sponsored.
Amid the Philippines’ friendlier ties with China, Duterte says Chinese President Xi Jinping warned him China would go to war if the Philippines "forces the issue" of the arbitral ruling on the South Sea China. Several senators question Duterte’s tolerance of China’s war threat, while SC senior associate justice Antonio Carpio says the Philippines can sue China for making such a threat.
Meanwhile, Duterte goes to Russia for an official visit, to speak with his “idol” Russian President Vladimir Putin.
A day later, Duterte says he is considering expanding the declaration of martial law to cover the entire Philippines if needed, citing the threat of terrorism.
On June 2, Metro Manila is rocked by an attack in a posh entertainment complex, after a lone gunman storms Resorts World Manila in Pasay City and sets gaming tables on fire. The incident sparks fears of terrorism, which the police quickly debunk, saying it was a case of robbery.
Thirty-eight individuals, including the gunman, die in the incident. The management of Resorts World are now facing congressional probes over the incident.
As Duterte nears the end of his first year in office, challenges arise over his declaration of martial law. The Supreme Court begins 3-day oral arguments on the martial law declaration, with petitioners saying there was no basis to declare martial rule on the grounds of invasion or rebellion.
Meanwhile, fighting continues to rage in Marawi City as government forces clash with the Maute Group. The death toll has risen to close to 400 after a month of fighting.
Questions on the President’s health also resurface, after he skips Independence Day rites in Luneta – his first independence day celebration as President.
Citing exhaustion, Duterte goes missing from the public eye for 5 days to rest. On June 17, the President makes his first public appearance when he visits Agusan del Norte.
His absence fuels speculations about his health, with at least 3 senators demanding full disclosure of the President’s health.
To quell rumors that the President is sick, Malacañang releases photos of a working Duterte on June 15.
Meanwhile, two major Philippine banks suffer glitches. The Bank of the Islands suffers a system glitch that causes mispostings in its clients’ accounts, prompting the bank to suspend access to its electronic channels to rectify the error.
BDO Unibank also says it received reports of “potentially compromised” automated teller machines after customers complained of unauthorized transactions.
The Supreme Court, sitting as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET), orders the creation of a panel to preside over the Marcos-Robredo electoral case.
As fighting continues in Marawi, members of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters launch an attack in North Cotabato's Pigcawayan town, occupying a school and using civilians as human shields. The military later rescues the hostages.
Meanwhile, after 3 long years, the plunder trial for the multi-billion-peso pork barrel scam finally begins. – with research by Ishbelle Bongato/Rappler.com
Ishbelle Bongato is a Rappler intern