Duterte in 2019: Controversies, laws, orders and foreign trips
MANILA, Philippines—President Rodrigo Duterte marked the halfway point of his presidency with a sky-high satisfaction rating. But the year 2019 offered its own twists and turns that put the President’s popularity in peril. And like any other year, it was full of controversies and issues Duterte had to deal with.
Here are the biggest issues Duterte had to face and laws, directives and foreign trips he made that brought the biggest stories of 2019.
Peter Advincula, the man who claimed to be “Bikoy” in the so-called “Ang Totoong Narcolist” video series on social media accused members of the Presidential family of involvement in the illegal drug trade. He, however, retracted his statement and said that that the videos were part of a plot to unseat Duterte made by the opposition Liberal Party and then Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, one of the administration’s staunchest critics.
Advincula’s flip-flopping ended with the filing of a sedition case against opposition leader Vice President Leni Robredo and other members of the opposition for alleged destabilization plot against the Duterte administration.
But even before Advincula stepped forward and claimed to be “Bikoy”, or the Philippine National Police-Crime Investigation and Detection Group (PNP-CIDG) filed the sedition raps, Duterte has already claimed that Trillanes and the Liberal Party were behind what he called “propaganda” videos.
The Philippine Health Insurance Corporation (Philhealth) has been hit by scandals midway this year after the INQUIRER bared the “ghost claims” scam that has marred the state insurance company.
Under the scheme, Quezon City-based WellMed Clinic allegedly filed and received payments from PhilHealth for dialysis treatments even some of the patients have been dead.
Appalled by the report, the President announced that he would “reorganize” PhilHealth amid the scandal which he claimed cost the government more than P100 billion. He also ordered the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) to arrest those behind the scam.
Duterte likewise demanded the resignation of then acting PhilHealth chief Roy Ferrer and its board members. He then installed retired Gen. Ricardo Morales to replace Ferrer.
The ‘little maritime accident’
On June 9, a Chinese trawler hit and sank Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver in Philippine waters near Recto Bank. Instead of helping Filipino fishermen, the Chinese crew fled and abandoned the wrecked boat.
Public outrage erupted over what Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana described as a “hit and run” incident.
The President, meanwhile, took over a week before he publicly addressed the incident. However, the firebrand leader disappointed many as he “downplayed” the ramming of Gem-Ver as a “little maritime incident.”
GCTA mess and Faeldon’s fall
A flaw in the implementation of the good conduct time allowance (GCTA) law, which shaves years off a prisoner’s jail time due to “good” behavior, was unearthed after Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra and then Corrections chief Nicanor Faeldon in late August confirmed that rape convict and ex-Calauan Mayor Antonio Sanchez is among those who will benefit from its retroactive application.
Sanchez was convicted for the rape and murder of University of the Philippines-Los Baños student Eileen Sarmenta and the torture and murder of Allan Gomez, another student.
The issue forced Duterte to fire Faeldon, whom he said he still trusts despite the public outrage.
Faeldon had served as Customs chief from June 2016 to August 2017. He was relieved from his post after P6.4 billion worth of illegal drugs entered the country through the Manila International Container Port.
A Senate probe also revealed that a “GCTA for sale” scheme exists in the New Bilibid Prison.
UNHRC resolution on drug war
International human rights watchdogs have been fierce critics of the Duterte administration since the President launched his brutal war on drugs in 2016. This year, the international community appeared to have gained a slight upper hand after the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) adopted an Iceland-led resolution that prompt the body to look deeply into the human rights situation in the Philippines.
Duterte, in response to the resolution, foul-mouthed Iceland and ordered his government to turn down any financial assistance from the 18 countries that voted to approve the UNHRC resolution.
Duterte, throughout his presidency, has threatened public servants against dipping their hands into corruption. He has repeatedly warned to fire officials even on a “whiff” of corruption.
But this year, Duterte yearned for a “clear proof” before he acted against his former police chief Oscar Albayalde, who was accused of involvement in the band of “ninja cops” or those police officers recycling seized illegal drugs.
Former PNP-CIDG chief and now Baguio City Mayor Benjamin Magalong earlier revealed that several cops supposedly made millions from crystal meth (shabu) seized in an anti-drug operation in Mexico, Pampanga in November 2013.
Some 38 kilograms of shabu and a “substantial” amount of cash were supposedly seized in that operation. But a separate probe conducted by the CIDG found that the seized shabu amounted to 200 kilograms.
Magalong alleged that Albayalde, at that time the chief of the Pampanga Provincial Police Office, was among those who bought sport utility vehicles (SUVs) after the drug operation. Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) Director General Aaron Aquino, who was then chief of the Central Luzon Police Regional Office, also said Albayalde asked him not to implement the dismissal order against the 13 so-called ninja cops involved in the operation.
Robredo’s appointment and immediate firing in ICAD
After criticizing his controversial war on drugs, Duterte appointed Robredo as co-chair of the Inter-agency Committee on Anti-Illegal Drugs (ICAD).
During her stay in the ICAD, Robredo has pitched to solve the drug menace from a health, social and community perspective, including prevention and treatment, a stark contrast of the Duterte administration’s police-centered approach.
The opposition stalwart likewise pointed out the government’s lack of scientific drug statistics and uneven level of commitment among ICAD member-agencies.
She has also appealed for access for drug war records and met with officials from the US and United Nations, which have both expressed alarm over the deaths of thousands of drug addicts under the Duterte administration. This, however, did not sit well with the President, prompting him to fire the Vice President, just 19 days since she accepted the role.
After firing Robredo, Duterte went on to hurl criticisms and insults towards the Vice President.
‘Onerous’ water deal, clash with businessmen
2019 started with a water supply crisis gripping Metro Manila and Rizal province. But Duterte claimed that someone had supposedly told him the water crisis was only made up. This prompted him to order a review of the decades-old water concession agreements with the Philippines’ two largest water firms— Manila Water and Maynilad.
Months later, the Department of Justice reported that the 1997 agreements contained provisions disadvantageous to the government and the public.
The DOJ’s findings infuriated Duterte, who then threatened to jail and file economic sabotage cases against officials and owners of Maynilad and Manila Water. He has also ordered the crafting of a new deal and at the same time warning the water firms of expropriation should they did not cooperate with the government.
Following Duterte’s rants, the water firms’ stocks fell and they eventually agreed to waive P10.8 billion compensation from the government that an international arbitration court had awarded to them for foregone revenue from higher rates they were unable to implement.
Duterte signed on Feb. 14 Republic Act No 11203 or Act liberalizing the importation, exportation, and trading of rice, lifting for the purpose the quantitative import restriction on rice.
Instead of limiting how much rice will enter the country, rice imports will just be slapped with a tariff.
However, local farmers complained of low farmgate prices for palay as bigger volumes of cheap imported rice flood the market due to the rice tariffication law.
Expanded maternity leave
The President signed Republic Act 11210 the Expanded Maternity Leave Act on Feb. 20.
The law provided longer maternity leave to all working mothers.
Under the law, all working mothers in the government and private sector are guaranteed with 105 days of paid maternity leave credits, with 7 days transferable to fathers. An additional 15 days of paid leave will be granted to single mothers.
Universal Healthcare Law
The law that automatically enrolls Filipinos to the National Health Insurance Program was signed by Duterte last Feb. 20.
The law expanded PhilHealth coverage to include free medical consultations and laboratory tests.
‘Bawal Bastos’ Law
Duterte signed this year the so-called “Bawal Bastos” law, which aims to punish catcalling and other gender-based harassment in public spaces and online.
Duterte signed Republic Act 11313 or the Safe Spaces Act on April 17.
According to the Safe Spaces Act, actions or deeds considered as gender-based street and public spaces, sexual harassment is committed through unwanted and uninvited sexual actions or remarks against any person, regardless of the motive.
These acts include catcalling, wolf-whistling, unwanted invitations, misogynistic, transphobic, homophobic and sexist slurs, persistent uninvited comments or gestures on a person’s appearance; relentless requests for personal details, statement of sexual comments and suggestions; public masturbation or flashing of private parts, groping, or any unwanted advances.
Duterte signed last July 25 Republic Act 11346 which would impose higher excise taxes on tobacco products starting next year.
The law will raise excise taxes on cigarettes by P45 per pack by 2020, P50 per pack by 2021, P55 per pack by 2022, and P60 per pack by 2023. It also places a P10 tax for every 10 milliliters of vaping liquids.
The government has said that revenues collected from the higher tobacco excise taxes would be used to fund the Universal Health Care law.
PCSO games closure
Due to “massive corruption”, Duterte ordered on July 26 all gaming activities of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), including lotto, stopped.
PCSO bowed down the President’s order and immediately ceased all gaming operations the next day.
The PNP executed the directive and cordoned PCSO outlets nationwide. However, the legality of Duterte’s “verbal order” was challenged with Cagayan de Oro City 2nd District Rep. Rufus Rodriguez saying that the order is illegal and unconstitutional as it deprives franchise holders and operators of their right to due process.
Arrest of WellMed owner
Duterte, who has been known in ordering the arrest of people by simply saying it, was so outraged by payments made by PhilHealth to WellMed for kidney treatments of “ghost patients” that he ordered the arrest of its owner on June 8.
Two days later, the NBI complied and arrested Bryan Sy, co-owner of WellMed Dialysis Center, despite having no warrant of arrest.
Reclaiming public roads
In his fourth State of the Nation Address (Sona), Duterte ordered Interior Secretary Eduardo Año to reclaim public roads that are being utilized for personal or private use. He even threatened to arrest local officials who will not cooperate with DILG in carrying out his order.
Following Duterte’s directive, Año imposed a 60-day deadline for local government units to clear public roads of obstruction. The initiative resulted in the clearing of nearly 7,000 roads nationwide.
Duterte last month banned the use of e-cigarettes in public and its importation.
He also warned judges around the country not to block his order, stressing that it has a legal basis. And as expected, the police move and carry out the president’s order to arrest vapers in public and confiscate vaping gadgets.
But Human rights lawyer Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples Lawyers, said the legal basis for the arrest of vapers was “highly debatable if not outrightly doubtful.”
China’s second Belt and Road Forum is Duterte’s first foreign trip of 2019.
In the weeks leading up to Duterte’s Beijing return for the second Belt and Road Forum Initiative, reports of Chinese activity in the disputed waters have notably increased. The government has raised concerns over reports of mass harvesting o claims near the Scarborough Shoal and the presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island, Kota island and Panata island.
The President returned to Beijing in August for the fifth time since becoming President with a heavy promise to invoke the Philippines’ right over the China-claimed territories in the South China Sea.
Duterte, in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, reiterated that the 2016 arbitration ruling is “final, binding and not subject to appeal.”
Xi responded with China’s “position of not recognizing the arbitral ruling as well as not budging from its position.”
Japan (May 29-31)
Duterte attended the Nikkei’s International Conference on the Future of Asia and the bilateral meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
He was accompanied by his 16 Cabinets on his trip as a “reward” for the administration-backed candidates’ big win in the 2019 midterm elections. However, Malacañang denied that Duterte’s trip to Japan is a reward to his Cabinet members.
Thailand (June 21-23 and Nov. 1-4)
Duterte attended the 34th and 35th ASEAN Summit in Thailand this year. In his second visit to the country early last month, a report claiming that Thai King Vajiralongkorn had told Duterte to “behave” during the regional summit circulated on social media. This was denied by the Malacañang, calling it a “black propaganda” and a “cheap political stunt” against the President.
Russia (Oct. 1-5)
Duterte visited Moscow and Sochi in early October to finish his first trip to Russia which was cut short due to the Marawi Siege in 2017.
Duterte’s visit includes meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. The President comes home with 10 bilateral pacts with Russia on areas of cooperation such as culture, health, basic research, importation of products to Russia as well as intent to explore the prospect of cooperation to construct nuclear power plants in the Philippines.
Japan (Oct. 21-22)
Duterte’s second visit to Japan this year was unceremoniously cut short by an “unbearable” back pain caused by a motorcycle days before his trip.
The President was in Japan for the enthronement ceremony of Japanese Emperor Naruhito but returned home immediately as he could not bear the pain from the injury. Instead, his daughter Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio represented him for the rest of the trip.
South Korea (Nov. 25-27)
Duterte’s last foreign trip was South Korea where he attended the ASEAN-Korea Summit in Busan. Duterte and South Korean President Moon Jae-in witnessed the signing of agreements on social security, tourism cooperation, education, and fisheries.
However, no free trade agreement (FTA) was signed during Duterte’s visit to South Korea as negotiations are still ongoing.
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