A group of protesters march to the House of Representatives in Manila where Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte delivers his third State of the Nation Address on July 23. (Photo by Andrea Maxene Punzalan)
Calls for the ouster of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rang out on the streets of Manila on July 23 as protesters staged a large rally ahead of his third State of the Nation Address later in the day.
Many of the protesters accused the president of being an obstacle to ending a five decade-old insurgency with the rebels having broken off talks several times with them.
Duterte, once considered an ally by communist rebels, has ordered the military to bring a swift end to the insurgency.
Chants to step up rebel calls for "all-out resistance to overthrow the United States-Duterte fascist regime" rang out from the main columns of marchers.
Leaders of the protest march said the calls for Duterte's ouster came from various smaller groups who joined the rally.
Security officials said Duterte would not meet protesters like he did last year, because of reports that guerrillas had infiltrated the march.
"We do not put civilians in danger," scoffed Fidel Agcaoili, chairman of the rebel National Democratic Front of the Philippines negotiating team.
"They're just trying old witch-hunt and red-baiting tactics because they fear the growth of the legal mass movement," said the rebel leader.
Renato Reyes, secretary-general of the Nationalist People's Alliance, said the protesters did not want to meet a president "known for his lies and failed promises."
On and off peace talks
In 2016, Duterte campaigned on a pledge to resume peace talks with the communists, which his predecessor, Benigno Aquino, had ignored.
Duterte and Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines, had traded praise and statements of hope.
There were initial talks after the release of some top rebel leaders from jail and unilateral ceasefires in 2016.
But Duterte's insistence that rebels stand down while troops enter guerrilla territory soon resulted in armed clashes.
In 2017, the president ended peace talks and placed 600 people, including known legal figures, on a list of terrorists.
He accused the rebels of engaging in "acts of violence and hostilities" and vowed to "flatten the hills" to go after them.
In May this year, as the Duterte administration faced growing unrest from labor, urban poor, peasant, and tribal people — prime candidates for recruitment by the communists — the government announced it had resumed unofficial talks with the rebels.
The last round of formal talks would have cemented landmark agreements on agrarian reform and national industrialization, leading to a stand down agreement.
But Duterte cancelled the talks again in June at the behest of his national security advisers. Instead, he announced that "localized peace talks" would be held in a bid to divide the rebels.
Rey Casambre of the Philippine Peace Center described Duterte's move as "an old tactic that has failed across several administrations."
He said that while former administrations managed to talk with small splinter groups, they were not able to weaken the mainstream leftist underground.
Banking on anti-terror legislation
The president seems to be banking on the swift passage of a new anti-terrorism law that would allow state security forces to detain dissenters for up to 30 days.
The proposed law would also freeze the assets of groups and individuals suspected of aiding "terrorists" for six months.
The military has recently announced that it has "neutralized" more than 700 rebels and recovered hundreds of firearms in the past two years.
But exiled rebel leader Jose Maria Sison said the underground movement has "thousands of full-time Red fighters, while the Communist Party of the Philippines has about 70,000 members.
Sison said Duterte's proposal to change the Philippine Constitution to allow foreign ownership of land would only harden resistance in the provinces and increase guerrilla recruitment.
Meanwhile, the president himself admitted that the country's economy is in the "doldrums" two years into his rule.
While he billed himself as a "socialist" during his election campaign, he has since cursed the labor sector, saying he does not care if they go hungry as he pursues his development goals.
Strikes have erupted across the capital and nearby provinces as unions demand fulfillment of a campaign pledge to end the practice of casual labor contracting.
Duterte has started his rule literally with guns blazing, with the death of about 23,000 suspected drug users and dealers.
The president billed his drug war as the salvation of Filipinos, but the poor have turned cynical in the face of brutality without due process.