Ex-Philippine leader Benigno Aquino joined thousands of people on the streets of Manila Saturday as protests broke out against President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.
Demonstrators amassed near the national police headquarters, with some warning the Duterte crackdown foreshadowed a repeat of the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship, which was toppled in a bloodless “People Power” revolution 31 years ago.
“We are taking the matter seriously. We are warning our people about the threat of rising fascism,” protest leader Bonifacio Ilagan told AFP after leading more than 1,000 protesters at a morning rally.
Ilagan, a playwright who was tortured over two years in a police prison under Marcos’ martial rule in the 1970s, cited the “culture of impunity” arising from Duterte’s crackdown.
Duterte, 71, won the presidential election last year after promising during the campaign to eradicate drugs in society by killing tens of thousands of people.
He launched the crackdown after taking office in June and police have reported killing 2,555 drug suspects since then, with about 4,000 other people murdered in unexplained circumstances.
He has not ruled out using martial law to prevent what he describes as the country’s slide to narco-state status.
Duterte, who ranks Marcos as one of the country’s best-ever presidents, last year allowed the Marcos family to bury the former leader’s remains at Manila’s Cemetery for Heroes, leading to large street protests.
Wearing a black shirt Duterte’s predecessor Aquino marched alongside political allies and around 2,000 other protesters.
Aquino denounced the government’s treatment of Senator Leila de Lima, the top critic of the Duterte drug war, who was arrested on Friday and faces life in prison if convicted of drugs charges.
De Lima, Aquino’s former justice minister, said the arrest was an act of revenge for her decade-long efforts to expose Duterte as the leader of death squads during his time as mayor of the southern city of Davao.
‘Yes to peace’
Aquino on Saturday also rejected allegations by Duterte spokesmen that people associated with the previous government were plotting to destabilize the new administration.
“How can we be causing destabilization when we are actually offering to help,” Aquino said.
At one point, tempers rose as several protesters confronted a dozen young people who raised clenched fists while holding up a pro-Duterte banner nearby.
“Why did you sell your soul?” a white-haired man in a black shirt said, jabbing his finger at one of the Duterte supporters and telling him the president was “responsible” for drug-related murders.
“They (deaths) are still being investigated,” the young man replied calmly.
Television footage showed police hosing down a group of at least 100 people protesting the drug killings, though no one was seriously injured.
In a separate demonstration Saturday, around 150 anti-Marcos protesters chanting “Exhume him” marched on the cemetery where he is buried, but riot police stopped them near the gate, an AFP photographer saw.
Hundreds of Duterte supporters began gathering at a park across the city on Saturday for a planned overnight vigil to demonstrate public backing for Duterte’s drug crackdown.
“Yes to peace, no to destabilization,” one of their banners read.
Another banner identified its owners as “Friends of Bongbong Marcos”, the dictator’s son Ferdinand Jnr.