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Approval for Duterte's drug war slips in Philippines

MANILA: Satisfaction in the Philippines with President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs declined in the first quarter this year, a survey showed on Wednesday, with opinions split about police accounts that the drug suspects they killed had resisted arrest.

Seventy-eight percent of 1,200 people surveyed by Social Weather Stations (SWS) said they were satisfied by the government’s crackdown on illegal drugs, down from 85 percent in a similar poll in December last year.

The number of dissatisfied respondents rose from eight percent to 12 percent.

Almost 9,000 people, many small-time users and dealers, have been killed in the Philippines since Duterte took office on June 30. Police say about a third of the victims were shot by officers in self-defence during legitimate operations.

Human rights monitors believe many of the remaining two thirds were killed by paid assassins operating with police backing or by police disguised as vigilantes – an accusation the police deny.

A Reuters special report published on Tuesday cited two senior law enforcement officials saying the police had received cash for executing drug suspects, planted evidence and had carried out most of the killings they had blamed on vigilantes.

Reuters was unable to independently verify if the police are behind vigilante killings.

The SWS survey on the anti-drugs campaign included questions on “extrajudicial killings”, a term the government and police strongly object to, insisting no such killings have taken place.

The latest poll was conducted from March 25 to 28 and showed 73 percent of Filipinos were worried that they, or someone they know, would be a victim of extrajudicial killing.

Ninety-two percent said it was important authorities captured drug suspects alive rather than killed them.

About a fifth of respondents felt police were “probably” telling the truth about circumstances behind their killing of drug suspects, while 14 percent believed they were “definitely” lying.

Forty-four percent of respondents were undecided. Those who said they “definitely” believed police were truthful fell from nine percent in December to six percent in the latest survey.

“This is a black eye for the Philippine National Police,” said Ramon Casiple, head of the Institute for Electoral and Police Reforms.

“I don’t think this will impact on the president, it’s more on the police whose members were seen and perceived to be more involved in crimes and in the killings. They should do more and convince the public about reforms not by words but by actions.”

Asked by reporters about the fall in satisfaction rating for the anti-drugs campaign, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said: “There seems to be consistency in the way the public appreciates the efforts.”

(Reporting by Manuel Mogato; Editing by Martin Petty, Robert Birsel)

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5.6-magnitude quake hits Philippines

MANILA: A 5.6-magnitude earthquake struck the centre of Mindanao island in the Philippines on Wednesday (Apr 12), the US Geological Survey said.

The quake, initially reported as a 6.0-magnitude, struck at 5:21am on Wednesday (2121 GMT on Tuesday). It was very shallow, at a depth of six kilometres, which would have amplified its effect. Its epicentre was 75.5 kilometres northeast of Cotabato on the large southern island of Mindanao.

A 5.6-magnitude quake is considered moderate and is capable of causing considerable damage.

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Wary of China, Duterte tells navy to build 'structures' east of Philippines

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the navy to put up “structures” to assert sovereignty over a stretch of water east of the country, where Manila has reported a Chinese survey ship was casing the area last year.

The Philippines has lodged a diplomatic protest with Beijing after the vessel was tracked moving back and forth over Benham Rise, a vast area east of the country declared by the United Nations in 2012 as part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.

The Philippines says Benham Rise is rich in biodiversity and fish stocks.

China’s foreign ministry on Friday said the ship was engaged in “normal freedom of navigation and right of innocent passage”, and nothing more.

Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Duterte’s instruction was to increase naval patrols in that area and put up structures “that says this is ours”. He did not specify what structures would be erected.

“We are concerned, they have no business going there,” Lorenzana told reporters late on Sunday.

Though he accepts China’s explanation, Lorenzana said it was clear its vessel was not passing through the area because it stopped several times, for sustained periods.

Lorenzana last week said he was suspicious of China’s activities near Benham Rise and suggested they might be part of surveys to test water depths for submarine routes to the Pacific.

Asked during a news conference what his instruction was to the navy concerning Benham Rise, Duterte said the Philippines had to assert itself, but gently.

“You go there and tell them straight that this is ours,” he said. “But I say it in friendship.”

The issue risks disturbing ties with China at a time of rare cordiality between the two countries under Duterte, who has chosen to tap Beijing for business rather than confront it over its maritime activities and intentions in disputed waters.

Rows with China have usually been about the South China Sea, west of the Philippines, a conduit for about $ 5 trillion of shipped goods annually. China lays claim to almost the entire South China Sea.

While Duterte has been sanguine about ties with China, Lorenzana is more wary, saying that Beijing’s fortification of manmade islands inside the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone has not abated.

Duterte said ties with China were in good shape and dismissed any suggestion of diplomatic disputes resurfacing soon.

“Let us not fight about ownership or sovereignty at this time, because things are going great for my country,” he said. 

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Philippines rights body to probe Duterte killing boast

MANILA: The Philippines’ independent rights watchdog said on Thursday (Dec 22) it will investigate President Rodrigo Duterte’s boasts he killed criminals years ago, invoking a strong rebuke from the Filipino leader against a United Nations official who called for the murder probe.

Duterte, who is waging an anti-drugs war that has left thousands dead, said last week that he helped police kill three suspected kidnappers early in the first of his several terms as mayor of the southern city of Davao.

UN rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said on Tuesday that Duterte’s killings, by his own admission, “clearly constitute murder” and Philippine judicial authorities must launch an investigation.

Duterte, known for his foul-mouthed outbursts, replied to Zeid’s call in a speech on Thursday with a stream of insults, describing the UN official as “either a joker or slightly unhinged” while stating that UN member-nations’ contributions pay the UN officials’ salaries.

Philippine Commission on Human Rights chief Jose Gascon said earlier on Thursday he had formed a team of investigators to look into alleged past killings by Duterte.

“Law enforcement agencies … must investigate as a matter of course any information that suggests that a crime may have been committed with the view to ensuring that perpetrators are ultimately held accountable should the evidence warrant it,” Gascon said in a statement.

The commission is an independent government body that prosecutes law enforcers or other officials who commit torture, extrajudicial killings or violate Filipinos’ constitutional rights.

NEW REVELATIONS

It had investigated then Davao mayor Duterte over allegations he ran death squads that killed more than a thousand petty criminals there.

Duterte has variously denied or confirmed the allegations. The commission did not file any criminal charges after completing its inquiry.

But Gascon said his agency had “reconstituted a team to further investigate (Davao death squads) to look into the new revelations and public admissions that may shed light on our previous findings.”

“The team will look into any matter that may further shed light on the killings in Davao that was the subject matter of our previous investigation.”

Duterte easily won presidential elections in May largely on a promise to eradicate illegal drugs in society by launching an unprecedented campaign in which tens of thousands of people would be killed.

More than 5,300 people have died since he took office in late June, including 2,124 at the hands of police. The commission has said it is investigating several cases where police were responsible.

Duterte insists police have not violated any law in killing drug suspects.

On Wednesday Duterte’s spokesman said his admission about the killing of three people referred to “legitimate police action” but did not address the fact the then mayor was not a police officer.

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WIDER IMAGE: Philippines drug war turns a teeming jail into a haven

MANILA: Jason Madarang, awaiting trial on a charge of drug use, is in a muggy, windowless cell in a Manila prison so overcrowded that inmates must sleep in halls and stairwells and share each toilet with 150 other men.

But with President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” raging beyond the walls of Quezon City Jail, Madarang says he is lucky.

“It’s safer here,” he said. “Outside, if the police want to shoot you, they shoot you, and then say you’re a drug pusher.”

The Philippines police say they have only shot drug suspects in legitimate operations.

Nearly 2,300 drug users and dealers have been killed in police operations or by suspected vigilantes since Duterte took office on June 30, according to the Philippines police.

Thousands more have been arrested, filling the country’s already seething jails to bursting point.

Quezon City Jail was built to hold 800 inmates but is now home to over 3,400 – far too many for its cell area, which is roughly equivalent to three basketball courts.

In mid-August, as Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign intensified, the population briefly topped 4,000 until the jail insisted that detainees were sent elsewhere.

“If we hadn’t done that, we’d have 5,000 inmates by now,” said Lucila Abarca, the prison’s Community Relations Officer.

Two thirds of the inmates are inside on drug-related offences, according to data maintained by the prison.

Quezon City Jail is a teeming microcosm of a regional crisis driven by an explosion in use of methamphetamine, a highly addictive drug popular across Asia.

Prisons in countries such as Thailand and Myanmar are also chronically overcrowded, thanks largely to inmates on drug-related charges, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

But Philippine jails are Asia’s most congested, with an occupancy level of 316 percent, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) at Birkbeck, University of London.

Globally, the ICPR ranks the Philippines third in prison occupancy levels, behind only Haiti and Benin.

It was natural that the government’s “aggressive campaign against criminality and drugs” would boost the jail population, said Jesus Hinlo, Undersecretary for Public Safety at the Department of the Interior and Local Government, which is in charge of Quezon City Jail.

“The solution is…to build new and bigger jails,” he said, adding that a lack of funds made this a challenge.

“WELCOME TO HELL”

Prison overcrowding poses “a very big challenge for us in terms of security and the health status of inmates,” said Abarca, the prison officer.

Inmates sleep poorly and easily fall sick, she said, and tensions always simmer over the cramped conditions. In July, there was a cholera outbreak caused by contaminated water.

Someone has chalked “WELCOME TO HELL” on the steps leading to Jason Madarang’s cellblock.

But the 29-year-old municipal worker, who said five people near his Manila home had been shot dead in recent months, wasn’t the only inmate who felt safer there.

His cellmate, Marconino Maximo, 39, said he was arrested a year ago and charged with possessing a pipe for smoking crystal methamphetamine, known in the Philippines as shabu.

“I’m lucky to be here because so many people have been killed,” he said.

“There are many police on the outside,” added Maximo, gesturing around his seething, dungeon-like cell. “Here, there are none.”

There are rarely any prison officers either. Most cellblocks are run by one of four gangs, whose leaders are relied upon to keep the peace, Abarca said.

“Riots can still happen,” said Abarca. “We have to conduct regular dialogue with cell leaders to address their issues.”

Inmates can’t be locked in the cells at night because the cells aren’t big enough. They sleep on the stairs – one inmate per step – and string hammocks from the rafters and spill into the chapel and classroom.

Others bed down in the prison’s only exercise area, its basketball court. When it’s not raining.

CHOLERA OUTBREAK

Each morning at 8 a.m., many inmates crowd around the basketball court to sing the national anthem and take part in a short aerobic exercise.

Inmates are encouraged to be as active as possible during the day, Abarca said. But, inmates told a Reuters journalist touring the prison that many men catch up on sleep during the day in the space left by cellmates who exercise, pray in the chapel or form long lines for one of 24 toilets.

At least 2,000 inmates are inside on bailable offences, according to prison statistics, but most are too poor to pay the bond.

The overcrowding is also a symptom of the slow pace of Philippines justice. Many inmates wait years for their cases to grind through courts.

Duterte’s anti-narcotics crackdown is popular with the public – 84 percent of respondents approved of the campaign in an opinion poll last month. But some critics say it has been felt disproportionately by the poor, and that major drug traffickers routinely evade arrest.

Given the choice, former drug user Dennis Charles Ledda, 29, said he would take his chances on the outside.

“It’s hell here, mentally and physically,” said Ledda, who sleeps in the crawl space beneath another man’s bunk.

“Truly, I used drugs,” he said. “But if I could get out of here I’d do anything to fix my life.”

(Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

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Philippines says to keep US ties but will not be subservient

MANILA: The United States remains the “closest friend” of the Philippines but Manila wants to break away from a “mindset of dependency and subservience” and forge closer ties with other nations, the Philippine foreign minister said on Saturday (Oct 22).

The comments by Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay came two days after President Rodrigo Duterte announced his “separation” from Washington, though he went on to strike a more conciliatory tone on Friday.

Yasay said in a Facebook posting that Duterte had “unmistakably” stated that severing ties with Washington was not in the nation’s interest.

However, he wrote that separation “implies breaking away from the debilitating mindset of dependency and subservience – economically and militarily – that have perpetuated our ‘little brown brother’ image to America, which has stunted our growth and advancement.”

He said Duterte had told Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders during a visit to Beijing that “if they are not willing to lend their support… the Filipinos will chart their destiny alone, despite great odds.”

Yasay’s posting is the latest sign of an administration once again scrambling to put out fires after Duterte’s stunning declarations, which if delivered upon could upset the geopolitical balance in a region where China and the United States are vying aggressively for influence.

On Friday, Duterte’s economic managers were quick to clarify the Philippines was not cutting economies and trade ties with the United States.

Prior to Duterte taking office in late June, China was a bitter rival of the Philippines, and Manila was one of Washington’s most dependable Asian allies.

Duterte’s efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous administration in Manila, marks a reversal in foreign policy since the 71-year-old former mayor took office on June 30.

“It is not severance of ties. When you say severance of ties, you cut diplomatic relations. I cannot do that,” Duterte told reporters at a midnight news conference in his southern home city of Davao after he arrived from his four-day trip to Beijing.

Duterte’s abrupt pivot from Washington to Beijing is unlikely to be universally popular at home, however. On Tuesday, an opinion poll showed Filipinos still trust the United States far more than China.

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Philippines artists draw inspiration from nature and fishermen for the Singapore Biennale

SINGAPORE: After living for 25 years in the United States, Philippine artist Gregory Halili returned to Manila to share the plight of his country’s fisher folks whose lives have been impacted by climate change.

“I recently went to a pearl farm. Pearls – the shell itself – indicate how healthy the ecosystems are. There are still shells out there, but these folks are not catching how much they used to catch,” Mr Halili said.

He decided to depict their worries on mother of pearl – carefully painting the eyes of pearl divers and fishermen on the iridescent material. When completed, more than 50 such “eyes” will be lined across a darkened room at next month’s Singapore Biennale, to appear like stars or boats out in the sea at night.

Lives of Philippine’s coastal communities reflected on mother of pearl.

Mr Halili revealed that he covered rough terrain to reach some of those communities. But the greatest challenge, he said, is carrying the weight of their stories and doing them justice.

“Learning about who they are, and how they live, and to know the facts, like how difficult their lives really are – it’s really emotionally painful,” he added.

An eye painted on mother of pearl by Gregory Halili.

Ms Joyce Toh, curatorial co-head at the Singapore Art Museum said the works of Filipino artists have a certain potency of emotions because of a connection to their subjects.

“Filipinos are a very passionate people, and I think this is something that comes through in the work, when I say that the work has a certain potency of emotion,” she said. “There’s a kind of emotional charge with them so it’s not just perhaps a visual expression but it’s coming from a real place.”

“Often, the artist also has a certain human bond human connection with their subjects or people that they have spoken to. So they are really trying to in a way convey these stories to a wider audience, to the Biennale audience … they are trying to bring out this story to a wider audience.”

She added the artists are responding to issues that are very close to home and close to the heart such as those that deal with nature, environment and injustice because these are things that they not only see but also feel the impacts directly.

This includes Ryan Villamael whose work for the Biennale is also intensely personal. Using the craft of paper-cutting on discarded maps, he envisions his intricate cartographical constructions as instruments of self-discovery.

Ryan Villamael’s past work titled ‘Isles’.

According to Villamael, part of the inspiration is from his father whom he has not seen since he was a child.

“When you use maps, it’s very personal material and idea but at the same time, it talks a lot about a particular history, a particular point in time, in history. There’s also a personal take on it. My dad is an overseas Filipino worker, and I think it’s also a way of mapping myself. And my place,” the 29-year-old said.

Because of their sheer size, his works will be hung from the ceiling at the Singapore Art Museum instead of being confined in his signature bell jars.

Another artwork to be featured at the event is an oil painting of orchids by artist Patricia Eustaquio. It came about after she encountered a young German explorer in the Philippine forests, hunting for orchids.

Patricia Eustaquio working on her Biennale installation – an oil painting of orchids.

“People used to hunt them, more than 100 years ago. People from the west would go to the jungles of the tropical countries and they would risk their lives and just try to hunt for these orchids in the wild and it became such a prize for them. And today, they’ve been so cultivated that there are thousands and thousands of new hybrids,” said Ms Eustaquio.

In the midst of creating her artwork, the Philippine artist also did research on the Singapore Botanic Gardens – a UNESCO world heritage site that boasts the world’s largest orchid display.

“I discovered that the orchid species is the second largest family of flowers in the world and that you can find it all the way from London to the depths of the Philippines jungles,” Eustaquio shared. “It was interesting to discover that the Margaret Thatcher orchid is one of the hardiest orchids in the Botanic Gardens,” she added.

The two stars of her work include an endangered species from Palawan called Paphiopedilum fowliei and a hybrid, which she had personally named.

Organised by the Singapore Art Museum, the event will take place from Oct 27 to Feb 26.

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Philippines Foreign Minister says rejected China offer of conditional dialogue

MANILA: The Philippines has turned down a Chinese proposal to start bilateral talks, its foreign minister said on Tuesday, because of Beijing’s pre-condition of not discussing a court ruling that nullified most of its South China Sea claims.

Perfecto Yasay said he had met his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of a summit of Asian and European leaders on the weekend and after raising the topic of last week’s ruling, it became clear that was a no-go area.

China has angrily rejected the verdict by the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the initial case as illegal and farcical. It has repeatedly said it will not change its approach or its sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

“They said if you will insist on the ruling, discussing it along those lines, then we might be headed for a confrontation,” Yasay said during an interview with the news channel of broadcaster ABS-CBN.

“But I really honestly feel that this is something they have to make on a public basis but I also sensed there was room for us to talk very quietly using backdoor channelling.”

Yasay said Yi had proposed bilateral talks but only on issues “outside, or (in) disregard of, the arbitral ruling,” which he declined because it was not in the Philippines’ national interests.

Yasay’s account of the meeting highlights the challenge ahead for the Philippines, a U.S. ally, in getting China to comply with the decision which has ramped up tensions in the vital trade route.

The ruling laid out what maritime rights Manila had and where Beijing had violated its rights under international law, including its massive construction works on Mischief Reef.

Manila wanted to enforce the points of the complex ruling step-by-step but as a priority had asked China to let its fishermen go to the Scarborough Shoal without being harassed by its coastguard, Yasay said.

China’s coastguard was preventing Filipino boats from fishing around the hotly contested Scarborough Shoal, fishermen and officials said on Friday, and China’s air force has released pictures showing bombers recently flying over the area.

China claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than US$ 5 trillion of trade moves annually. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam have rival claims.

Yasay said hoped the ruling would lead to other Southeast Asian countries issuing a joint statement, adding that it could help neighbours also locked in disputes with China.

“We are not yet engaged in bilateral talks with anyone,” he said. “But I would like to see how we can pursue certain provisional arrangements so that it would lead to opening of bilateral or multilateral engagements should that be necessary.”

(Reporting by Karen Lema and Martin Petty; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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Outgoing president warns Philippines about spectre of martial law

MANILA: Philippines President Benigno Aquino on Sunday appealed to Filipinos to defend their freedom and democracy and remain vigilant as he warned the horrors of martial law under the late Ferdinand Marcos could happen again.

In his last Independence Day speech before stepping down on June 30, Aquino hailed the transformation of the Philippines during his term from being the “Sick Man of Asia” to one of the fastest growing economies. He said such progress came without disregard for the rule of law, due process and human rights.

As the Southeast Asian nation prepares for a change in leadership, some people fear Aquino’s successor, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, could take a more authoritarian path.

Part of Aquino’s speech was a video presentation about how his father and namesake and the entire family suffered during the martial law years. His father was assassinated in 1983 at Manila’s international airport, three years before a mass uprising that toppled Marcos.

“If we are not going to be vigilant, it could happen again,” Aquino said after the video presentation at the palace event attended by diplomats, top government officials and business executives.

Duterte remains hugely popular despite his comments about extrajudicial killings, calling bishops “sons of whores” and a joke about a murdered rape victim.

His latest controversial comment saying journalists were “not exempted from assassination” raised concerns, though he later clarified that he does “not condone nor tolerate killing of journalists, regardless of the motive of the killers, or the reason for their killing.”

Duterte has also said he would allow the burial of Marcos at the Philippines’ heroes’ cemetery, despite strong opposition led by the Aquino family.

Marcos’ son and namesake said on Saturday his father’s body, which remains in a glass coffin in a mausoleum in his hometown Ilocos Norte, would be transferred to the heroes’ cemetery possibly in September.

Marcos, who ran and lost the vice presidency in the May 9 election, said he and Duterte discussed the burial plans and the possibility of a Cabinet position for him in the new administration in a meeting in Davao City over the weekend.

(Reporting by Enrico dela Cruz; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

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