Thousands rally for and against Philippines' Duterte

Cecil MORELLA
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An activist shouts slogans during a protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in front of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) headquarters in Manila

Thousands of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's critics and supporters held rival rallies Thursday, taking emotional national debates over his deadly drug war and martial-law threats to the streets.

Police in battle gear kept order as at least 8,000 protesters held a series of rallies across Manila, using the 45th anniversary of late dictator Ferdinand Marcos imposing martial law to warn that Duterte was equally violent and authoritarian.

"Our country is turning into a graveyard. People are getting killed everyday and we bury the dead everyday, just like in the time of Marcos," anti-Duterte protest leader Pedro Gonzales told AFP.

But supporters of Duterte also turned up in large numbers, reflecting his popularity with many Filipinos who see him as a charismatic, anti-establishment politician who is their best chance to quell crime and corruption.

Duterte vowed in last year's election campaign to eradicate illegal drugs in society by killing up to 100,000 traffickers and addicts.

Since he assumed office 15 months ago police have reported killing more than 3,800 people in anti-drug operations.

The crackdown has triggered wider violence with thousands of other people being murdered in unexplained circumstances that rights groups partly attribute to vigilante death squads.

- 'Stop the killings' -

Waving banners that said "No to Martial Law" and "Stop the Killings", Gonzales and about 300 other protesters burnt a poster that said "Fascist" over pictures of Duterte and Marcos outside the Philippine military headquarters.

Duterte considers Marcos the country's "best" leader ever and has repeatedly threatened to impose martial law as a solution to the Philippines' woes.

Police said thousands of anti-Duterte protesters later gathered outside Malacanang presidential palace before moving to a Manila park for their final rally, which was attended by some 8,000 people.

The anti-Duterte crowd outside the palace burned a "Rody's Cube" -- a wooden block modeled on the Rubik's Cube puzzle bearing the faces of Marcos, Duterte, and Nazi leader Adolf Hitler.

The protesters were backed by the political opposition and leaders of the Catholic Church, the Asian country's dominant religion, signalling rising opposition to Duterte.

Many of the personalities and institutions in this camp are also identified with the bloodless "People Power" revolution that ended Marcos' 20-year rule in 1986.

Vice President Leni Robredo and Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, both critics of the incumbent leader, attended a separate mass for the drug war dead Thursday.

"Around us, the culture of violence is on the rise. The victims of this culture of violence are not only those who oppose the government, but everyone else, including children," Robredo said in a speech.

"The good part of this is there are so many people concerned, from different ages," Aquino told reporters.

- 'Stand up' -

Archbishop Socrates Villegas, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines, denounced the drug killings at another mass Thursday, saying Catholics must "do more" than lighting candles for the dead and helping orphans.

"Stand up. To keep quiet in the face of evil is a sin," he said.

A pro-Duterte rally attended by 16,000 people was held in front of a Catholic church just over a kilometre (0.6-mile) away, while about 3,000 supporters of the president also gathered near the presidential palace, police said.

They were entertained by local film and television stars gyrating to raunchy songs on a stage dominated by a large image of Duterte and the words "Let Change Continue", referencing his election campaign slogan "Change is Coming".