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  • By Diana G Mendoza

'Get new jeeps or get arrested'

Drivers protest Duterte's transport modernization plan

Manila —The jeepney, the iconic Philippine public transport vehicle that originated from US military jeeps left over from World War II, was transported into the center of President Rodrigo Duterte's wars when jeepney drivers staged a strike to protest a modernization scheme asking them to junk their jeeps and buy new e-jeeps under a subsidy program.

This happened in mid-October as Duterte averted the prospective paralysis of the public transport system by suspending government work and public school classes for two consecutive days and threatened to arrest anyone who will defy his order to support the transport modernization program.

In the midst of his breathless rants of threats and warnings, Duterte visited Marawi City, the country's purely Islamic city that was seized by the Islamic State (IS)-inspired Maute group and declared it liberated from terrorists after two of their leaders, Isnilon Hapilon, emir of the IS in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam “Omar” Maute, leader of a group that wanted to establish an IS territory in the southern island of Mindanao, were shot dead in a military offensive on Oct.16.

The Maute Group overran Marawi on May 23, 2017 and has caused a humanitarian crisis that is now on its fifth month, displacing 360,000 residents and resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people including more than 800 suspected terrorists. Government troops were still pursuing dozens of fighters in the battle zone including Indonesians and Malaysians.

Under the proposed transport modernization program, drivers are directed to buy new e-jeeps under a government subsidy program even as transport groups opposed to the program said majority of drivers are poor and cannot afford the new e-jeeps even with the subsidy. The jeepney has been studied by past administrations for upgrading to suit the transport needs of Filipinos that should also be harmless to the environment.

Duterte reiterated his directive to phase out public jeepneys in 2018 and will arrest those who will defy his order and impound their transport units. He reasoned out that the current type of jeepneys "are poisoning the people" because of smoke belching from poorly maintained jeepneys. “This is what I'll do: either you modernize next year, sell your jeeps to the junkyards because next year, I don’t want to see a single jeepney on the streets. If I see one, you will be arrested. Do not resist anymore because I am telling the truth. This is the law," he said in a speech addressed to jeepney drivers and operators.

Prior to these events, media reported a major fall in public support for Duterte by local pollster Social Weather Stations that noted a net satisfaction rating of 48 percent, the lowest during his time in office, down by 18 points from 66 percent in the previous quarter. His trust rating also plummeted to 60 percent by 15 points from the previous 73 percent.

The decline in his popularity and trust ratings came after multi-sectoral nationwide protests condemned Duterte's brutal drug war that recently had teenage boys as victims of extra-judicial killings, and his authoritarian governance.

Although he has transferred the anti-drug campaign to a non-police body, activists have placed the number of vigilante-type drug-related killings to 13,000 starting in June 2016 when Duterte assumed the presidency.

Duterte added militant transport groups, who opposed his scheme as insensitive to their incapability to finance new vehicles, as his new critics apart from those opposed to his drug war and his penchant for visiting military camps instead of evacuation centers where thousands of internally displaced persons are living in uncomfortable tents.

Shidik Abantas, legal officer at Mindanao State University in Marawi, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying the military operation that resulted in the death of two extremist leaders was "very significant in a sense that the end of the siege is almost here. As to whether it will bring peace, it is complicated," he said, as the rise of extremism in Mindanao is mostly caused by the historical injustices that continue to this day.

As to the jeepney drivers, Duterte continued with his demeaning rants, telling them that "come Jan.1, 2018, if you're still not modernized, just leave. If you're telling me you're poor and suffering, I don’t care."

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