MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president asked Congress on Monday to pass a troubled Muslim autonomy bill at the heart of efforts to end a bloody rebellion in the country's south and legislation that aims to lessen the stranglehold on power of entrenched political families, which include his.
In his final state of the nation speech before he steps down in 11 months, Benigno Aquino III summed his administration's achievements in battling corruption and poverty — his campaign battle cry in 2010 — and thanked just about everyone who backed him, from his late parents, who are revered democracy champions, to his hairstylist.
Among other concerns he raised was the increasingly tense dispute with China over contested South China Sea territories. He called on Filipinos to unite as their country confronts China, which he did not identify by name.
"Our adversary, is by any measure, way ahead whether in terms of influence, economy or military force," Aquino said in the nationally televised address. "But on the basis of reason and love for country, we're not lagging behind."
Relatedly, he said the Philippines, which retired its last fighter jets a decade ago, would soon acquire a dozen FA-50 jets from South Korea, with the first two to be delivered in December, for territorial defense. Two more C-130 cargo planes and more assault helicopters also are being acquired.
One of Aquino's expected major legacies, a peace deal with the largest Muslim rebel group in the country, stalled early this year when some of the rebels from the 11,000-strong Moro Islamic Liberation Front got entangled in a clash that killed 44 anti-terrorism police commandos in southern Mamasapano town.
The commandos managed to kill a top Malaysian terror suspect long wanted by the United States whose real name is Zulkifli bin Hir, a successful assault Aquino cited in his address.
The brutal police deaths, however, sparked public outrage and prompted lawmakers to delay passage of a bill crafted to establish a more powerful and potentially larger autonomous region for minority Muslims in the south of the predominantly Roman Catholic nation. The Moro rebels dropped their separatist bid in exchange for broader autonomy.
But the delay has set off concerns that some impatient rebels may resume armed hostilities in the south, where smaller but violent armed groups like the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, continue to carry out kidnappings for ransom, bomb attacks and other acts of banditry.
In a surprise turnaround, Aquino told Congress he now backs long-unsuccessful attempts to craft a law that would restrict the number of members of influential families who can run for public office. Anti-dynasty bills, however, have not had any luck in Congress, which is dominated by millionaires who have carried the family names of dominant political clans to public office for generations.
Aquino belongs to an entrenched and wealthy landowning clan which has held power at various levels in the northern province of Tarlac. His late mother, Corazon Aquino, was catapulted to the presidency after helping lead the 1986 "people power" revolt that ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
"I was opposed to depriving a person of the right to run for office just because of his family name," Aquino said. "But I thought there's also something wrong with giving a corrupt family or individual a chance to wallow in power for life."
Aquino cited the economic gains under his term, when the economy grew by an average of 6.2 percent from 2010, the year he rose to power, to last year. If the economy expands to 6.8 percent this year, Aquino said the six-year average under his presidency would be the highest in nearly six decades.
But problems have persisted in a Southeast Asian country where about a fourth of its 100 million people remain mired in poverty. Communist and Muslim insurgencies have combined with natural disasters in the typhoon- and earthquake-prone archipelago and law-and-order problems to turn governance into a tough and complex dilemma.
A few hours before Aquino spoke, left-wing activists, laborers, farmers and students carrying his effigy and calling for his resignation clashed with riot police amid a downpour as they tried to breach a barricade of barbed wire and shipping containers.
Several policemen and protesters were injured when authorities used water cannon to push back the activists, who hurled rocks and bottles at the police, according to police and Red Cross volunteers.
Protesters and critics said the economic development under Aquino benefited wealthy families and multinational corporations but not the larger impoverished masses. His anti-corruption battle did not target political allies, they said.
Calling Filipinos his "boss," Aquino said he was not perfect and acknowledged that some government officials have failed him at times.
Aquino is expected soon to endorse Interior Secretary Mar Roxas as his political party's candidate in next year's presidential elections. He suggested that the polls would show whether Filipinos support his reforms and urged them to choose a candidate who would continue them.
"Will everything that we have invested, everything that we have labored for, vanish in just one election?" he asked. "In this perspective, the next elections would serve as a referendum for the 'straight path,'" a phrase he coined for his reforms.
"You will decide whether the transformation we are experiencing today will be permanent, or simply a brief and lucky deviation from a long history of failure," he said.
Associated Press writer Teresa Cerojano contributed to this report.