MANILA, Philippines (AP) — The Philippine president said Monday three years of anti-corruption reforms have banished his country’s image as the “sick man of Asia” but added he has lost patience over continuing problems such as large-scale smuggling and declared a tougher crackdown against wrongdoing in government.
In his state of the nation address that lasted for nearly two hours, Benigno Aquino III listed his administration’s achievements midway through his six-year term, including a looming peace deal with the largest Muslim guerrilla group in the country’s volatile south.
But critics demanded that more be done to battle poverty, unemployment and crime.
Police said at least 15 people were hurt when anti-riot squads briefly clashed with thousands of protesters demanding jobs and land for poor farmers outside the heavily guarded House of Representatives, where Aquino spoke.
Aquino, whose mother was the late democracy icon and president, Corazon Aquino, and whose father was a slain senator who fought dictator Ferdinand Marcos, won the presidency in 2010 on a promise to battle corruption and poverty following two corruption-tainted predecessors.
Amid a period of lethargic global economic activity, Aquino said the Philippine economy grew 6.8 percent last year then surged 7.8 percent in the first quarter of this year, outpacing many Asian neighbors. Standard and Poor’s and Fitch Ratings earlier this year upgraded the Philippines’ credit rating to investment grade for the first time.
“Did anyone imagine that a country known as the ‘sick man of Asia’ would, within three years of good governance, reach investment grade status?” Aquino asked.
While his anti-corruption and other reforms have started to turn around the economy and arrest a feeling of national drift, Aquino acknowledged that corruption, incompetence and irregularities have continued in government, singling out the Bureau of Customs and two other agencies dealing with immigration and farm irrigation.
More than 200 billion pesos ($4.6 billion) is lost to smuggling each year, he said, adding Bureau of Customs personnel “are trying to outdo each other’s incompetence” and have failed to stop the entry even of smuggled drugs and guns.
“Where do these people get the gall?” Aquino asked. “One can almost hear them say, ‘I don’t care if the weapons go to criminal elements; I don’t care how many lives are ruined by drugs; I don’t care if our fields remain barren forever; What matters is that I am rich; it’s every man for himself.'”
Aquino said his patience has run out. “You were given three years to demonstrate your readiness to change. Now, I shall pursue all of you and hold you accountable.”
After Aquino’s stinging remarks, Commissioner Ruffy Biazon of the customs bureau said he had offered to resign. The heads of the Bureau of Immigration and the National Irrigation Administration resigned recently after Aquino publicly berated them for lackluster performances.