Anti-government demonstrators on Monday (July 27) returned to the streets for the annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) rally, this time gathering inside the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman instead of marching along Commonwealth Ave. due to restrictions imposed by authorities.
The threats of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) did not stop the throng of protesters from speaking out “because many are already getting angry with what’s happening,” human rights lawyer Chel Diokno told the Manila Bulletin.
“It is important to be heard. Our faces, our mouths may be covered, but we are not silent by any means,” added activist and Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) secretary general Renato Reyes.
The program started about 10 a.m. and ended at 12 noon, with Bituin Escalante singing the iconic ‘Bayan Ko’ and the performance of ‘Di niyo ba naririnig?’—a Filipino version of Les Miserables’ ‘Do you Hear the People Sing?.’
The theme of this year’s protest was “SONAgkaisa,” an amalgam of the acronym SONA and the Filipino word “nagkaisa” (united).
“SONAgKAISA highlights the unity of various groups, brought together here, because of what Duterte regime has done over the past months,” Reyes explained, referring to the events that happened since the imposition of lockdown in March, including the passing of the Anti-Terrorism Law, the denial of the ABS-CBN franchise, and the loss of jobs of many Filipinos.
Because of the pandemic, there were various changes in this year’s rally, which was held before President Duterte delivered his 5th SONA at the Batasang Pambansa.
Among them was the lack of effigy burning, a sign of dissent. Rather, it was done virtually—called “e-ffigy”—to prevent unnecessary actions that might violate physical distancing protocol.
Also, instead of on Commonwealth Ave., which leads to the Batasang Pambansa, demonstrators held actions inside the UP campus following the consent given by the university’s officials.
This was because both the local government of Quezon City and the national government denied demonstrators permits to hold rallies along Commonwealth Ave., the usual stage for protest actions, as they reiterated that mass gatherings are not tolerated during the lockdown.
Among protests icons present at the event was performance actress and activist Mae Paner, who drew the crowd’s attention for wearing a rash guard and bringing four inflatable dolphins.
Her costume was an apparent imitation of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque, who recently drew flak from netizens when he traveled to Subic and sported with dolphins at a water park, despite restrictions on non-essential travels.
Meanwhile, if Diokno were to give a performance rating to the President, he said, he would give none.
“Pagdating sa karapatang pantao, wala akong maibibigay na grado. Unang una, pagdating sa human rights, talaga naman maski si Pangulo mismo, nilalait niya yung human rights (When it comes to human rights, I cannot give him a grade. First of all, the President himself insults human rights),” said Diokno, a vocal critic who was on the receiving end of Duterte’s insults after criticizing one of the president’s public addresses on government efforts in handling the pandemic.
“Pagdating naman sa hustisya, alam naman nating hindi maganda ang justice sa ating bayan. Pero bakit wala sa agenda nila itong issue natin sa hustisya. Kulang kulang tayo ng judge…ng prosecutor pero hinahayaan lang nila (When it comes to justice, we know that our justice system is not good. But why is justice not even on their agenda? We lack judges and prosecutors, but they ignore the situation),” he added.
Veteran journalist Ces Drilon, for the first time spoke on stage to express her sentiments following the denial of a legislative franchise to her home network, ABS-CBN.
“Freedom of the press is an important foundation of our democracy. This is a right of every Filipino person and not a privilege, contrary to what the President is saying,” Drilon said in mixed English and Filipino.
Drilon, who was among the workers retrenched due to the network’s shutdown, said their franchise denial also means they have been stopped from reporting about the conditions of ordinary, voiceless Filipino citizens.
LGBTIQ+ group Bahaghari spokesperson Rey Salinas and transport group PISTON member Elmer Cordero, 72, were also present at the rally. Both of them experienced police arrest and several days of detention after joining separate protest actions to air their grievances.
“Sa kabila noon, nandito tayo, di tayo nagpatinag. Tayo po ay sumusulong kasi nabuhayan ang aming loob na meron pa tayong dapat ipaglaban (Despite that, we’re still here, undaunted. We are fighting because there’s still something to fight for),” Salinas said.
Peasant, youth, indigenous community, and workers groups, among others, also made up the crowd that occupied the whole stretch of University Avenue.
There was also a group of some five men who pushed for the legalization of the use of cannabis or marijuana. One member said they have been attending SONA rallies since 2018.
Like other rallies held during the community quarantine, demonstrators practiced social distancing and wore face masks.
They held up colorful protest materials bearing messages of dissatisfaction about the President: “Tama na, Sobra na (Enough, it’s too much),” read one. “Oust DU30,” was on another.
The Concerned Artists of the Philippines also paraded then tore up an interactive installation called “Monsterte” as a representation of “dystopian reality” of the past four years.
The protest ended peacefully, although before the event, five elderly members of PISTON were arrested by police while they were on their way to attend the rally, the transport group said in a statement.