By Diana G. Mendoza
MANILA – The Filipino youth have sung the song.
Any political dissent today may not measure to the First Quarter Storm (FQS), that 1970s period of student unrest and opposition to a growing dictatorship, but in the schools and streets of Manila and key cities, an upheaval is happening. And like the FQS, it is led by young people.
Last July 18, at the exclusive St. Scholastica’s College in Manila, girls in their blue and white uniforms marched out of the school gates singing “Do you hear the people sing?” to protest against Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s authoritarian tendencies and his war on drugs that has resulted in more than 12,000 deaths from extrajudicial killings.
The girls held placards that said “Duterte, Diktador, Dutertador,” and “Stop the killings,” and held copies of the song that they glanced from time to time while they were singing and flashing the shaka sign – the extended thumb and smallest finger with the three middle fingers closed – as a friendly gesture of solidarity.
“Do you hear the people sing?” is one of the most recognizable songs from the musical “Les Miserables,” which is celebrating its 30th year since it opened on Broadway in 1987. The song is sang twice in the play when the students prepared to launch a rebellion in the streets of Paris that was sparked by the death of French commander Jean Maximilien Lamarque, and in the tragic finale when the students rose to overthrow the government, but failed as they were all killed in their barricades by government troops.
“Les Miserables” author Victor Hugo made the events of the anti-monarchist June Rebellion or the Paris Uprising of 1832 as the backdrop of his novel that continues to be played globally as a musical. Because of its stirring and revolutionary call, the song has tolled with people protesting.
Before the song was sang, walkouts, indignation rallies and noise barrages erupted on November 18 last year among students of the University of the Philippines, Ateneo de Manila University and Miriam College – the three biggest schools sharing a vast neighborhood in Quezon City – to protest the Duterte government’s granting of a hero’s burial for the late president Ferdinand Marcos, which was still subject to appeal from the courts by petitioners.
Blindsided by the stealthy staging of the burial at the heroes’ resting place, Filipinos woke up to see on their TV and social media channels the sight of Marcos’ children alighting from a helicopter and giving their eulogy before a program hosted by the Philippine military.
Bearing placards saying “Marcos is not a hero,” the students, poured out on the streets where they were joined by teachers, school administrators, militants and activists from human rights groups and civil society organizations. Pockets of protests and random rallies were held in the Cebu, Davao and in other cities.
The November 18 and July 18 protests displayed the thoughts and understanding of today’s youth in their own language and forms of expression. Grown-ups were amused at their placards that said “Busina para sa hustisya” (Honk or blow your horn for justice), “Makibaka, huwag magutom” (Fight but don’t go hungry), Kay crush di ako maka-move on, kay Marcos pa kaya (I can’t move on from my crush, what more with Marcos?)
Last July 18, the millennials stated that they went “online to offline” to demonstrate their opposition from social media to the streets, with placard slogans that say, “Triggered kami,” (We’re triggered), “Only God can take lives,” “Mulat ang kabataan” (The youth are awake), “Hindi tayo tatahimik” (We will not be silenced).
The students also resurfaced a FQS slogan: “Kung hindi ngayon, kailan? Kung hindi tayo, sino?,” (If we don’t do it now, when will it happen? If we do not act, who will?), their take on the call by Abraham Sarmiento, a student journalist who was editor the Philippine Collegian of UP in the 1970s.
A distinct image from the protests was that of a girl named Shibby de Guzman, a bespectacled 14-year-old Grade 9 student of St. Scholastica who held a megaphone as her colleagues asked motorists to blow their horns to express their indignation.
The megaphone was very much a symbol of the student uprising of years past, when students gathered to listen to a leader speak from the megaphone or when an activist calls out people on the streets. The megaphone is still used today either as a tool and symbol of speaking up.
Shibby later faced criticisms on social media, mostly from Duterte supporters, for leading the rallies. Shibby co-heads #Youth Resist, a resistance movement formed by youth groups Millennials Against Dictators (MAD), Student Council Alliance of the Philippines (SCAP), Akbayan! Youth (A!Y), and campus and community-based youth groups. During the July 18 protest, the students called their movement “The Resistance,” borrowing references from the popular American TV series Game of Thrones that has a youth fan base.
In the week before Duterte was to deliver his second state of the nation address (SONA), the students filed an ethics complaint against Duterte’s Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre, calling him the “Fake News King” for making false accusations that opposition lawmakers met with the rebel Maute group that seized Marawi City in Mindanao and blamed them for the crisis that caused deaths and displacement.
The justice secretary also alleged that some embassy officials had been compromised by the Korean mafia and that the latter was involved in the killing of a South Korean businessman early this year. But after being called out publicly, Aguirre refused to take responsibility for his actions and for his false statements.
“We know the government lies through gritted teeth. We are young, but we are not stupid”, the students said when they filed their complaint. “We want to send a message that this government must stop lying.”
The case of Shibby the teen girl versus Duterte’s old-man politics has struck a chord in the protest movement. Filipino grown-ups who have seen the militant youth activism in the Philippines in the 1960s and 1970s would recall the surge of student activism at the start of the Marcos regime especially in 1972 when the Martial Law declaration closed down democratic institutions and forced students to be radicals.
Aside from mobilizations, the youth groups said that they will do campus tours nationwide and march on the streets to engage more young people. “This is the youth taking back our place in Philippine politics – taking back the voice that the administration has tried so hard to silence. We will scream and shout if we have to. We will take to the streets if we need to”, Shibby told an audience during a program prior to the street protest.
“We take a stand. We cannot stay behind the comforts of ranting on social media. We do not limit our actions to just voices on the internet. Opposing evil does not stop there. We must start now. This is the beginning to something greater than any post that goes viral.”
San Beda College student Rainier, a member of the debate team and the school paper, said Duterte’s influence has permeated the school, the president being an alumnus and a friend of the college president. “There is no memo but there’s an unspoken rule that students are not allowed to talk bad about Duterte,” he said.
He said the debate society discusses pressing social issues about governance and politics so that students are informed and can form their opinions. “I’ve read about student activism in the past, and we share a lot in common now because there’s a creeping authoritarianism and an emerging dictatorship,” he said. “We just have a different approach to rising up against it.”
It would be interesting to know whether the protesting youth can sustain their tune, but definitely, the song has been sung. (Photos and text by Manila-based freelance journalist Diana G. Mendoza)