By Diana G. Mendoza
MANILA – Protest songs sang on a rainy night capped September 21 as critics who oppose the creeping authoritarianism of the government of President Rodrigo Duterte marched in the streets of the country’s capital in the 45th year anniversary of Martial Law, declared by the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos that day in 1972.
Flags of different colors representing labor, business, academe, religious, indigenous peoples, urban poor, leftists and youth fluttered in the air as the protesters, clad in black and carrying placards and tarpaulins bearing their slogans gathered at the Luneta Park in the afternoon, numbering an estimated 30,000 by night time, to warn that martial rule is the country’s darkest past that should never happen again.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that the gathering is the “largest and the angriest” by far against Duterte and his government. Opponents staged huge protests in November last year after being blindsided by Duterte’s permission to allow a hero’s burial for Marcos. Last July, students protested against his extrajudicial killings. In August, the burial of a teen Kian Loyd delos Santos who was killed by cops turned into a protest against the killings in the drug war.
The demonstrators, some of whom are under newly formed groups such as Movement against Tyranny and Tindig Pilipinas (Rise, Philippines) denounced Duterte’s authoritarianism that is similar to that of Marcos who held on to power for 20 years in an oppressive and corrupt regime the incurred $24.4 billion in debt by 1982.
His critics despise his being cozy with the Marcos family and his admiration of Marcos, and see his hateful rhetoric that includes coarse language, and his disdain for those who oppose him as tyrannical and fascist.
Human rights groups have estimated 13,000 mostly poor people who have been killed by police and vigilante hit men since a month after Duterte took office in June 2016 and after he declared a war on drugs that emboldened police who they blamed for the extrajudicial killings that continue, with teenagers as the latest victims.
The most prominent among the protesters was Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, who attended a mass for victims of martial law and the current extrajudicial killings at the University of the Philippines before joining the mass action of Liberal Party, which she leads.
“It’s sad that we have suffered for 45 years but we seem to not have learned from martial law. If we do not remember the past, we are condemned to repeat it,” she said. “We may have different views on politics, but we must unite for the love of country.”
Robredo was ousted from Duterte’s Cabinet due to her vocal stance against the killing of drug suspects that were done without due process. She said Filipinos should not be complacent and should recognize signs of “rising tyranny” under Duterte, a former Davao City mayor before he became president.
Leftist leaders such as Satur Ocampo and Rafael Mariano, appointed by Duterte as agrarian reform secretary but was turned down by the Commission on Appointments in Congress, marched with their contingent carrying their slogans saying “Biguin ang panunumbalik ng diktadurya. Labanan ang pasistang rehimeng US-Duterte. (Stop the return of dictatorship. Fight the fascist US-Duterte regime)”
Academics marched with their tarps bearing the photos of martial law victims killed in their prime, mostly youth and student leaders, with a message saying that they are the real heroes. The most conspicuous slogans were “Stop the killings” and “Never again; never forget.” Young people carried their creative expressions such as “Millennials against dictators” and “Don’t forgets, bagets (youth).”
Representatives of Muslim communities called on Duterte to lift martial law in Mindanao because they said it is doing more harm than good for its people due to the military airstrikes in Marawi City, which was attacked by ISIS-inspired extremists last May 23, the day Duterte declared martial rule in the southern island.
As the protests were ongoing, Duterte went to Marawi, the center of Islam in the Philippines at the center of the siege, on his fifth visit, even if the city’s displaced Maranaos have expressed their anger over his frequent visits to military camps but never to evacuation centers where hundreds of them temporarily stay.
The day was also show of hand gestures — the fist bump and the clenched fist – the first one by Duterte supporters who gathered at the Plaza Miranda who did the President’s signature sign that was started during his presidential campaign, and the ubiquitous clenched fist, a signature gesture of leftists, by the protesters.
Artists’ groups sang a Tagalog version of “Do you hear the people sing?,” a song from the musical “Les Miserables” about a student rebellion in Paris that sought to overthrow the government.” Tatsulok,” a revolutionary song meaning “triangle” was also sang. It depicts social class with the privileged on top, but enjoins the poor and unfortunate at the bottom to rise up and change the standing to be equal.
A new song, “Quota,” which taunts the police for reportedly counting and putting target numbers on their killings in the drug war because of rewards put up by Duterte, was introduced to the massive crowd.
Duterte effigies were burned at the Mendiola Bridge near Malacanang, the presidential office by the antis. Other demonstrators burned an effigy of Duterte on a throne, modeled on the evil character “Night King” in the popular television series “Game of Thrones.”
In an attempt at mockery, Duterte declared September 21 a National Day of Protest and a “holiday” for government offices and public schools to give them a chance to protest against him. He said he will also be protesting against what angers him about the government – the “yellows,” which in the political context is associated with former president Benigno Aquino III and his colleagues and whom he called “corrupt.”
UP chancellor Dr. Michael Tan said on the eve of September 21 protests that the day is “more than a day of protest (but) a time of remembering the past, especially martial law, of reaffirming our commitment to prevent that past from being repeated.” He said, “Change has not come; on the contrary, we have seen a worsening of the situation, from economic inequality to the violations of human rights,” he said.
As the week winded up with similarly-themed events such as activism workshops, martial law lectures, sit downs and poetry performances, Catholic churches continued to peal church bells for 15 minutes every 8 PM, which started on August 22, for the victims of the bloody drug war. (Featured photo by Diana Mendoza: woman and child at the September 21 rally)