By Nicole-Anne C. Lagrimas
History saw no protesters with arms linked to resist the blow of wooden bats and the push of police shields.
The day of the new president’s first State of the Nation Address (SONA) was, it seemed, a day for peace.
It saw no signs of struggle to withstand the filthy water being pumped by the water cannon, a familiar sight that has always aimed to break the lines of activists asking for accountability, their voices tinged with anger as they demand for land ownership, accessible education or an increase in wages.
It saw no grotesque effigy consumed by fire amidst protesters carrying flags and placards as they circle the monstrous figure slowly crumbling to ashes while their cries resonate stronger and louder.
Instead, it was marked by the harmonious relationship between the police and the rallyists and by the loud cheer coming from the estimated 30,000-strong crowd when President Rodrigo Duterte called for a unilateral ceasefire between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP).
Cheering with the 4,000-strong contingent from Mindanao is Datu Jimboy Mandaget, 25, of the Higaonon tribe in Bukidnon.
Though he is a People’s SONA first-timer, Mandaget is no stranger to travelling long distances to uphold the rights of his people.
Last October, he was part of Manilakbayan, a delegation of Lumad, indigenous peoples from Mindanao that travelled to Metro Manila to protest Lumad killings after the deaths of Lumad leaders allegedly at the hands of members of paramilitary groups.
Despite the distance, the Lumad travellers were far from being discouraged, Mandaget said.
“Ang mga kasamahan ko ay hindi po nahirapan dahil sa layo, at sobrang pagod, dahil gusto nilang mabago na ang buhay at mabago na ang sistema,” he said.
The five-day journey from Mindanao, from July 17 to July 23, had the lakbayan delegates riding buses and barges, sometimes even marching. He recounted that there were moments when they did not cook food they brought with them for the sake of arriving in Metro Manila just in time for Duterte’s first SONA.
“Ano magiging kaunlaran na makamit namin kung patuloy kaming papalayasin sa aming mga lugar, at paano namin makakamit ang kaunlaran kung patuloy nilang pinapatay ang aming mga lider?” Mandaget said, calling for the pullout of military troops in their areas and the end of destructive mining, which harms the environment held precious by indigenous peoples.
For the next few days, the Northern Mindanao contingent, including Mandaget, would visit the Department of Justice, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, and the Department of Social Welfare and Development to directly forward their concerns to the appropriate authorities.
Though the people may have cheered, they seem careful not to pin their hopes solely on Duterte, reiterating in speeches made throughout the day that “real change comes not from one person but from the masses.”
Meanwhile, former Bayan Muna representative Neri Colmenares said that while they are for Duterte’s pro-people policies, they are “concerned” about the rising number of extrajudicial killings related to Duterte’s war on drugs even before the president assumed office.
“While we support him in his pro-people policies, ang posisyon naman namin is we will engage him and struggle with him in his anti-people policies,” Colmenares said in an interview.
He said the recent spate of killings suggests that the police has a list of individuals linked to drug-related activities.
“Tukoy na tukoy nila ang druglords at pushers – tukoy nila ang mga tao, address, so bakit ngayon lang sine-serve ang warrant?” he said, adding that this leads people to think that members of the police are involved in the same activities they are now publicly supporting.
Alongside the war against drugs, Colmenares said, “Dapat may kampanya rin siya na i-eliminate yung mga pulis na kakuntsaba ng mga drug lord.”
In protest of extrajudicial killings, youth leaders lay on the roadside close to the Commission of Human Rights, bearing cardboard signs similar to the ones found near or on the bodies of those executed for alleged drug usage and peddling.
Urging Duterte and police chief Bato Dela Rosa to “end the killings,” Leo Rivera from UP Alyansa ng Mag-aaral Para sa Panlipunang Katwiran at Kaunlaran (UP ALYANSA) said in a press release: “Attaching cardboard labels to the dead bodies of suspected drug personalities as a way of rationalizing their murders is illegal and inhumane. Justice is determined by courts, not by cardboards on sidewalks.”
Still, the ongoing campaign against drugs figured prominently in Duterte’s first SONA, with the president urging government leaders and the Philippine National Police to sustain their actions against drugs and criminality.
“There will be no let-up in this campaign. Double your efforts. Triple them, if need be,” Duterte said. “We will not stop until the last drug lord, the last financier, and the last pusher have surrendered or put behind bars or below the ground, if they so wish.”
Drugs, however, were not his only subject.
Among the several points of his one hour and 32-minute-speech – the longest first SONA in history- are, besides the highlight call for ceasefire: the improvement of the efficiency of government transactions, solutions to the perennial traffic congestion problem in Metro Manila, the creation of the People’s Broadcasting Corporation, which would replace PTV-4, and the promise of a “clean government.”
Despite brimming with hope for long-awaited change through these promises, multi-sectoral groups continue to challenge Duterte to stand by his word to the people who have elected him as the country’s chief executive.
For now, there may have been no hideous effigies or outraged murals to express the people’s indignation, but those who have marched to forward their concerns to the country’s topmost official take in the rosiness of the new administration with a grain of salt—a pact to remain critical and vigilant lest the president veers away from his present perspective.
While Duterte’s plans in his first SONA remain words addressed to the public and applauded by his fellow public officials, the fight for the right to a government geared towards the interests of its people will persist and the masses will never cease to occupy the streets, clamoring for the day Philippine society experiences the arrival of genuine change. #