Philippine Reporter’s Eyewitness Account: People’s SONA dispersed
Philippine Reporter’s Eyewitness Account: People’s SONA dispersed
25 Canadians participated
By Dyan Ruiz
MANILA–The Philippine Reporter witnessed first-hand the violent dispersal of protestors at the people’s rally during President Aquino’s speech to the country in his annual State of the Nation Address (SONA). Dozens of Canadians were among the thousands of Filipinos who marched and protested.
The People’s SONA rally in Quezon City is traditionally held to coincide with the President’s address at the Batasan Complex, home to the Philippine House of Representatives. As President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III spoke about his accomplishments in his three years since taking office and plans for the rest of his administration, thousands of protestors decried his statements.
The protestors marched towards the site of the President’s speech on a 15-lane wide highway, Commonwealth Avenue, chanting “Walang pagbabago sa ilalim ni Aquino! [There is no change under Aquino!]” They denounced the continuing widespread poverty, corruption and human rights abuses under his administration.
While the President spoke about “inclusive growth” as a guiding principle of his administration, three-time former Congresswoman and current President of the Gabriela Women’s Party, Liza Maza said in a Tagalog interview as she marched, “We will continue to shout out the problems of our citizenry pertaining to no housing facilities, high prices of commodities, joblessness and poverty. This is what the government should solve. We don’t want any more BS.”
Cement barricades with razor wire coil and a line of Manila police in riot gear complete with helmets, shields and truncheons blocked the way towards the President on one side of Commonwealth. The protestors attempted to bypass the barricade to protest closer to Aquino. They tore down the metal fence topped with razor wire that separated the two sides of the road and rushed onto oncoming traffic.
The thousands in the procession were soon met with a line of police and stopped short of pushing through. The protestors clapped bamboo sticks while the police beat their batons on their shields in the standoff, as megaphones blared, flags waved and people shouted denouncements against the president and police.
While both sides negotiated the next move, the police sent reinforcements from the surrounding areas of Commonwealth, parking a line of large yellow dump trucks to block the way. Behind them, fire trucks appeared, with one ready to spray a hose on protestors. Bottles and pieces of wooden signs were thrown back and forth across the line and soon after the police started to use their truncheons and shields against the protestors as the crowd persisted in standing their ground and pushing forward.
The demonstrators were pushed back by the police using their shields and batons. The police were able to use force to push the protesters back until they relented to the other side of Commonwealth and they also arrested a number of protestors. After they were forced to other side of Commonwealth, they continued with the protest at the stage set up near the Ever Gotesco mall.
“They (protestors) were not given permit by the government of Quezon City and despite that we will be more flexible,” said Chief Superintendant Marcelo Garbo, Regional Director National Capitol Region Police. “In fact, we will allow them to be at Ever Gotesco, which is the traditional place where rallies are holding their rallies during SONA.”
The Chairperson of the global Filipino migrants rights advocacy organization Migrante International, Garry Martinez, was among one of the many The Philippine Reporter saw injured in the confrontation with police. He said that the leaders of the police and protestors agreed not to do anything as they negotiated, but the police violated the terms of the negotiations and started to advance on the protestors.
“During the negotiation, we are still waiting for the result when the police moved and tried to arrest me. While they are holding my hands, some of the policemen hit me at the back with their shields and truncheons. It was very painful and it was a very violent dispersal,” Martinez said. “We are waiting for the result of the negotiation, but in a matter of three minutes, the police moved and hitting our people.”
Martinez also talked about labor contractualization, union repression and insufficient minimum wage as the reasons why close to 5,000 Filipinos leave the Philippines every day to work abroad in countries like Canada. He said that current minimum wage of 456 pesos a day (approximate US$12) is not a living wage and they need to earn three times more than that to pay for essentials like food and rent.
This spring the Philippines had the fastest growing economy in Asia. But the country also has the largest gap between the rich and the poor according to former economic planning chief Cielito Habito. Government statistics say that one in four Filipinos live on less than US$1 a day. The socioeconomic research organization, IBON, says the top 40 richest Filipino individuals retain about 20 percent of the wealth of the entire Philippine economy.
The protestors were eventually pushed back to the other side of Commonwealth by the police who reinforced the median with the dump trucks and lines of officers as the protest continued near a stage set up against the barbed wire barricades.
Some 25 Canadians and 50 Americans participated in the protest along with many others from around the world. “They were able to organize a huge contingent of non-Filipinos and I think that’s for me– in the 25 years that I’ve been coming here– that’s the biggest number we’ve seen,” said Malcolm Guy, the International League of People’s Struggles (ILPS) General Secretary and an activist within the Centre of Philippine Concerns in Montreal.
There were often shout-outs from the speakers for those attending from around the world and who were coming out of the International Conference for Human Rights in the Philippines (ICHRP) in Quezon City in the four days just prior to the People’s SONA rally. The delegates also saw first-hand the issues that Filipinos across the Philippines are facing in solidarity trips through the country.
Canadian corporations play a critical role in some of the issues that the Filipino protestors were speaking out against. Guy said that when large-scale mining companies come in, such as the Canadian company Toronto Ventures Inc. (TVI), “they have to clear the people off the land, in order to get at the riches underneath. And what that involves in many instances is the organization of paramilitary squads.” He said they also create divisions within the communities, paying off some locals to be supportive of the mines to counter the locals who are against them.
“There are dozens and dozens of companies that have staked claims,” he said. “The most disgusting thing for me,” Guy continued, “is they even organize tours of indigenous people from Canada to come over here and speak to the indigenous people here,” reassuring them about the mining companies.
He said delegates from the US and Australia saw the problems related to mining as their number one concern. Canadians and Americans, “really need to see through the democratic veneer,” he said. “It’s a regime of big money, big capital and big landowners with the military backing and the backing of Washington primarily, but even of our government in Canada.”
“People are angry, they’re organized, and they’re asking for the fundamental change that they were promised 25 years ago.”
Guy first came to the Philippines at the end of the President Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship as a filmmaker. There were huge hopes at that time following the People Power movement when President Corazon Aquino took office.
“About a year later, I attended a demonstration here of peasants. And as you know, Corazon Aquino, her son who rules today, are part of a big land-owning family. And many of those peasants realized a year later that Corazon Aquino had not done anything about the land question,” Guy said.
“They marched towards– like we are today– Malacanang Palace, which is the Presidential Palace, and the police and the military gunned them down,” he said.
The peasants were shocked, thinking, “‘What is this? We overthrew a dictatorship and here’s this person who promised us fundamental change, her troops, her police are gunning us down!’” he continued.
“The image that sticks in my mind is– everyone here wears those rubber slippers– but as they tried to run away from the bullets that were flying and cutting them down, the ground all around was just littered with the rubber shoes. And that image is stuck in mind ever since,” Guy said.
Filipinos were very hopeful that the son of the President who came out of the People Power movement, and Senator Ninoy Aquino, who was gunned down during the uprising, would bring change. Indeed, Noynoy campaigned on it. Noting examples such as the lack of genuine land reform on their own land, Hacienda Luisita, and the violent crackdown by police that day, Guy said that unfortunately the hopes “have been dashed by the past few years of his power.”
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