Against Impunity: Protestors Unite Against Philippine President Duterte, in Photos
On July 23, 2018, thousands of Filipinos wiped sweat from their foreheads in Metro Manila’s scorching heat as they marched down a highway in opposition to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s tyrannical policies. Two kilometers away, clad in the traditional barong shirt of the Philippines, Duterte was making his third annual State of the Nation Address (SONA) from the air-conditioned House of Representatives chamber. As Duterte boasted about his accomplishments, the 8,000 protesters outside—who called themselves the United People’s SONA—lambasted him for his dictatorship, extrajudicial killings, and attacks on freedom of press.
Each year, SONA, infamous for its ostentatiousness, brings together nearly 3,000 Philippine politicians, Cabinet members, and Supreme Court justices, who walk down a red carpet flanked by photographers before they enter the House of Representative Session Hall. In 2013, the late Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago blasted SONA’s frivolity, stating, “The SONA event should be a serious time for the Congress to pick up policy directions indicated by the president. It should not be treated as Oscar night in Hollywood, with a red carpet, where peacocks spread their tails and turn around and around, as coached by media in a feeding frenzy.”
Upon his election in 2016, Duterte launched a national drug war, abiding by his campaign promise to stamp out drugs from the country. Since then, the Philippines has seen thousands of drug-related extrajudicial killings, mostly by police officers in the dead of night. The Philippine National Police reported 4,500 killings in two years, though this number is contested; Human Rights Watch put the number at 12,000 in 14 months.
At SONA 2018, Duterte reiterated his commitment to the drug war: “The war against illegal drugs is far from over. The illegal drugs will not be sidelined, instead [the war against them] will be as relentless and chilling…as on the day it began.”
“We are joining this United People’s SONA primarily because of the intentional distortion and attacks [on] human rights concepts and principles. [The distortion] is confusing the people into accepting the repression that has been going on,” Rose Trajano, secretary-general of the Philippine Alliance for Human Rights Advocates, told me at the protest.
“He is a charismatic leader…we cannot deny that,” Trajano explained. “The people only…take actions when [an issue] really affects them. The war on drugs doesn’t affect everyone—only the very poor people.”
“We are very saddened because of the culture of violence—it is with us now,” Trajano continued. “The culture of impunity, the culture of disrespect to human rights—that is the most difficult challenge we will have after Duterte.”
Donna Miranda of the National Federation of Peasant Women, or AMIHAN, traced the bodies of demonstrators with white paint, in memory of the 142 farmers who had been killed under Duterte’s regime. Most of these farmers were peasant leaders who fought local governments for their right to land, food, and justice, she told me.
When I asked Teddy Lopez, a protestor with the opposition coalition Tindig Pilipinas, what he hoped to hear in the 2018 SONA, he replied quickly: “Nothing. I hope for nothing.” Lopez explained, “I wish [Duterte] wouldn’t deliver it anymore because it’s useless. It’s just going to be a litany of lies. So yun, what’s there to hope for in this SONA? Nothing.”
A row of young children lined the sidewalk of the highway, hoping to join the march and yelling “Boo-terte! Boo-terte!” They pushed each other, waved at passing protestors, and made paper planes out of leaflets that activists were handing out. A mother fanned herself as she watched the children from a plastic chair set outside her house. She was watching the protest, too.
Protestors kept up with Duterte’s 48-minute SONA through livestreams and televisions set up on the side of the highway. Duterte’s voice was difficult to hear over the the perpetual stream of drum beats and voices denouncing his human rights violations.
“Your concern is human rights, mine is human lives,” Duterte announced from his podium. The audience in the Session Hall applauded politely. I stopped by the side of the highway to watch Duterte speak.
Duterte announced his infrastructure program, “Build, Build, Build,” in 2016. Costing 180 billion dollars, the 75 high-impact flagship projects would spark economic growth and include nine major railways, six airports, and many new roads and bridges. In 2018, construction had begun on only seven projects.
Lui Jay, 18, whose family owns a corner mechanic store, said that he appreciates Duterte and all that he’s done. He told me in Tagalog that last year, this area—Commonwealth Avenue—was more magulo (chaotic). “Walang hubad, walang tambay,” Lui Jay said—there were no longer any “hubad,” (shirtless people) loitering around his stall.
In 2018, Duterte directed the police to arrest tambays (loiterers)—including minors—and put them in custody to “protect” them from drugs. In less than two months, thousands were brought to police stations for “anti-tambay” charges.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asian Director Phelim Kine wrote in a statement that “the [police are] conducting a ‘crime prevention’ campaign that essentially jails low-income Filipinos for being in public.”
Lui Jay told me that Duterte had made the country more “disciplined.” When I asked him if he had felt any fear under the new president, Lui Jay said that he was afraid of being accused of drug use. Fearful of being arrested, he said that he often stays inside. Still, he remains an ardent Duterte supporter.
“If you think that I can be dissuaded from continuing this fight because of [your] demonstrations, your protests—which I find, by the way, misdirected—then you got it all wrong,” Duterte said in his address.
To end the protest, demonstrators burned a giant effigy of the president, which depicted his face on a train. The “DuterTRAIN” sculpture, created by activist art group UGATlahi, evoked TRAIN, Duterte’s new tax policy, which raised excise taxes on fuel and levies on sweetened beverages. Singing voices and drum beats resounded as the activist art piece was lit aflame. The crowd grew larger and the air turned hotter until the entire sculpture of Duterte had burned to the ground.