By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – The theme of the day was water. Specifically, the fight for our territorial waters, in the West Philippine Sea, which China has been encroaching on, closer and closer to our shores. As President Duterte delivered his fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on July 22, an aqua-themed parallel activity criticized him for giving away our waters in his latest career move to become a Bong Go to China’s Xi Jinping.
For the second time, a broad range of forces critical of Duterte’s policies and actions hurdled intrigues from the last elections, focused on a common ground, and flowed as one sea of protest, calling: “Atin ang Pinas.”
It was the United People’s SONA 2019, held in various centers all over the country. In the Manila protest, water was everywhere, figuratively and literally: in the color of activists’ shirts, on placards, in the props, falling cats and dogs, coursing on the asphalt street, and giving no dry quarter to tens of thousands of protesters. It takes a certain level of crazy to be out marching in the streets under torrential rains.
For activists, the People’s SONA is a traditional mid-year gathering of forces to hold the highest official of the land accountable to the people, as he/she presents the regime’s “achievements” and “realities.” The protest counterposes with the problems and struggles of a myriad communities and groups, also their triumphs and continuing effort to push genuine change. It’s a showcase of their organized strength, creativity and wit.
Now, a United People’s SONA is something that came about only under Duterte, as groups from a wider political spectrum gravitated towards each other, pushed by the state’s relentless attacks on its critics and people in general. Groups that have not seen eye-to-eye in decades agreed to march side-by-side. Like streams flowing into one forceful river, eager to change the landscape.
The day started somewhat cloudy, with the sun playing peek-a-boo, searing uncovered skin. I was in my usual dilemma going to a rally: whether to wear my summer outfit (sneakers, long sleeves over shirt, scarf, cap and denim jeans – basically, an all-covered-up, photo damage-phobic number), or my “bring-on-the-rain sportswear” (hiking sandals, nylon-polyester pants and raincoat.) I decided on a mix of both, with sandals and maong. Much regret on the maong.
Assembly point for protesters led by the Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) was in front of the Commission on Human Rights along Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City, where they held a program before the march. High noon saw everyone still hot and dry (probably a bit wet from sweat), toting placards in the shape of fish, octupi, sharks, clams, turtles, jellyfish, submarines, boats, oars – all calling to oust Prez Duterte for being subservient to foreign powers, murderous and just downright anti-people.
Groups pushed their slogans as they tried to stick to the water motif. Many were prepared for a wet protest and used lightweight, water-proof materials, or simply carried slogan-bearing umbrellas.
There were boats of the dead, depicting the fate of fisherfolk and farmers dying from hunger or from state-funded bullets. Also in the protest were the relatives of Negros Oriental farmers killed by police under Oplan Sauron in March. “Duterte, pas-isda!” said an Agham Youth fish, a pun on Digong’s brand of leadership, i.e. pasista.
Sandugo had a “dam,” from which burst forth indigenous forces protesting the construction of destructive dams in Luzon.
Gabriela highlighted a water problem: the privatization of its services. Nine women marched wrapped in bath towels and holding tabo. Least dressed (aside from the Aetas of Central Luzon), and most prepared to get wet!
Among the scene-stealers were Karapatan’s fighting “jellyfishes” and “Ursula,” her waistline much slimmer than the character from Disney’s “Little Mermaid.”
Some groups stayed land-bound, such as the Central Luzon groups’ tombstone and mound of skulls, the condiment bottles of the striking workers of NutriAsia (yes, they’re still on strike), peasant women carrying rice stalks. A worker from the Monde Nissin Workers’ Association (Liga) carried triangular placards with soft ruffles, but their message was sharp: “Dahil sa welga, regular na kami.”
The fisherfolk group Pamalakaya, of course, went the extra nautical mile so to speak, depicting Duterte as an octopus (or a kraken?) pouncing on the ill-fated F/B GemVer, but surrounded by protesting sea creatures, and most importantly, trapped in a net by fishers.
Courage and Bayan Muna also carried fish nets, spread out with their calls and ready to snare any Chinese predator fish, such as Bayan Mindanao’s demon angler fish.
Rise Up, the group of the families affected by tokhang operations, also carried a net, a collage of photos of slain victims “caught in the net of drug war.”
The best that got the brief and represented its sector, for me, was Sikad Kadamay’s huge, battle-worn, red-orange fish, with spindly fins, mouth agape, bullet-ridden body covered with calls for justice. On its side was an old tire, a patchwork of posters and newspapers, empty water containers – just like an urban poor shanty. Made from wire mesh and old sacks, the fish stayed intact in the rain, as it “swam” above the heads of the Kadamay delegation.
A genuine people’s SONA experience means getting “blessed” either by July rains or by dirty, pinkish water courtesy of public-funded water cannons. This year, it was Mother Nature’s all natural, hair-dripping, shoe-soaking, toe-chilling goodness, which started pouring shortly after the Tandang Sora crossing, and stayed strong and true the whole length of the way up to St. Peter’s Parish. One starts longing for the indoors, with a steaming bowl of beef brisket mami, or a hot mug of coffee.
Still, the protesters’ cheer level went up as the rain went down, smiling like they just won the lottery. Getting rained on along with some 35,000 plus people kinda brings on that vibe. Tarpaulins turned skyward to try to keep heads dry. Laminated sacks were unfolded to protect and keep the hanay intact (This required walking at a pace). Acquiantances became close friends under a shared jellyfish umbrella.
Youth activists were stirred to chant louder as the rain fell harder: “Magpapatakot ba tayo sa ulan? Ang mga magsasaka nga, pinauulanan ng bala. Tubig lang ‘yan!”
Not as loud as their teenage counterparts, older activists also trudged on, their silver highlights wet and flat, damn the rayuma and risk of pneumonia. Among the senior ones was Makabayan president Satur Ocampo, who was soaked along with younger activists, but stayed on the front line, from CHR to St. Peter. Even elderly women laughed, marching on, holding up their dripping shawls. Yes, we’re all going to feel the pain tomorrow.
Dozens of children who live along Commonwealth danced and sloshed in ankle-deep rainwater. I passed by a group of bare-chested male teenagers who were chanting back to the activists: “Magkano kayo?” I retorted: “Walang bayad ‘yang mga ‘yan, ‘no?!” It’s sad that traditional political groups have turned rallies into income sources, and it’s hard for many people to grasp the concept of activism, i.e., standing up for our rights, fighting for the common good, without anything in return.
Finally, the protesters – wet, cold, tired and aching for a bit of food or just a dry spot to sit on – arrived at St. Peter’s, just as the champinones ajillo, croquetas de bacalao, ensaladang alimango and other Via Mare dishes unknown to my mouth were probably flowing freely for the VIPs inside the Batasang Pambansa.
At the back of the stage of the United People’s SONA were concrete barriers, beyond which lie a sea of dark blue — the thousands of police men and women exercising maximum tolerance and inertia. They were huddled under tents, sitting inside restaurants or in the outdoor tables of establishments, nursing cups of takeout coffee, scrolling their smartphones, and just collectively being bored to death – but with pay! — on a wet afternoon. They should’ve at least listened to what protesters have to say, after all, they also pay for their salaries.
On the stage, sectoral leaders gave impassioned speeches, their clothes still damp from the rain. Representatives of various groups stood side by side, and took turns giving speeches. It’s a familiar scene now, on the second year of joint mobilizations by a broad united front, the formation of which may be the silver lining amid the gloom under Duterte.
Then it was time to send the main effigy to its smouldering end. This year, it was a two-dimensional Duterte merman, or siokoy. To the waving of banners and chanting of the crowd, the siokoy was doused with kerosene, and set ablaze. The flame stayed only for a breath, then had to be lit again, only to die out again. This was repeated several times, and went on for several minutes. The material was so rain-soaked, the flames kept putting itself out.
An incombustible Duterte siokoy!
But no torrential downpour or fire-resistant effigy ever stopped activists on SONA or any other day. It took at least 10 minutes to eventually burn most of the siokoy, several times longer than most effigies. Moments later, its dying embers came back with feelings and turned into a roaring flame, and was finally put out with water.
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno also spewed fire in her speech, and even gave the crowd a treat as she snapped her fingers and jammed with a group of children to “Atin ang Pinas.”
Various leaders spoke about “sama-samang pagkilos” and unity – the people’s tried and tested weapon against a dictatorship. And it’s needed now, more than ever, as the attacks on the people are without let-up like a torrential downpour. But the Duterte regime should take heed, because just as various progressive groups can gloss over their political differences and unite, laugh in the rain, walk at a coordinated pace under their laminated sacks, they can send the seemingly-incombustible siokoy to a fiery end, if not while in office — oh, the activists will definitely see to it – then down in history.