National minority groups lead September 21 protest march to Luneta. Source: Manila Today. Used with permission.
Tens of thousands joined a September 21, 2017 protest in Manila, Philippines, to condemn human rights abuses under the government of President Rodrigo Duterte, who assumed power in June 2016.
The protest was held on the same day when martial law was imposed in the country by former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1972. The Philippines was under martial law until 1981. During this period, the Marcos government was accused of committing widespread human rights abuses. Marcos was eventually ousted by a peaceful uprising known as People Power. Duterte has repeatedly said that he admires Marcos.
Participants expressed collective indignation over the Duterte administration’s so-called triple wars: the “war on drugs” that has already killed over 13,000 people, the “all-out war” against communist rebels which has displaced farmers and indigenous peoples, and the “war on terror” in Marawi which placed the whole southern island of Mindanao under martial law.
On top of the rising anti-drug war death toll, rights group Karapatan has also documented 88 political killing of mostly peasant leaders and activists alongside cases of illegal arrests, forced evacuations, aerial bombings, and indiscriminate shootings in Duterte’s counterinsurgency war.
Despite efforts by the Duterte administration to disrupt and discourage protests, organizers estimated around 30,000 people braved the rains to join mass actions in Manila's Luneta Park.
Led by the broad civil society alliance Movement Against Tyranny (MAT), workers, peasant, and people’s organizations, members of national minorities, church groups, artists, students, and professionals were involved in organizing the Luneta rally.
Protesters voiced concern over what they saw as President Duterte’s attempt to impose dictatorial rule in the country. Human rights group Karapatan pointed out similarities between Marcos and Duterte:
The parallelism between the Marcos and the Duterte regimes are becoming more pronounced, as the latter not only aids the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses but also employs the same fascist tactics and anti-people policies of the Marcos dictatorship, including threats to impose a nationwide martial rule. Duterte and his security cluster has utilized narratives and tactics straight out of Marcos’s playbook of repression, repeating and justifying rights violations, with increasing frequency and intensity.
The protest crowd at Luneta Park. Photo credits: Manila Today. Used with permission.
Efforts to sabotage and delegitimize protesters
The path to holding the protest was paved with obstacles. Authorities initially declared the holding of a nationwide earthquake drill on September 21. Some believe this was intended to prevent the people, especially workers and students, from joining the rally. Then, rally organizers were reportedly given a hard time securing space in Luneta Park for the protest. Classes and work in public schools and government offices were also suspended, apparently to discourage attendance in the protest. In the Philippines, students and their teachers are able to join rallies en masse if there are classes since they can persuade school officials to join a political activity as a group. Also, politicians often suspend classes to prevent schools and their students from participating in political actions.
President Duterte threatened martial law if the protest were to turn violent. Meanwhile, the national police chief warned that six barges of protesters from Visayas and Mindanao infiltrated by armed rebels were going to join the demonstration. He later claimed that the information he got was wrong.
Just days before the protest, President Duterte declared September 21 a “National Day of Protest” and mobilized a few thousand government employees and supporters for pro-Duterte rallies using government funds to hire buses, distribute food to participants and hire sexy stars to entertain the crowd.
‘Rody's cube’ being burned at Mendiola bridge just outside the gates of the presidential palace. Source: Manila Today. Used with permission.
Protesters burned an 8-foot “Rody’s cube” effigy modeled after a rubix cube but showing President Duterte’s face alongside those of Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler, and a puppy signifying the government’s puppetry to foreign powers like the United States. In the Philippines, the use of the term puppy (tuta in Filipino) in politics denotes blind subservience to a master.
Apart from creative effigies, big banners, colorful placards, and fiery speeches, the protest also featured cultural presentations. This included, among others, a Filipino version of “Do You Hear The People Sing” from the “Les Miserables” musical.
Despite the suspension of classes in public schools and in many private schools, thousands of students joined the protest in Luneta. In fact, a Twitter post showing a student joining the rally while strudying went viral: