For two straight weekends, thousands have gathered in the streets of Manila to condemn the deterioration of the human rights situation in the Philippines.
On February 18, the Catholic Church mobilized an estimated 20,000 people to participate in a “Walk for Life” as a form of protest against the rising “culture of violence” in the country.
A week later, more than 5,000 people commemorated the 31st anniversary of the Edsa uprising, which toppled the Marcos dictatorship. But the event also became a venue to criticize the “authoritarian” tendencies of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The “Walk for Life” challenged the proposal to revive the death penalty, the lowering of the minimum age of criminal responsibility, the implementation of the Reproductive Health l=Law, and most importantly, the continuing drug-related extrajudicial killings. Some analysts described it as the first major church-led protest against the killings that worsened under Duterte
According to unofficial estimates, more than 7,000 have been killed already after Duterte launched the “war on drugs” last July. The police and other state forces are accused of committing extrajudicial killings, which have victimized mainly the poor and petty drug personalities.
A week after the “Walk for Life,” various groups organized different activities across the country to celebrate the anniversary of Edsa and to denounce the “Marcosian” tactics of Duterte.
Leftist groups assembled in the morning in front of a military camp where they demanded the resumption of the peace talks between the government and communist rebels. They claimed that some army officials were sabotaging the peace process by pursuing an all-out war campaign targeting innocent civilians and unarmed activists. They urged Duterte to remember his campaign pledge of subverting the rule of oligarchs in the country, and to address the roots of the armed conflict.
In the afternoon, groups associated with the previous administration reunited at Edsa to highlight the worsening political persecution in the country. They cited the case of Senator Leila De Lima, who was arrested last week for allegedly supporting illegal drug trade in the past. De Lima, a former human rights lawyer and justice secretary, is a fierce critic of Duterte.
These rallies were organized by competing political forces, which explains their seeming lack of coordination. The church refused to call their event a protest action, the Left focused on the issue of reviving the peace process, and the yellow groups which conducted the rally in the afternoon of February 25 denied that they are fomenting destabilization against the Duterte government.
But the lack of unity in opposing the draconian policies of Duterte is not necessarily bad for the opposition. What should be pointed out is the emergence of a movement that is not afraid to expose the anti-people programs of the president, the military, police, and other institutions of the state. After only seven months in power, Duterte is already being held accountable for the human rights abuses of state forces. Despite Duterte’s reputation as a strongman who dislikes criticism, various groups chose to air their grievances against him in the streets.
Perhaps recognizing the potential of People Power, pro-Duterte forces countered the Edsa protest by organizing a two-day vigil and assembly at Luneta Park. About 200,000 people reportedly joined this event, which was presented as a united stand of Filipinos against crime, illegal drugs, and corruption.
There is no doubt that this pro-Duterte event attracted a bigger crowd. But it was also leaked that government agencies had a role in persuading constituents to join the event. Duterte may be popular, but the state machinery was still used to guarantee that people would show up to prove their loyalty to the president.
An event which was organized to validate Duterte’s popularity exposed the paranoia of a government, which sees voices of dissent as proof of a coup plot or destabilization conspiracy.
Indeed, there are groups clamoring for the ouster of Duterte, even though they do not necessarily reflect the views of everyone who joined the rallies in the past two weeks. Most are concerned citizens who simply wanted Duterte to stop the ill-conceived “war on drugs.” Others joined the rallies to push for social and economic reforms and the resumption of the peace process.
The Duterte government should not be complacent because it succeeded in drawing a large supportive crowd last weekend. On the contrary, it should inspire the president to work for better transparency, better governance, and hopefully, better record in protecting human rights.