SONA — a reality check

By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Streetwise | BusinessWorld

There we go again. SONA (State of the Nation Address) day and activists and ordinary citizens were once more out in the streets for the annual exercise of their right to rain on the ruling regime’s SONA parade by presenting their own version of the national situation. It seemed at first glance that this year would be no different from the previous years. But this time there was a big difference: the government had insidiously prepared well to keep the demonstrators from “marring” President “Noynoy” Aquino’s third SONA by presenting an alternative, and more truthful, state of the nation.

This time around, psychological warfare was much more evident, including the glaring overkill of thousands of deployed riot police and layers of container vans and cement and steel barricades reinforced with razor-sharp concertina wire to keep demonstrators from crossing the line that the police had arbitrarily set. Post SONA, the Aquino regime’s well-oiled propaganda machine attempted to drown out and discredit the demonstrators’ grievances and demands of government with the help of Aquino-friendly mainstream media outlets along with government-deployed pseudo netizens in social media platforms and their “yellow” cheering squads.

To begin with, the demonstrators and the Filipino people as a whole have plenty to be riled about. Many had already anticipated that this year’s SONA speech would — again — simply not square with reality. There would be major omissions about issues that really matter to the people as well as a grand cover-up of the country’s true state of affairs. In this way Mr. Aquino’s SONAs have not been much different from those of his predecessor, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo; that is, at base, these have been self-serving and riddled with falsehoods.

Glowing reports on the economy are meaningless to the majority of Filipinos eking out a living — landless peasants and the army of urban unemployed and underemployed who are hungry, sick, without decent housing and seemingly doomed to suffer a bleak future. The great divide between the well-entrenched elite and the broad masses of the people (including the sinking so-called middle class) or to borrow parlance from the Occupy Movement, between the 1% and the 99%, has merely been amplified by the healthy profits of the 1,000 top corporations and the scandalous lifestyles of the rich and (in) famous.

The Aquino government continues to pursue neoliberal economic policies that benefit foreign investors, the local big landlord-big business interests and their political backers on the top rungs of government while the people suffer landlessness, joblessness, low wages, high prices of basic goods and services and high taxes and other “lawful” exactions. It perpetuates the backward, agrarian, pre-industrial economy with its laggard implementation of a bogus land reform program.

Mr. Aquino crows about the World Bank-designed, multibillion-peso Conditional Cash Transfer dole-out as the solution to poverty even as his administration scrimps on basic social services, allows these to deteriorate and then puts up a fire sale (such as of government hospitals) so foreign and local big business can take over and run them for profit and not for public service.

Mr. Aquino has only high praises for the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police (PNP), promises them “modernization” (and of course the opportunity for bigger kickbacks) and showcases housing projects and other benefits for the men-in-uniform while window dressing government’s dirty counter-insurgency war code-named Oplan Bayanihan and its bloody human rights record.

Mr. Aquino enjoys twitting in public his subalterns in the executive department in order to make a big show about pursuing “daang matuwid” but he turns a blind eye to the ongoing huge scams involving the pork barrel system because, according to his apologists, it is not “pragmatic” politics. (How else is the President to have his priority legislation passed if he doesn’t grease the palms of his allies in Congress?) He also plays deaf and dumb to the clamor for a strong Freedom of Information bill because he just doesn’t want anyone to have the freedom to open the proverbial can of worms in his administration including corruption in and around Malacañang.

With more than enough legitimate grievances to justify and propel a big demonstration come SONA day and invoking their basic civil right to peaceably assemble, the People’s SONA rally organizers were flabbergasted that the Aquino government (yes, the same government that Human Rights Commissioner Rosales glowingly claims is cognizant of their rights) would deny their application for a permit to rally. They correctly construed it as a provocation, a challenge to all the more assert that right.

The PNP’s psywar was on track after the permit denial. General Garbo, the new police chief for the National Capital Region, went on a media blitz saying that the police expected a bigger crowd of protesters due to the ongoing demolition of urban poor communities and therefore security was a major concern. But he also put on a very agreeable pose, saying that despite the lack of a permit, the police would exercise “maximum tolerance” rather than follow the “no permit, no rally” stricture. He said rally organizers could “negotiate” with police to be allowed the usual venue near the Ever Gotesco Mall on Commonwealth Ave. that the previous insecure Arroyo regime had fixed as the closest permissible rally site during SONAs.

On the day itself, the PNP put up a big steamer bearing the message “Serenity & Oneness for National Advancement” with the first letters spelling out SONA. The marching column of thousands of protesters was immediately met by a two-deep phalanx of smiling policewomen bearing flower bouquets and balloons, a cheap ploy to bolster the image of the police as friendly and pacific. They were ignored and bypassed by the marchers.

Demonstrators undertook a surprise maneuver and broke through island barriers earlier reinforced with concertina wire to occupy both the south and northbound lanes of Commonwealth Ave. in a bid to compel the police to allow the rally to go much farther and closer to the HOR. Thousands of police rushed to prevent them from proceeding onwards. Traffic came to a standstill and the rally leaders called for negotiations with the police to break the impasse. But while talks were ongoing, the police treacherously began to push back the demonstrators with their batons and shields causing injuries to hundreds of defenseless protesters.

The police succeeded in cordoning off the demonstrators in the northbound lane of Commonwealth Ave. in front of the Ever Mall. But they failed to disperse the mass mobilization and to provoke an angry retaliation and frenzied random violence from the demonstrators who maintained their ranks with discipline, pushed the police back defensively as much as they could but eventually retreated in an organized fashion.

In the immediate aftermath, the police could not paint the rallyists as unruly, violent and deserving of the beating they got from the police. The rallyists successfully held their People’s SONA. As Mr. Aquino was giving his SONA speech, they burned the effigy of the US-backed Aquino regime depicting Aquino and his cronies and foreign backers lapping up a feast while tossing the people crumbs, a parody on the oft-invoked “trickle-down effect.”

It is therefore ludicrous how the Aquino regime’s spin doctors pounced on the picture of the cop crying from exhaustion (and perhaps the realization that he was on the wrong side) as well as that of a Dutch human rights activist shouting at the police to stop hurting the demonstrators to create the impression that the latter were the aggressors and had even been reinforced by “foreign interventionists.”

Still, no amount of deception and coercion will be able to conceal reality and sustain the make-believe world of the Aquino regime despite the self-congratulatory press releases, the fawning media coverage, the engineered popularity surveys and the manufactured social media commentaries.

Published in Business World
1 August 2013

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