“As long as there is conflict, and as long as there is struggle from the masses, the government and state must always listen.”
By GINO ESTELLA
MANILA – For many who marched on the streets of Quezon City on President Duterte’s first State of the Nation Address (Sona), it was the glaring heat of the sun and proximity to congress that marked the day.
For some, it was a culmination – the destination of several days of tireless protest, a historic occasion where they can finally be heard.
Unlike in the past years, marchers on July 25 were greeted with handshakes and ice candy from police, as they made a monumental right turn inching less than a kilometer away from the Sona’s venue at the Batasang Pambansa complex.
Massing up in Metro Manila, progressive groups pushed for the People’s Agenda, a 15-point program for pro-people and pro-nation policies to address the roots of poverty.
This mobilization also marked the end of the July Manilakbayan, which brought delegates from several regions to forward local issues and concerns to the country’s center of government.
Bicol Region had the largest contingent with 3,700, and 3,000 came from the island of Mindanao; thousands also travelled from Southern Tagalog, Central and Northern Luzon. The 30,000-strong crowd was in high spirits, many ignored their sunburnt skin and the blisters on their feet.
While rallyists grew energetic during the program held in front of Batasan Hills National High School, 42-year-old Amelia Cabaña of Camarines Sur quietly sat on the entrance of a jeepney.
“We went to the president’s Sona because we want to hear the promises of his new administration,” Cabaña said. The Bicol contingent travelled for two days, reaching Manila two days before the Sona.
The mostly-peasant contingent travelled, enduring hunger and sleepless nights. She recalls a “strict” diet of tuyo, (dried fish) and tireless days of walking. They were accommodated in the University of the Philippines-Diliman, where several build-up protests were held before the People’s Sona.
Her family resides in a farmland close to the Bicol National Park, a 5,201-hectare park straddling Camarines Sur and Camarines Norte. But with the implementation of the former Aquino regime’s National Greening Program, they are constantly under threat of being displaced.
She is one of the many peasants at risk of losing their inherited land to the hands of large corporate businesses with legal claims. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) pressed charges and ordered them to leave the grounds of the park.
“We have been living there for years, and our parents have grown old there as well,” Cabaña said in Filipino, “Police come to our houses and tell us to leave; it scares our children and they could not study.”
Residents have been charged with illegal logging or timber theft, she said. The Bicol government has continuously asked them to leave since the administration revived its reforestation effort in 2010.
“We want the president to hear about the harassment the DENR has been doing to us,” she said in Filipino. “We want him to look at us, because our situation has become dire.”
She said she will not hesitate to join another Sona rally next year. “This is my first time, but we will return until our calls have been heard,” she said in Filipino.
Tears fell past the sunglasses she used to conceal her eyes, and she stopped eating to tell more of their plight in Bicol. Her companions looked at her with concern, all of them wanting to console her.
“Yes, we adults have the capacity to survive by the day,” she said. “But we do not want our children to scamper around in the rain because they do not have a roof over their heads.”
The issue of homes and land being lost is not limited to the peasants of Bicol. The generations-long struggle for ancestral lands is also being drumbeat by the Lumad from Mindanao.
Kerlan Fanagel, the chairperson of PASAKA-SMR, a confederation of Lumad organizations in southern Mindanao, is one of the leaders in the People’s SONA. He sat near the stage, along with other Lumad delegates in their traditional attire, which they have worn to make themselves known in the protest.
The Lumad lakbayanis began their travel on July 19, and reached Manila on July 23, and stayed at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines in Sta. Mesa, Manila.
Fanagel, a Blaan, is no stranger to “bakwit,” a term the Lumad have become accustomed to, as they bakwit (evacuate) temporarily from their lands when their lives are threatened.
He said evacuations have been triggered by the massive operations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP), which has deployed 60 percent of their forces in Mindanao regions. Several Lumad groups still remain in evacuation centers, with 2,000 Manobo in Surigao del Sur, and 400 at the evacuation center in the Haran chapter of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines in Davao City.
The large military concentration in Mindanao is part of the Aquino administration’s counterinsurgency program Oplan Bayanihan.
“We are united in this mass movement because we want the president to know about the Mindanao People’s Agenda,” Fanagel said in Filipino. He said they are calling for the pullout of soldiers encamped in Lumád schools and communities.
“We are calling for the dissolution of paramilitary groups that continue to destroy our schools and harrass our teachers,” Fanagel said. The murder of many Lumad leaders were also attributed to paramilitary groups, that were trained and armed by the military.
Days before the Sona, on July 18, armed men riding in tandem shot dead Herme Alegre, president of the PTCA of the Salugpungan School, and critically wounded Datu Danny Diarog in Davao City.
“We want our Lumád brothers and sisters to go home, but the schools and the communities have all been wrecked,” Fanagel said in Filipino. “There is no livelihood there, and the community is ruined.”
Fanagel said the evacuees should also be given relief and rehabilitation to help them rebuild their farms and communities.
This is not the first time for a big Mindanao contingent to set foot in Metro Manila to bring their plight. In 2015, some 800 lakbayanis travelled to the capital to protest against the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Manila. For the People’s Sona, they again travelled 1,000 kilometers.
“This is only one of the sacrifices that we continue to endure as Mindanaoan,” Fanagel said in Filipino. “This is to further assert our rights and strengthen our calls and voices, so Malacañang hears us.”
“In all our mobilizations and mass movements, there are always victories,” Fanagel said in Filipino.
In his Sona, Duterte declared a unilateral ceasefire of military operations against the New People’s Army (NPA). The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has since declared it will reciprocate. Both moves are part of trust-building efforts as the peace talks between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) resumes in August.
“Victories we must defend with our participation, organization and recruitment,” Fanagel said.
It was a mobilization not met by police batons striking skulls, nor by water cannons firing murky water from fire trucks. This day in history saw many firsts, as the nation saw hope in a president that may possibly enact policies that are for them.
The People’s Sona was also a commencement, a moving-up event to further advance the interests of the people. Perhaps it was amplified this year, that activists hold rallies and mobilizations because they demand to be heard.
“As long as there is conflict, and as long as there is struggle from the masses, the government and state must always listen,” Fanagel said.