On Friday, June 12, the Philippines marked its 122nd Independence Day. But with a looming controversial anti-terror bill in the offing that activists describe as a tool of repression, and the specter of the continuing coronavirus pandemic, the annual occasion looked remarkably different this year: less jubilation and more social distancing.
However, the somber national mood didn’t prevent Filipinos from gathering, if only to speak out, rather than express Filipino pride.
One of the biggest rallies was at the University of the Philippines-Diliman, where opposition, labour, and youth groups came together to protest the widely-panned Anti-Terrorism Bill—now only awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature to become law—which would allow the government to charge its critics as terrorists.
But the scene at UP Diliman looked a lot more like a fiesta than a demonstration, with people in party hats carrying balloons, cakes, and streamers.
Attendees had taken the suggestion of opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan to “bring flowers” and call the event a “mañanita” in order to avoid arrest amid a ban on gatherings. The name was a sly reference to a recent birthday party cops held while enforcing strict lockdown orders imposed on ordinary Filipinos under threat of arrest.
On the eve of the rally, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra announced that mass gatherings, including protest rallies, were “temporarily banned,” citing COVID-19 concerns. Entrances to the UP Diliman campus were blocked by checkpoints manned by authorities in fatigues, and while some people were allowed to enter, at least one entrance usually open to the public was only accessible to residents.
Despite these obstacles, and strong rain showers, hundreds came out to stand on the campus grounds, spreading into empty streets to comply with social distancing guidelines, while facing the Oblation statue, a symbol of the public university known for its activism.
“I’m here because other Filipinos can’t speak up for themselves while having to worry about everyday survival,” Juan, 24, told VICE. “And since I’m in a position of privilege, I need to speak for those who can’t speak.
“The reason I’m here is to voice out why we should junk the terror bill and to defend our freedom of speech,” Mikee, 27, said. “We should also push for the government to prioritise the pandemic because there’s still a virus around.”
Among the figures who spoke on stage was human rights lawyer Neri Colmenares. He told VICE that the fight against the controversial legislation would not stop, even after Duterte signs the bill.
“If President Duterte signs it, then we will have to challenge it before the Supreme Court because it is a violation, directly, of the Constitution and human rights,” he said. “[But] even if it’s been raised to the Supreme Court, the fight should continue on the streets, the fight should continue online. Keep the protests going.”
Other protests were held in parts of Manila, including one at the De La Salle University campus. Although fewer than 20 people reportedly turned up, they were met by some 40 officers in fatigues deployed outside its gates.
Meanwhile, in another part of the capital, the government held its official Independence Day rites at Luneta Park. Duterte, once again, skipped the ceremony, choosing instead to spend the day in his hometown, Davao City.
Duterte has not attended any Independence Day rites since becoming president in 2016.