In the shadow of the pandemic and concerns of tightening government control, all eyes will be on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 27.
The president traditionally uses the annual speech to look back on the government’s accomplishments over the past 12 months and to announce plans for the future. This year, there is a lot on the table.
How will the country that imposed the longest coronavirus lockdown revive its economy? What will the government do to curb COVID-19 when cases are often rising by over 1,000 a day? How will Duterte address rising concerns over restrictions on free speech?
Some of the loudest voices asking these questions belong to millennials and Gen Z, who are continuing to express their dissent to Duterte’s government despite the risks. Ahead of this year’s SONA, VICE spoke with six young Filipinos about the issues they want Duterte to address and the problems they demand solutions for.
Ariel, 25, Teacher, Tarlac
Among current social issues, the state of education is a crucial one. The pandemic has upended the entire system, with various factors—like facilities and the training of teachers—that need to be addressed. We need to hear concrete, not abstract solutions for dealing with the new normal in the coming academic year. As a teacher, I need to know.
All of that said, we should not forget that this month is also a challenge to each person’s resilience in dealing with disasters. At the beginning of each year, schools come up with a plan for dealing with disasters, creating workshops and training about the right steps to take. I hope that the government can provide us with more assistance in developing these projects this time around.
Chad, 26, indigenous school teacher, Surigao del Sur
I'm a Lumad [indigenous] school teacher in Mindanao. Lumad schools and the communities that built them defend ancestral lands from foreign mining companies who are raring to operate where our schools are located.
Lumad schools are closed down, while communities are militarized and bombed. We teachers, and the tribal leaders, are vilified and labeled as terrorists. I myself have been a constant victim of such attacks. Some are arrested and face trumped-up charges.
In his SONA, we hope Duterte will once and for all defend our national patrimony and prioritize and defend Filipinos, especially indigenous peoples, from foreign predators. We want to hear about the president’s plans for Lumad schools and communities, which have long been yearning for education and respect for human rights. They have only become more vulnerable during his administration.
We challenge him to fulfill his promises to the Lumad when he ran for president in 2016—to stand with the Lumad people in defense of their land and rights.
Ranier, 32, Religious Brother, Negros Occidental
I am still thinking about whether or not I will watch Duterte’s SONA this year. After watching the addresses in the past, I would end up hopeless and frustrated, not only because of how he delivered his speeches, but also by his ambiguity in presenting the real state of our nation.
This year, I believe the first thing we would want to hear from him is a humble admission of the government’s failure and incompetence in handling the country's health crisis. This remiss can be gauged simply from the coronavirus infection rates that keep on increasing each day, and that there seems to be no hope for the curve to flatten.
We would also want him to address the threat to human rights and press freedom—brought by the enactment of the Anti-Terror Law and the ABS-CBN shutdown—the alleged deaths of high-profile inmates, the inaction on the purchase of overpriced PPE, and the campaign for Constitutional amendments amidst the pandemic.
He owes it to the people to address these issues in unequivocal terms, to gain public trust and erase doubts that his administration is using this pandemic as a window for corruption and an opportunity to dismiss human rights, dissent, and press freedom. A lot of these controversial issues, which threaten our democracy and affect economic stability, have surfaced while the country battles the surge of the coronavirus.
I really hope that his upcoming SONA will be more proactive, one that will provide solutions to the health and economic crises, rather than being reactive and meant to attack and silence his critics.
Arvie, 21, Student, Caraga Region
As a student, the issue I’m anticipating the most for Duterte to address is the state of our education system, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course, this should be followed by addressing how the government plans to handle the health crisis overall.
Just recently, the Commission on Higher Education announced the readiness of state universities and colleges to resume the new academic year through online classes. Being a state-run university, my school Mindanao State University - Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT), is likely to follow this and has even started student enrollment. This has affirmed the fact that this shift to online learning is detached to the realities of their students.
Students, most of whom come from sectors of the community heavily impacted by the pandemic-induced economic crisis, have come forward to share their concerns with regards to this transition. Most are unlikely to participate primarily due to socio-economic constraints.
The Students' Alliance for the Advancement of the Democratic Rights (STAND-IIT)—a university organization I’m a part of that fights for democratic rights like free and equitable education—campaigns for the government to reconsider indefinitely postponing the resumption of classes, for as long students do not have the economic capacity to participate in distance learning. But this campaign can only do so much when the power to enact alternative mechanisms that ensure quality education for all, ultimately falls on government authorities and President Duterte himself.
We hope that in his SONA, he recognizes that the only effective solution to this issue is the safe resumption of face-to-face classes while conducting necessary medical solutions like mass testing and contact-tracing.
Fatima, 21, Medical Student, Metro Manila
I’m a first-year medical student and I hail from Tawi-Tawi, a province in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
As a medical student, I expect President Duterte to address the current health crisis with medical solutions that involve a systematic plan that would address the overflow of patients and the flaws in our contact-tracing methodologies.
Meanwhile, as a Muslim Filipino, it is with great apprehension that I express my reservations about the Anti-Terror Law. Violence has no place in Islam. Terrorism has turned thousands of my brothers and sisters into widows and orphans, or made them childless. The vagueness of this law will only increase the wrongful arrests of innocent Muslims, relative to how the authorities assign a broad and insensitive depiction of how a terrorist looks like.
I have personal experiences of discrimination from wearing a veil, but my experiences pale in comparison to the stories I hear. Our concerns, fears, and reservations are valid, and I expect a Mindanaoan president, like Duterte, to understand this more than anyone else.
We have endured decades of a flawed counter-terrorism approach and the Anti-Terror Law will only bury more of our people. It is our right as Filipinos to demand a seat on the table, especially as a marginalized minority. I truly hope the president listens to our wails of injustice and acknowledges how unconstitutional this Anti-Terror Law is.
While we are aware that the system is fallible, I believe that as government becomes holistic and inclusive, liberty of the people expands. Our fight against COVID-19 is determined by the plans of the government and the cooperation of the people. On the other hand, our fight against terrorism should not bear the same weapon that fuels it.
We can only achieve a better Philippines if we have a nation that speaks and a government that listens. With that, I look forward to the State of the Nation Address.
Omer, 19, Student, Lanao del Norte
As SONA 2020 approaches, we anticipate a statement on what the administration has done in the past year, especially regarding efforts for the ongoing pandemic.
Although the top priority is facing the ongoing pandemic, we cannot deny that this health problem has also given rise to other issues. One of which is the fall of our economy, which is a result of the prolonged quarantine. What I expect from the upcoming SONA is a clear and straightforward plan in response to COVID-19. Yes, the government has presented plans in the past, but cases continue to rise, compelling people to ask whether or not this administration is fit to serve its people.
During the upcoming SONA, I also hope to hear about how the president plans to prepare various institutions to better combat any calamity that we may face in the future, and prevent them from happening again.
Lastly, I want to hear the president recognize and appreciate the brave and hardworking frontliners who are risking their lives to protect the vulnerable and heal those who are infected.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.