One thing the world has learned in the past couple of weeks is that when pushed to the brink, not even a pandemic can stop people from rising up and demanding justice.
In the Philippines, which only recently lifted a strict lockdown, much of the protesting happens online. Leading the fight is Gen Z, and their cause at the moment is a bill awaiting President Rodrigo Duterte’s signature, which threatens to charge government critics as terrorists.
One of its most outspoken critics is 19-year-old artist Frankie Pangilinan. Though she’s hesitant to label herself an “influencer,” her Twitter account with over 120,000 followers says otherwise.
Frankie is the daughter of Philippine actress Sharon Cuneta and opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan. Being born to famous parents may have helped fuel her following in the beginning, but the name she’s making for herself as a passionate, nationalistic young Filipino is all of her own making.
On her online accounts, she posts biting commentary on social issues, with a sprinkling of self-deprecating humour that resonates well with her audience.
“The good thing about social media is that, not only do you hear from first-hand sources, not only do you hear from...accredited journalists...you also hear from your peers,” Frankie told VICE. “Given all that, I think it's so much easier to form your own opinion. Not through influence, but through comparative understanding.”
That’s how she stayed informed about Philippine politics while in college in New York, and why she takes it upon herself to inform others in her own way. Frankie said she feels a sense of responsibility, having grown up under the public eye.
“It's kind of like I was given a platform that I didn't really do anything for,” she said.
“There're so many people… who, for some reason, are listening to me. And if they're listening to me, I might as well talk.”
She’s taken the same attitude of active participation towards the controversial Anti-Terror Bill, which now only needs Duterete’s signature to become law. Now back in Manila, Frankie said that she was deeply affected by the bill’s passing, finding it difficult to sleep.
“It's one of those things where, you feel so helpless,” she said. “There [was] nothing that I could actively do about it and that was the most painful thing.”
While supporters say that the bill is meant to improve national security, Frankie fears that it will do more harm than good.
“It just has every potential to be abused by an administration that has already shown us its tendency, and that has already shown us a track record of abuse in the past.”
The current government’s “track record” includes a drug war that has killed tens of thousands of people, shutting down the country’s largest news network, and threatening journalists, politicians, religious leaders, and activists who criticise the President.
Despite calls for laws that would address the ongoing pandemic, Duterte chose to prioritise the Anti-Terror bill instead, certifying it as urgent and fast-tracking its passing.
“It feels kind of, ‘ambushy’ that they would do this at a time when literally fewer people [can] go out on the streets right?,” Frankie said.
It’s a sobering realisation, especially as the Philippines celebrates its 122nd Independence Day on June 12. Just a day earlier, the administration announced a “temporary ban” on protests under the guise of the coronavirus – yet another worrying development.
When she was growing up, like most Filipino children, Frankie commemorated Independence Day by going to school in traditional Filipino dress and performing folk dances.
Now, in her view, the holiday is a lot less romantic.
“Are we really independent?,” Frankie asked, adding that if anything, the event should encourage Filipinos to fight, like heroes from the past who did the same for the country’s freedom.
She’s hopeful that her generation will follow through.
“We would 100 percent go out on the streets and rally,” Frankie said. “Honestly, they should fear us.”
The biggest protest on Philippine Independence Day this year undeniably had Gen Z’s handprint all over it. It was mostly organised online and promoted through meme-like social media posts.
It was Frankie’s father who suggested calling the anti-terror bill mass gathering a “mañanita” to avoid arrest, a reference to a controversial birthday party cops held while Filipinos were still under lockdown and expected to practice social distancing. Gen Z rode the momentum and made noise online, as they do.
The morning of the protest, the hashtags #GrandMananita, #Mananita2020, and #JunkTerrorBillNow were top trending topics on Philippine Twitter. People peacefully gathered at the University of the Philippines, despite the protest ban.
For Frankie, speaking up is a matter of principle, not politics. “It's [about] morals...it's not like alliances, as much as people would like to think that it is.”
This is not always easy, especially when Duterte remains immensely popular and has an active army of trolls silencing opposition voices online. Frankie said she can’t open Twitter without receiving some level of backlash, but does not let these negative comments get to her.
“Not everyone has to like me but I know that… some people are listening and I know that there's a lot of people out there who care even a little about what I say, and because of that, I'm just gonna take it upon myself to work hard, do better every single day, and… hold myself accountable, consistently,” she said.
For Frankie, even those who have a smaller sphere of influence, shouldn’t hesitate to speak up.
“The boomers can tell you whatever they want but at the end of the day, we're the ones who are gonna inherit this country,” she said.
“And if we're mobilised, and if we're active, and if we maintain on this path [until] our day comes, then change will happen.”