Despite pandemic, groups seek ways to push through with SONA protests

As President Rodrigo Duterte is set to take the stage for his 5th State of the Nation Address (SONA) on Monday, July 27, various Filipinos are eager to make their voices heard – even if it means wearing masks during a protest and practicing strict physical distancing.

A broad array of organizations will be heading to Commonwealth Avenue on the day of President Duterte’s SONA, uniting youth and sectoral groups in a bid to amplify calls to junk the anti-terror law, conduct mass testing for COVID-19, and implement an academic freeze in light of the pandemic.

Adjustments to the People's SONA

Called the People’s SONA and themed #SONAgkaisa, this year’s main protest comes as the coronavirus outbreak continues to grip the country.

Despite Philippine National Police (PNP) chief General Archie Gamboa’s request for protesters to hold their SONA rallies online, groups will be implementing strict safety protocols including observing physical distancing to push through with the #SONAgkaisa protest on July 27. 

According to Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN) secretary-general Renato Reyes, the organizers of #SONAgkaisa have been coordinating with the Quezon City government, the Quezon City police, and the Metro Manila Development Authority to ensure the safety of protesters.

“Everyone is required to wear a face mask, bring disinfectants, and we request vulnerable individuals to join the online protests instead of the physical protests,” Reyes said.

Instead of the usual whole day protest, #SONAgkaisa is set to finish in two hours to lessen exposure. Protesters will also occupy a bigger space to avoid crowding the stage.

Despite the apparent health risks of COVID-19, Filipinos are determined to hold physical protests, Reyes added.

Taking to the streets to protest remains a powerful tool for activists, who are working to ensure that the spirit of the People’s SONA as an avenue for Filipinos to voice out their dissent remains unchanged.

For nearly 3 years, activists have been staging the united People’s SONA to show strong and united opposition to the Duterte administration’s policies.  From embattled network ABS-CBN’s shutdown to the approval of the feared anti-terror law, protesters refuse to remain silent in their outrage at these threats to democracy. 

Aside from new safety measures, the People’s SONA will also feature adjustments to the traditional program. 

Not letting go of the burning of effigies that’s become a staple in SONA protests, BAYAN has partnered up with artists from Sama-samang Artista para sa Kilusang Agraryo (SAKA) for a video effigy instead.

The video effigy will involve mocking up a miniature mobilization, according to Angelo Suarez, one of SAKA’s co-convenors. 

“You’ll see little standees of illustrated activists, protesters, different civilians who have complaints against the Duterte administration. They’re raising their fists, carrying placards. There’s going to be a camera moving through this diorama of little protest standees, and then it culminates in an image of Duterte as a virus,” Suarez described in a mix of Filipino.

The burning of this miniature effigy will be recorded on video and projected on a screen at the #SONAgkaisa protest on July 27. The video of the burning effigy will also be distributed online.

“This doesn’t end at SONA,” Suarez said. “People need to stay angry, and by lighting up even a virtual or a video effigy, it’ll help maintain that kind of anger among the people. We need to uphold this anger and sustain it so we can keep protesting against the tyranny of the Duterte regime.”

Filipino youth refuse to stay silent

The youth are not left behind in this fight. Multiple youth-led organizations including Millennial PH, Malakas, and Kabataang Tagapagtanggol ng Karapatan will be partaking in these protests. 

Apart from the People’s SONA, multiple youth groups will be holding their State of the Youth Address (SOYA). These will shed light on the various issues that are directly affecting the youth such as education, sexual harassment, and the anti-terror law. 

Along with the broad coalition of groups and lawyers, petitions from various youth groups will be filed at the Supreme Court to condemn the alleged unconstitutional provisions of the anti-terror law. 

With the youth being especially vulnerable to red-tagging and harassment, these petitions aim to showcase their strong position in holding the line for democracy. 

Less than a week before the People’s SONA, many are mobilizing their advocacies online to garner support from netizens. In the next few days, several online rallies will be held and further amplified with hashtags such as #SONAgKAISA and #wakaSONA to engage with the public.

Call for the 'true state of the nation'

For this year’s united People’s SONA along Commonwealth Avenue, attendees are encouraged to wear attire with a COVID-19 theme.

While the police are encouraging protesters to bring their rallies online, Reyes shared fears about how these can be undermined by trolls.

Despite the many adjustments that they’ve had to make to realize the massive protest action, Reyes believes that physical protests are important to get their message across.

“Physical protests are more powerful. You actually see the unity, the warm bodies.” Reyes said. “[Government] can somehow undermine online protests...but they can’t do the same offline...It’s quite different. They don’t have the advantage when it comes to physical protests because they don’t enjoy the real support of the people.”

Kabataang Tagapagtanggol ng Karapatan added that for many protesters, they ”have no other choice but to bring [our] demands to the streets.”

Despite the risks and restrictions posed by COVID-19, these activists are not backing down from amplifying their voices in the streets and online. 
“If we are able to innovate the way we express our demands, hopefully more people will awaken to the kind of situation that we’re in, and more and more people can participate in the protests,” said Suarez – Rappler.com

Niña Diño

Niña Diño is a Rappler volunteer from the University of the Philippines Diliman. She is an incoming sophomore taking up Bachelor of Science in Biology.

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Khaela C. Vijar

Khaela C. Vijar is a Rappler volunteer from Ateneo de Manila University. She is an incoming freshman taking up a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science.

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