MANILA, Philippines – From deploying over 20,000 troops to declaring Commonwealth Avenue a no-rally zone, police employed rare moves to secure the first State of the Nation Address (SONA) of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Monday, July 25.
The Philippine National Police (PNP) did not resort to such measures in the last two presidencies before Marcos, son of the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos whose 20-year regime was known for arresting protesters and stifling dissent.
While police denied this is an “overkill,” an activist leader said it showed the Marcos government was “very insecure.”
The PNP said it would deploy 21,483 personnel on Monday, July 29, a deployment thrice as big as the first SONA of former president Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, which had only 6,720.
Former president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III had only 10,000 troops deployed to his firs SONA in 2010.
PNP head of operations General Valeriano de Leon defended the measures set for Monday.
“If you want peace, you prepare for war. Baka mamaya kapag may mangyaring hindi inaasahan, magtatanong ang mga kababayan nasaan ba ang pulis? (If something untoward happens, our countrymen may ask, where are the police?)” De Leon told ABS-CBN’s Teleradyo.
De Leon added the contingent will cover not just the perimeters of the House of Representatives, but the entire Metro Manila.
This large sized deployment seems “ironic” for the first post-EDSA president elected by a majority, or 31 million people, said Francisco Magno, political science professor at the De La Salle University and founding director of the La Salle Institute of Governance.
“A popular president is not supposed to worry too much about protest since the people are on his side. Perhaps, beyond use of good electoral strategies to win the people’s vote, it is now the time to ensure that the government’s agenda for development becomes inclusive of the different voices in society so that no one is left behind,” Magno told Rappler.
Before the 1986 People Power Revolution that restored democracy, during the time of the late dictator Marcos, “the country’s demonstrators had been stilled under Martial Law, with the regime unrelenting in its campaign to stifle free speech, much less audacious displays of opposition,” according to the Official Gazette.
The PNP has also declared as a no-rally zone Commonwealth Avenue, the typical protest site for every SONA because of its visibility and its proximity to Batasan Pambansa or the House of Representatives.
“It will create public disorder and heavy traffic. It will be a nuisance even for those who are walking on the side of the street. This is why we are talking to them that if possible, spare Commonwealth Avenue for the SONA,” said Metro Manila police chief Major General Felipe Natividad said in a briefing Tuesday, July 19.
Restricting Commonwealth Avenue from SONA rallies last happened during the time of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, said Bayan Secretary-General Renato Reyes.
The PNP and the Quezon City government have also denied Bayan’s application for permit to hold protests on Batasan road, which is nearer the House of Representatives. Both denials carried a template reason: Batasan Road is not a freedom park, and it would obstruct the flow of traffic.
Under Batas Pambansa (BP) No. 880 or the Public Assembly Act, there is no permit needed if the rally will be held at a freedom park. That the police and the QC government used the non-freedom park reason to deny permit boggles Reyes, and said it was “gross ignorance” and “sheer laziness” to use that reason.
Reyes said they were able to hold rallies along Batasan Road in 2016 and 2017 during the time of Duterte, and in front of the nearby Saint Peter’s Church in 2018 and 2019. All rallies pushed through “without incident,” said Reyes.
Reyes said that typically, law enforcement and protesters hold talks prior to the event to agree on parameters and ensure security and flow of traffic, but that “this year there are ongoing talks but no results so far.”
“[They are] very insecure,” said Reyes.
PNP acting chief Vicente Danao said the University of the Philippines Diliman campus and the Quezon City Memorial Circle are the alternative sites. Danao said in the Tuesday briefing they would use water cannons on non-compliant protesters.
Reyes said “it’s a matter of principle and a matter of constitutional right” to assert the right to protest along Commonwealth or on Batasan road.
“You want the protest to be as close as possible to the event. The burden to uphold the right to peaceful assembly is on the state. The presumption should be it can be held on Batasan Road unless there is clear and present danger, the presumption should not be to limit the rallies only to freedom parks,” said Reyes.
Clear and present danger is a legal doctrine which is used as standard to restrict speech. Clear and present danger is broken down to a two-way test: is the evil consequence that the government is trying to prevent extremely serious, and is the imminence of that evil extremely high?
For Marcos’ inauguration, the police had said it will allow rallies only if the chants are in support of the president. This easily sounded the alarm because because Philippine laws and Supreme Court jurisprudence say that rallies can be regulated only in the aspect of time, place and manner, not the content.
It’s apparent in the denials of the recent permits that the government had learned that lesson, and did not mention any prohibition, or regulation, on content.
BP 880 says permit can be denied if “the public assembly will create a clear and present danger to public order, public safety, public convenience, public morals or public health.” But the law also says that if the mayor thinks that “there is imminent and grave danger… he shall immediately inform the applicant who must be heard on the matter.”
“We were never given a proper hearing on the denial. No hearing took place,” said Reyes.
To cite obstruction of traffic as a reason is “ridiculous,” says Edre Olalia, president of the National Union of Peoples’ Lawyers (NUPL).
“From our experience, who causes the traffic? If they block protesters, that’s when there is buildup of traffic. But legally, inconvenience is a necessary consequence of an exercise of the basic right to assembly,” Olalia said on Thursday, July 21, at an event commemorating 50 years since the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law.
Reyes said: “We will assert our right to peaceful assembly and will file charges against police officers who will arrest and harm peaceful protesters. Peaceful protesters, even those without a permit, cannot be arrested. – with reports from Amara Kyla Bautista/Rappler.com
Amara Kyla Bautista, a Rappler intern, is a Mass Communication student from St. Scholastica’s College Manila. Learn more about Rappler’s internship program here.