MANILA, Philippines — Five thousand students and peasants burned effigies of President Benigno Aquino III and Uncle Sam but were stopped by police from getting close to the Batasang Pambansa to denounce the government’s alleged failure to improve the plight of laborers, triggering a brief melee that left scores injured.
Fire trucks, steel barricades and a 6,000-strong police force blocked the protesters led by the leftist group Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) on Commonwealth Avenue in front of Ever Gotesco mall about 2 kilometers from the Congress building, where the President delivered his annual State of the Nation Address (Sona).
A brief scuffle ensued when a group led by the militant League of Filipino Students attempted to breach the police line after the effigies were burned.
Bayan said 95 protesters, mostly students, were hurt as rocks flew at mid-afternoon. Bayan said 11 of those injured required treatment at East Avenue Medical Center. The Philippine National Red Cross reported 16 injuries.
Chief Superintendent Mario Dela Vega said the injured included two foreign news agency photographers, two local TV cameramen, 10 policemen and a garbage truck driver.
Around 10 gays stole the show, providing a respite from the street tension. Wearing colorful head gears and banners, they paraded in front of the phalanx of policemen and protesters chanting slogans calling on Aquino to push for the human rights of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transsexuals.
Bayan militants numbering from several hundreds to several thousands staged relatively peaceful marches and rallies in major provincial capitals, according to police officials and Philippine Daily Inquirer reporters.
“All public assemblies and mass activities held today in different parts of Metro Manila and some key cities of the country were generally peaceful,” Director General Nicanor Bartolome of the Philippine National Police said in a statement shortly after the President ended his speech at 5:30 p.m.
Protesters on Commonwealth Avenue denounced police for stopping them at around noon—four hours before Aquino delivered his Sona.
Edre Olalia of the National Union of Peoples Lawyers said Bayan filed an application for a rally permit on July 10. He said the Public Assembly Act has mandated the city government to act on rally applications within two days after which the authorization would be deemed granted.
“As far as we are concerned, our protest is legal, by operation of law. And you are violating the law,” Olalia told police officers.
The ground commander, Supt. Marcelino Pedrozo and human rights monitor, Supt. Nicanor Salamera said they did not receive any approved rally permit from the City Hall. “We are allowing them to hold their rally here out of consideration,” Pedrozo said.
Senior Superintendent Joel Pagdilao, Quezon City Police District deputy director for operations, estimated the crowd at over 5,000.
Up to 3,000 protesters joined rallies in the provinces of Iloilo, Capiz and Aklan to voice out their own versions of the Sona.
“We have become poorer because the prices of commodities continue to increase. Many remain landless and have no jobs, especially those in hinterland villages,” said Aileen Catamin, a former village chief who joined a protest of indigenous peoples in Capiz.
In Bacolod City, about 500 Bayan militants burned an effigy of an eagle, representing the United States, and an Octopus to symbolize the various social ills besetting the nation.
“It’s no fun in the Philippines when it comes to the urban poor situation,” said Irineo Longinos, Kadamay-Negros spokesperson.
Around 100 members of Sanlakas, Freedom from Debt Coalition, and Bukluran ng mga Manggawang Pilipino marched from Colon Street to Fuente Osmeña Circle in Cebu City at around 10 a.m. They brought with them camote and dried fish, which they ate after their short program at noontime.
Bayan Negros secretary general Christian Tuayon rated the President’s performance on leading the country and implementing economic and political programs at one, on a scale of one to 10.
Sanlakas and the two other groups in Cebu gave the President a grade of 70.76 in several aspects — the right to work, food, housing, health and education.
Protests by militants in the Luzon cities of Baguio, Legaspi, Naga and Daet highlighted alleged human rights violations.
(With reports from Dona Z. Pazzibugan in Manila; Nestor Burgos Jr., Jhunnex Napallacan and Carla Gomez, Inquirer Visayas; Tonette Orejas, Armand Galang and Robert Gonzaga, Inquirer Central Luzon; Desiree Caluza, Inquirer Northern Luzon; Mar S. Arguelles and Juan Escandor Jr., Inquirer Southern Luzon)