Philippine social movements meet the new President: "He invited us to Malacañang"

Hopes are high for the new Duterte administration to push for genuine change.
Change, indeed, is coming

Last June 30, while Rodrigo Duterte was taking his oath as the new president of the Philippines, thousands of people belonging to different organizations of the progressive social movement were holding a rally at the Mendiola Bridge.

The rally, however, was entirely different from the usual demonstrations whenever they set foot on this historic bridge. That time, it was meant to show their support for the incoming administration and push for the people’s agenda for change.

It was unusual indeed. There was no presence of truncheon-wielding policemen to hold them from reaching the gate leading to Malacañang (the office of the President), no barbed wires and no barricades at all. Traffic enforcers who were usually adverse to protest-rallies were so eager to give rallyists generous space of the road. There was no cussing from irritated car drivers, too.

“It was a big surprise. Change, indeed, is coming,” observed one of the participants.

But the biggest surprise came when members of the Presidential Security Group suddenly appeared at the rally and fetched several leaders to meet with the President himself in Malacañang.

It was probably the first time that a President invited members of the progressive organizations to Malacañang.

Opposite of the outgoing president

It was a total opposite of the outgoing President’s attitude towards groups belonging to the progressive social movement. The people will not forget how Aquino snubbed and sneered at the leaders of the People’s Surge, a group of Haiyan (Yolanda) survivors, who went to Malacañang in 2014 to hand in their petition to the President asking for additional financial aid and the scrapping of the no-build zone policy that would displace many fisherfolk. The people will indeed remember the Aquino administration for its insensitivity and lack of sympathy to the poor.

President Duterte inviting leaders of the progressive social movement may be seen as a symbolic gesture of his desire to work with them to genuinely advance people’s aspirations for change. He had previously appointed known activists Rafael Mariano of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Peasant Movement of the Philippines) and Judy Taguiwalo to head the Department of Agrarian Reform and the Department of Social Welfare and Development, respectively. (While writing this article, a news just came in that former Gabriela representative Liza Maza was appointed as head of the National Anti-Poverty Commission)

People's Agenda for Change

The meeting with Duterte lasted for forty minutes where the leaders and the President discussed a wide range of issues including contractualization, destructive mining, ancestral lands, land reform, the release of political prisoners on humanitarian grounds, increasing the budget for health services and education.  Towards the end of the meeting, the leaders presented to the President the People’s Agenda for Change.

The People’s Agenda includes a 15-point program for nationalist and progressive change advancing concrete proposals on key sectors such as the economy, social policy, peace and human rights, anti-corruption and governance and foreign policy.

TWHA partners, Ibon Foundation, Gabriela, Council for Health and Development and Advocates for Community Health contributed in the crafting of the proposals in their areas of advocacy.

The People’s Agenda is a product of consultations and workshops among different sectors in the past weeks the culmination of which were the Mindanao Peace Summit held in Davao City and the National People’s Summit in Manila.

In Davao City, more than 40,000 gathered at the Rizal Park to support the resumption of the peace talks between Duterte’s administration and the National Democratic Front. They called on the next president to address the root cause of the armed struggle and heed the Mindanao people’s demand to stop destructive mining and logging operations, the expansion of big plantations and the militarization of Lumad and peasant communities.

These calls were contained, together with other proposals, in a document called Mindanao Development Agenda that was presented to the incoming Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello who attended the event. He was joined by labor activist Joel Maglunsod who will serve as Labor undersecretary and another activist May Ancheta-Templar who will serve as social welfare department’s undersecretary.

In Manila, thousands filled the University of the Philippines Film Center to hear representatives of various sectors present their urgent demands for the first 100 days of Duterte’s administration.

National industrialization

One of the speakers, Sonny Africa, executive director of Ibon Foundation, emphasized the importance of national industrialization in achieving economic development.  He asserted that the Philippines should break free from and fight against unfair and foreign biased agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership led by the United States, Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership initiated by China, the World Trade Organization, Asia Pacific Economic Conference, Asean Free Trade Area, and others.

Other proposals included the implementation of genuine agrarian reform, ending the practice of contractualization among workers, improved services for the Overseas Filipino Workers, stopping privatization of health care and education, junking counter-insurgency operations like Oplan Bayanihan that victimize peasants and indigenous peoples, protection of the ancestral lands from development aggressions, good governance and abolition of the pork barrel, stopping US military intervention in the guise of EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) and assertion of national sovereignty and patrimony.

After the presentation, the leaders handed over copies of the People’s Agenda to the representatives of the executive and legislative branches of government.

Present to receive the proposals were members of the progressive social movement who are now part of Duterte’s administration such as Rafael Mariano and Judy Taguiwalo. Party-list representatives belonging to the Makabayan bloc (Gabriela, Alliance of Concerned Teachers, Bayan Muna, Anakpawis and Kabataan) were also there to accept the proposals.

Copies were also given to representatives from the offices of Senators Grace Poe, Allan Peter Cayetano and Francis Escudero who attended the event.

In his speech, Bayan Muna representative Carlos Zarate said that under Duterte’s administration, a lot of opportunities have opened up to advance pro-people measures citing Duterte’s pronouncements on resolving the problems of farmers and indigenous peoples, the need to address the roots of the armed conflict, the release of political prisoners, an end to contractualization and others.

But he raised caution that amidst positive opportunities being opened to the social movement, the forces of reactionaries and conservatives, landlords and big capitalists and US imperialism are still strong.

“Change will not be served on a silver platter. Ultimately, we shall fight for genuine change,” Zarate said.