Thousands held rallies across the Philippines yesterday in the biggest protest so far against what they see as a slide towards authoritarian rule under President Rodrigo Duterte.
At least 12,000 leftist activists marched towards a historic bridge leading to Malacanang, the seat of government, to denounce Mr Duterte’s policies and actions that they said mirrored those of the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Calling Mr Duterte a “dictator” and a “fascist”, they condemned the mass killing of drug suspects by police and vigilantes in a bloody crackdown on the narcotics trade, and the imposition of martial rule across the war-torn southern island of Mindanao.
They brought with them a “Rudy Cube”, a swivelling effigy that interchanged the faces of Mr Duterte, Marcos, Nazi leader Adolf Hitler and a dog. They later torched the effigy, chanting, “Never again to martial law!”
“Every day when you turn on the radio, you hear four, seven and 30 people getting killed. We’re like a cemetery now,” one protest leader said.
The activists later headed for a sprawling public park in the capital Manila where they were joined by another 10,000 or so protesters. As night fell and despite a heavy downpour, their number swelled to 30,000.
A separate group of some 3,000 human rights activists, politicians and supporters of former president Benigno Aquino held their own anti-Duterte rally on the grounds of the Commission on Human Rights office north of Manila.
Before the rally, Mr Aquino and Vice-President Leni Robredo, who was not Mr Duterte’s running mate and now leads the main opposition party, attended Mass at the state-run University of the Philippines, a hotbed of political activism.
Ms Robredo said Filipinos born after the Marcos era should not be complacent and should recognise signs of “rising tyranny”.
“If we do not remember the past, we are condemned to repeat it,” she said. “Sadly those who are deceived do not even know that they are walking a doomed path.”
The rallies were organised to mark the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by Marcos in 1972.
Mr Duterte has sided with the Marcos family, crediting them for his win in the 2016 elections. He has allowed the burial of Marcos at a cemetery reserved for the nation’s heroes, and professed his admiration for the former strongman.
Reacting to the protests, Mr Duterte’s spokesman Ernesto Abella said: “This is an opportune time for those in the government to hear the voice of the governed as part of our efforts to uphold the highest standards of good governance. The event is a healthy exercise in democracy.”
Supporters of Mr Duterte also turned up in large numbers, reflecting his enduring popularity amid the criticisms.
A report released yesterday by the US-based Pew Research Centre said Mr Duterte and his controversial war on drugs remain widely popular. Nearly nine in 10 have a “favourable opinion” of Mr Duterte, and 78 per cent approve of his handling of the illegal drugs issue, it said.
The survey, however, was taken from Feb 26 to May 8, before the killing of an innocent 17-year-old by anti-narcotics agents sparked widespread outrage and concerns that Mr Duterte’s anti-crime drive may have gone too far.