MANILA — Thousands of protesters gathered on Commonwealth Avenue in Quezon City ahead of President Rodrigo Duterte's State of the Nation Address Monday, decrying what they described to be his policy of "appeasement" towards China amid incursions in the West Philippine Sea.
Protesters from multi-sectoral militant groups carried a 40-meter streamer made of fishing net with a message that read: “Atin ang Pinas! China, layas! (The Philippines is ours! China, get out!)”
A choir continuously sang “Atin ang ‘Pinas; China, layas” on a stage in front of St. Peter Parish: Shrine of Leaders throughout the day.
Fisherfolk from Southern Tagalog and Central Luzon also hoisted fish balloons and a boat wreck, while an effigy of an octopus bore the message "Impeach Duterte now!"
The protest art drew inspiration from recent incidents in the West Philippine Sea, including a Chinese vessel's allision with a Filipino fishing boat on June 9.
The incident had raised a howl among critics, saying government has failed to assert the country's sovereignty in the waters yet again.
Duterte had dismissed it as a simple maritime incident while Malacañang doubted the Filipino fishermen's claim they were rammed by the Chinese.
And just weeks after the incident, Duterte announced he has granted the Chinese fishing rights in the West Philippine Sea. Amid criticism, Malacañang said the grant was in fact an assertion of the country's ownership of the waters.
Fernando Hicap, former representative of left-leaning partylist group Anakpawis, believes Duterte’s failure to execute national laws against Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea was among his worst sins to the nation.
The West Philippine Sea is the country's exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea, which the Chinese claim in near entirety.
“The list of his violations are piling up, of national sovereignty and his distaste of the constitution, which according to him is a toilet paper; our laws regarding our territorial baselines and exclusive economic zone, the fisheries code and prohibition of the illegal unreported, unregulated fishing operations, all in the name of his appeasement policy or surrender to China,” he said.
Duterte has been pursuing friendly ties with China even as the latter continued island-building and militarization of the South China Sea.
He argued that it was useless to oppose Chinese activities in the disputed sea and that Manila could not afford to confront Beijing, Asia’s largest economy and a major military power.
In front of the Commission on Human of Rights building not far from the Batasang Pambansa complex, protesters burned a Chinese flag to protest Beijing’s excessive claims and aggressive activities in the busy waterway.
The Philippines won an arbitration case before a United Nations-backed tribunal against China’s claims in July 2016. Beijing has disregarded this even as it pursued bilateral negotiations with Manila, while Duterte has avoided flaunting the country's arbitral victory.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan also have partial claims to the waters.
Quezon province fisherman Pido Gonzales, 75, was particularly enraged at how his 22 fellow fishermen were abandoned by the Chinese in the June 9 incident near the Recto (Reed) Bank. The Filipino fishers were rescued by a Vietnamese vessel.
“Iyang mga mangingisdang iyan, kahit hindi ako kasama, eh mga kapwa ko mangingisda iyan na hindi dapat sinisisi iyan. Tapos ipinagtatanggol pa ‘yung mga Chinese na nagpunta doon?” he said.
(Those fishermen, I'm not even part of the group but they are my fellow fishermen and they should not have been blamed. And then they even defended the Chinese who went there?)
Myrna Candinato, a fisherwoman from Bacoor, said China’s encroachment has affected the livelihood of Filipino fishers.
“‘Yung mga isda sa West Philippine Sea, dapat sa lokal, maambunan kami. Eh hindi na. Bakit? Kada araw, 2 bariles ang hinuhuli ng China. Paano pa kaming mga maliliit, eh di siyempre, mahina na ‘yung huli namin,” she said.
(The fish from the West Philippine Sea, that should be for the locals, we should get a share. But not anymore. Why? Because every day, China gets 2 barrels of fish. What about us, small fishers, of course we get little.)
As of 3 p.m., the Quezon City Police District estimated that 5,350 anti-government protesters were on Commonwealth Avenue, while 3,430 pro-administration demonstrators gathered on nearby IBP Road.
In a Social Weather Stations survey from June 22 to 26, 1,200 adults showed that 51 percent of Filipinos had little trust in China, 21 percent were undecided, while 27 percent had much trust. This results in a net trust of -24, worse than the -6 recorded in March.