They gathered in Luneta and at the Commission on Human Rights premises in Quezon City.
Alarmed by what they see as similarities between the regime of the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos and the Rodrigo Duterte administration, human rights defenders warned against a brewing dictatorship that may yet again bring darkness to the country.
Two days before the 45th anniversary of the declaration of martial law by Marcos in 1972, the Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP) and the Youth for Rights launched a campaign called “Mamamayan Ayaw sa Karahasan (MASK)” as they condemned Duterte’s obsession with martial law.
“Many may be swayed by fear and a culture of silence, but the lessons of the past will be our inspiration today. Marcosian violence brought darkness to our nation. We will serve as light amid yet another darkness to come,” TFDP said in a statement.
Wearing masks painted with blood-red tears, the rights campaigners in a press conference on Sept. 19 said the violence in the government’s drug war “reminds us of the cruelty of martial law and is a glaring indication that martial law may return.”
Sister Crescencia Lucero, chair of the TFDP, said the blood on the mask symbolizes the tears of many families of victims in the anti-drug operations.
“There are times you also cry with them. Sometimes, even with our presence, we are also helpless,” said the activist nun who herself experienced martial law under Marcos.
Justinne Jerico Socito, chair of Youth for Rights said the campaign aims to break the majority’s silence.
“We appeal to our fellow youth not to let their fear take over, and instead stand to fight violence and a brewing dictatorship. It’s not just our future that’s at stake, but the future we face as a country,” the group said in a statement.
Duterte has on various occasions threatened to impose martial law to rid the country of the drug problem and other ills. He again raised the prospect of martial rule should the planned protest actions by militant groups on Sept. 21 turn violent.
Explaining the masks, Socito said they will for now serve to protect the people’s identities and encourage more to join rallies and be more vocal on social media.
“It’s ironic, I know,” he said of the idea of hiding behind the mask. “But for those who fear for their lives, it will help.”
Socito said he hopes people will realize in the long term that wearing the mask is not just to be anonymous, but to be fearless being one with the people.
The group said the masks can change color depending on the sector it represents, like how they can be green when the wearer aims to protect the environment.
Rev. Fr. Christian Buenafe, a TFDP board member who hails from Davao City, called for decency and civility in governance under Duterte, whom he describes as “narcissistic”.
“I think he’s sick. Narcissistic. Narcissism is sickness,” he said, pointing out how the tough-talking president in his speeches would often refer to the Philippines and the people as his own.
“We are a civilized country, so be decent, be civilized as well. Listen, respect human rights,” he said. “He has to first respect people.”
While hoping Duterte would change his ways, the priest said it now boils down to the common people to fight human rights violations.
The former Davao city mayor has vowed a relentless war against drugs and crime and continues to enjoy popular support for his campaign despite the continuing rise in extra-judicial killings.
The TFDP and the youth group said they organize information campaigns in communities, mostly schools, about human rights to set the record straight amid widespread criticism that rights advocates only defend criminals.
“To counter that is to give (people) facts, what is the concept of human rights,” Socito said.
Lucero, who had been attacked with tear gas during rallies in the past, said: “All of this campaign that we have is part of my lifetime commitment.”
A member of the Association of Major Religious Superiors in the Philippines, she currently takes in families at risk after losing a member to summary killings.
Against the looming threat of another dictatorship, she urged the youth to join education campaigns and protest actions.
Human rights workers, despite being maligned, should stand their ground and continue to fight for the dignity of life and human rights, she said.