A rally by Philippine indigenous peoples protesting the US presence in the country turned violent early on Wednesday, as police efforts to disperse the crowd ended with a police van ramming and running over some demonstrators.
The protest was coming to an end when police started trying to disperse the people who had gathered, the event’s organizers — SANDUGO, a recently formed alliance of minority groups — told Philippine news site Rappler.
During the clashes that followed, protesters threw bottles, paint bombs, and rocks at police, while authorities fired tear gas and eventually drove a police vehicle toward the mass of people, according to Rappler.
Philippine police characterized the incident differently. “They weren’t really run over,” Chief Superintendent Oscar Albayalde, head of the National Capital Region Police Office, told Rappler.
“The [protesters] were trying to flip over the patrol car. In the process, the driver extricated the patrol car and inadvertently hit some unruly protesters who sustained minor injuries,” Albayalde added.
"We had to disperse them. They started it. They were trying to enter the embassy,” Chief Inspector Arsenio Riparip told AFP. "We had to use tear gas. They overpowered our policemen.“
Riparip said protesters also broke through a police line protecting the embassy’s gates.
Television footage appeared to show a police van striking a group of protesters, reversing into them and then driving forward, leaving several people bloodied and at least one man stuck under the van’s wheels.
"It was the police who attacked the protesters. First they rammed the police vehicle against the people. Then they released tear gas and hit us with truncheons,” Amirah Lidasan, one of the leaders of the protest, told AFP.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms the violent dispersal of the protest here at US Embassy which was led by our fellow Moro and Indigenous Peoples,” Jerome Aba, the national spokesperson of Suara Bangsamoro, a leftist group representing indigenous peoples in the Philippines, said in a statement.
“This protest serves to highlight the imperialist plunder, abuses, and continued domination of the United States in the country,” the statement continued.
‘Running dogs of the U.S.’
The demonstrators had gathered in front of the US embassy to protest the presence of the US and the military in their ancestral lands, according to Rappler.
They were also calling for an end to the US’s presence in the country and to back Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s independent foreign policy, according to the Associated Press.
Duterte has inveighed heavily against the US, lashing out at his country’s longstanding ally for its criticism of his violent drug war, which is thought to have killed between 2,300 and 3,600 people. He has also raged against the US’s legacy of abuse in the Philippines during the colonial period in the first half of the 20th century.
Duterte was in China during the protest, where he has traveled with a large delegation of business representatives, hoping to secure billions in Chinese investments and improve ties with Beijing.
Duterte has garnered high ratings over his first three months as president, in part because of his nationalist stances and tough talk.
Paradoxically, the US maintains high approval ratings among Filipinos, even as Duterte’s rhetoric against Washington has resonated with some of his constituents.
“There was absolutely no justification (for the violence),” Renato Reyes, secretary general of left-wing activist group Bayan (Nation), told reporters, according to Reuters. "Even as the president avowed an independent foreign policy, Philippine police forces still act as running dogs of the U.S.“