Urban poor’s Christmas wish: Justice and peace amid drug war
“Giyera kontra droga, maralita ang biktima (In the war against drugs, the poor are the victims),” says a placard raised by a woman in white amidst a mass of masked individuals. Three men carrying gifts, dressed as kings with crowns upon their heads, are followed by more people holding signs expressing grief from the extrajudicial killings.
These masked individuals were members of the urban poor sector, who were staging their annual Panunuluyan, a tradition that reenacts the Holy Family’s search for lodging in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus Christ. The play, a collaboration between the Philippine Education Theater Association and various urban poor organizations from Metro Manila, was staged last December 14 at Plaza Miranda.
Usually, the urban poor Panunuluyan likens the biblical story of Mary and Joseph's tedious search for shelter to the urban poor’s plight for permanent housing and access to basic services. But with the direct and deadly impact of the war on drugs on the urban poor, this year’s play also served as a protest against Operation Tokhang and focused on forwarding peace and human rights.
Tokhang is derived from the Cebuano words “toktok (to knock)” and “hangyo (to ask).” Supposedly, police officers go house-to-house to persuade alleged drug offenders to stop their activities. However, complaints have arisen on the conduct of the operations and the chilling effect it has created on communities.
Recently, a draft report of the Senate Committee on Justice and Human Rights has found Tokhang “unconstitutional.”
Violence, fear and fragmentation
The play begins with King Herod, representing the Duterte administration and its war on drugs, who proclaims that he will bring about change in all the land. Herod wields a staff with a picture of a gun in one hand and on his other arm, a fake automatic machine gun. The three magi who visit Herod are hopeful for change and despite their misgivings, they go along with Herod as he exercises power in the land.
The consequences of Herod’s policies become evident in the next scene as Mary and Joseph are greeted with stories of violence, fear and fragmentation at the different doors they knock on to seek shelter.
“Sa paulit-ulit na ganoon [pagto-Tokhang] siyempre, pati kaming mga kabataan nadadamay, pati ‘yung mga inosenteng bata. Tapos, sa ganoong pangyayari, ‘yun talaga, nangangamba at natatakot talaga kami, kasi nga, kami ‘yung nadadamay. May nangyari sa amin na pinalabas nga kami ng mga pulis, tapos nung pinalabas kami ng mga pulis nasaksihan ko yung isang pulis na tinutukan ng baril ‘yung kapitbahay ko. ‘Yun sa pagtutok niyang iyon, sapilitan niyang pinapalabas yung dila ng kapitbahay ko, kung titingnan ba ito kung positibo ba o negatibo sa droga (Because of the repeated experiences from Tokhang, even the youth, the innocent children are affected. We are afraid because of this. It happened in our barangay that we were made to go out of our houses by the police and I witnessed the police point a gun at my neighbor. He was made to expose his tongue, so that they could check if he was positive or negative for drugs),” recounted one youth performer.
Despite this, the play depicts a public siding with the violence and destruction brought about by Herod’s policies. When asked to choose sides, between the devil named Mochang Angel and the Archangel Gabriel, the people choose Mochang Angel. The archangel pleads with the people to stand on the side of truth and justice for all, but under the threat of Herod, the performers stand with Mochang Angel, cheering loudly as Herod continued to wield his gun.
This leaves Mary and Joseph without a home and a place to live in, with Mary expressing her despair at not finding a place to give birth. Here the magi return, bearing gifts of strength, peace and unity, calling on Mary and Joseph despite the trying times.
Throughout the play, the urban poor questioned why they were the frequent targets, when the administration had promised to protect them and to finally serve their interests.
For Filomena Cinco, a barangay chairman in Estero de San Miguel and one of the organizers of the event, the issue of the war on drugs has added an extra burden for the urban poor to worry about on top of their fight for decent livelihood, health care, and quality education for their children.
Cinco adds that it is not that they are against this war. “Hindi namin tinututulan ang kampanya laban sa ilegal na droga, ngunit dapat nasa tamang proseso (We are not opposed to the campaign against illegal drugs, but it has to go through the right process),” she said.
Georgie Deolete, president of Kabalikat sa Kaunlaran in Baseco Community, lamented the lack of due process in carrying out Operation Tokhang.
“Walang proseso kasi may mga pagkakataon, kagaya ng aming miyembro, na kapitbahay niya ay nagulat na lang siya… nagkakagulo mga tao, pumasok ang pulis, pinalabas sila… tapos bigla na lang may namatay na padre de familia sa loob ng bahay. Dapat sana’y palabasin lahat ng tao, tapos kung ang tao na ito ay may kasalanan sa batas, bigyan siya ng karapatang ipagtanggol ang kanyang karapatan bilang isang tao (There is no process being followed. There are incidences, such as one that happened to one of the members of our organization, where his neighbor was surprised… there was a disturbance in his neighborhood, the police came into their house, they were made to go outside, and suddenly the head of the family was found dead inside the house),” Deolete said.
An end to violence
The alarming rise of extrajudicial killings color the backdrop of this year’s Christmas celebration. In this season of violence, the streets have flowed red with blood of the poor and vulnerable. Sons and daughters have buried their parents, having consigned themselves to celebrating Christmas as orphans.
Representatives of different urban poor communities deplore the culture of fear, violence, and repression that have marred the usually festive Christmas season pinning the rampant killings as the primary cause of this “change.”
“Doon sa panukala ni Pangulong Duterte, maraming natutuwa, [pero] mayroon ding mga nalulungkot sa mga nabibiktima ng [extrajudicial killings] (There are many people who are happy about President Duterte’s proposition, but there are also many people who are saddened by the victims of extrajudicial killings),” said Freddie Amistoso, a member of the People’s Solidarity Organization in Isla Puting Bato and who had also played King Herod.“Totoo naman na dapat talaga may pagbabago… pero hindi sa [extra judicial killings] idaan ‘yun (It’s true that there should be change… but it shouldn’t be through extrajudicial killings).”
Calls have been made for the administration to conduct its war on drugs properly. Manila Auxiliary Bishop Broderick Pabillo recalls a first-hand account in which men were asked to step out of their homes and sign blank pieces of paper for “undisclosed reasons.”
Cinco emphasized that there should be proper communication between police officers and the community, a clarification of the unclear conditions and processes of Tokhang, and community involvement in ensuring that Tokhang is conducted properly.
Aside from pleas for increasing police competency, community representatives who desire justice for the slain victims of Operation Tokhang. In most of these slayings, they were usually executed without legal pretense or proper evidence, and oftentimes a gross misapplication of force.
Deolete echoes this sentiment, stating that “Ang hinahamon ng panahon ngayon ay patas na karapatan at hustisya ng mga namamatay na hindi dumaan sa tamang proseso... Ang sigaw nga namin, ‘itigil ang patayan, pabahay ang tutukan’ (The challenge of today is equal rights and justice for those who die without due process… Our cry is ‘stop the murders, focus on housing’)”
Although not present at the mobilization, Vice President Leni Robredo sent a statement of solidarity with the victims of these killings.
“Nakikiisa kami sa Panunuluyan na ito at sa panawagan ng lahat ng mga maralitang lungsod na magkaroon ng hustisya ang biktima ng EJK (extrajudicial killings), lalung-lalo na ang mga pamilyang naiwan nila. Ngayong Pasko, hayaan nating mamayani ang pagkakaisa, patuloy na isulong ang hustisya, at pag-alabin ang pag-asa sa bawat isa (We are one in this Panunuluyan and the call of the urban poor for justice towards the victims of EJKs. This Christmas, let us promote the spirit of unity, continue the desire for justice, and to foster hope amongst each other),” the statement read.