Making Tokhang palatable

published 22 January 2017
THE first red flag was the invitation.
On that breezy Saturday morning in December, the barangay captain, during her welcome remarks, said she was overwhelmed at the turnout of residents at the village basketball court.
This comment was met with silence by the crowd. People were thinking: Of course we would show up. Who would dare be absent if your household received a letter that went like this?
“Rather than have police knocking at doors of your houses there will be a meeting to be conducted by the Quezon City Police District for all residents and homeowners.
1. All residents and homeowners of [village] must attend. If you cannot come, please send an adult family representative.
2. Only adult family members may come as family representatives. Household help, drivers and maids are not qualified to represent you and the family.
3. During the meeting, the objectives, processes and methods of Operation Tokhang will be explained. You may ask questions on this topic and other concerns as well.
4. If you do not attend or send a qualified family representative, then the police team of Operation Tokhang together with Barangay representatives will come knocking at your door.
The Quezon City Police District have kindly consented to a barangay meeting to save you the concerns and trouble of having police from knocking at your door. So please take the effort to attend and participate in this important meeting. Again we reiterate, come personally or send an adult family member as representative. Attendance will be recorded.”
Subtlety is a virtue—and apparently it’s difficult to come by.
At the full-house meeting, Police Chief Supt. Guillermo Lorenzo Eleazar, district director of the QCPD, explained that they specifically sent out invitations couched in this language to get more people to come and heed the message of the police. “It was never meant to be a threat,” he later on said. They just really wanted a high turnout.
What was the message? That people need not be afraid of Oplan Tokhang. Tokhang, which is a combination of the terms “toktok” and “hangyo” (to knock and to plead) is actually part of the Philippine National Police’s two-pronged approach—Project Double Barrel, as directed by PNP Director General Ronald dela Rosa on July 1, 2016—to curb the illegal drug problem in the country. (The second component distinguishes between high-value and low-value targets and prescribes different approaches for them.)
Eleazar presented a flowchart of how Oplan Tokhang should go. It begins with collection and validation of information about people known in the community as engaged in illegal drugs. There will be coordination for the house visitation. The person will be “invited” to come along. He may or may not come. Eleazar played a video that showed how a drug addict in the family was rehabilitated because he decided to heed the police’s invitation and submitted himself to a reform program.
The police director took the conversation one step further. Since there is less instance of drug activity in Quezon City villages, he said, they modified their approach so that the police no longer have to go to neighborhoods and knock on doors. Rather, the supposedly more enlightened citizenry would be invited to a meeting where representatives of the police would discuss their efforts to curb the drug menace.
Call it “taphang” instead—from “tapok,” to gather, and “hangyo,” to plead. What’s to fear?
All this sounds benign on paper, but it is starkly different from what we actually know and feel about the government’s efforts to curb illegal drugs—seemingly at all costs and through whatever measures. The Tokhang Eleazar was talking about seems different from the police operations we hear about, where suspected dealers and users are killed for “resisting.” Reports on planted evidence abound. And now there is a new scheme—tokhang for ransom—that unscrupulous cops are going into. It’s a way to make money, really, taking advantage of the war being led by no less than the President himself.
As the new year kicked in, we heard that nearly 6,000 have been killed in the name of this war and the people are beginning to fret. This is shown in a recent survey that said eight out of 10 Filipinos feared they or somebody they knew would become victims of the government crackdown on so-called drug personalities, whether these are founded or not.
In November we heard about how a suspected drug lord was killed by cops right inside his jail cell in Leyte. And just this week, we were appalled to know that a Korean businessman was strangled by policemen inside Camp Crame.
And we are told there is nothing to fear.
We do not argue that the drug menace threatens our nation and our young. We also find merit in the determination of the government to crack down on those who enrich themselves by endangering the lives of others. But the manner in which the objective is carried out, and the temptation to abuse this blanket authority, cast terror and doubt among us all.
Not even the best made videos or the most eloquent of explanations can make the war against drugs palatable if it violates the most basic of rights.