The Philippines’ Drug War in Captions

by Shaun Liew

A picture is worth a thousand words: this is one of the worst, over-recycled clichés that exists today. It is also a frequent occupier of Instagram captions, one must wonder if our creativity go as far as the clichés we use. Despite this, clichés speak an eternal truth. That is why we like to use them as captions.

Captions help describe what is in a picture. They are usually short, precise, and are often mistaken as Instagram hashtags. Unlike them, captions don’t insinuate praises of ourselves – not even #squadgoals count as a caption. And although pictures themselves are impactful, the best captions condense the essence of it in a few words.

That is why Daniel Berehulak’s article in the New York Times is timely. With haunting images and personal stories, he captured the reality of the Philippines’ widespread drug war administered by President Rodrigo Duterte. And although he wrote much more, the captions of his photos are its essence.

Rising In Tandem, A Common Tactic, and Back-alley Killing describe the uncontrollable violence of backyard vigilantes taking the law into their own hands. They hunt for suspects on motorcycles, making a quick kill before speeding away.

Mass Arrests and Overcrowding reflect the sudden acceleration of arrests made by police and backyard vigilantes. Most of the suspects are seen cramming in police cells; twelve in a room meant for four. When they are not, they are lying outside on a basketball court, arranged like perfect Tetris blocks.

Killed at Home, Late Night Execution and From Joy to Sadness distill the fear and uncertainty of average Filipinos. Where might I be killed today, one might ask. At home? At a Seven Eleven convenience store? Or after a birthday celebration?

There are more insightful captions however: Buy-bust Operation and Nanlaban. Buy-bust operations refer to the procedure of police officers disguising themselves as drug pushers in order to catch drug users. Nanlaban is a phrase in Tagalog, a language Filipinos use, to mean ‘fighting it out’.

On its surface, Buy-bust Operation and Nanlaban perpetuate the conventional portrayal of drug users battling with enforcement. Drug users, bad; enforcement, good. No one would expect the opposite to be true, but unfortunately that is the other half of the Philippines’ drug story.

Buy bust operations are nothing more than an excuse to kill. The victims of these murders often don’t get a fair trial, and even if they surrender drug users still get killed under police custody. In police reports, the phrase ‘Nanlaban’ (fighting it out) is typically used as a justification to kill suspects.

In family corridors and back alleys, Nanlaban is all but the truth. Family and friends have often reported to journalists that the victim has surrendered but still get killed. Or that they were intruded by the police force and shot at point blank. The word of witnesses should be contrasted with the word of enforcement – that is how the law works. Fairly.

Strongmen are admired nowadays as leaders. But what is the good of strongmen who don’t have the strength to enforce that fairness, and instead release a wave of uncontrolled killing? And worse yet, aiming for drug users rather than drug pushers? Amnesty International stated that human rights are being abused and frankly they are right, even if it is President Duterte’s sovereign problems to deal with and not theirs.

It’s easy to argue the problem of poverty in the Philippines is drugs. Drugs make people unproductive and poor. But it’s harder to think of drugs as a symptom of poverty. What else causes poverty? And how else can you create jobs that will even make the drug business seem unprofitable?

These are hard questions, but the lack of answers to them should not be at the expense of the rights of others. But if that is the will of the majority of Filipinos and their president, then the minority – those who surrendered, those who disagree with President Duterte – will suffer. Note: democracy and rights are for the minority too.

Stacked like Firewood and Discarded: they describe the piled up bodies of drugs users, humans reduced to rubbish. Murdered by both the police and unlawful vigilantes. Consisting of both those who surrendered and those who have not. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. So far, the death toll of the drug war is six times the amount. How would one caption that?

Shaun is pursuing a Master’s in economics. He enjoys writing too.

* The views expressed here are the writer’s own and does not necessarily reflect the opinion and views of CEKU.

** This article was first published on Malay Mail Online on 15 December 2016

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