Right down to the wire, as they say, 2016 continued its apparent quest to be remembered as a particularly bad year. In its closing days, when most Filipinos kick back, take it easy and enjoy the rest of the holiday break before preparing to resume the grind, a typhoon, a fire, three bombings, and more deaths from drug-related police operations were among the major aggravations that bedeviled the country and essentially put a damper on the national mood.
The explosions that shook Leyte and North Cotabato have led to warnings by the military for the public not to gather outdoors for the traditional New Year countdown parties, as these, it said, may become the object of terrorist attacks. The explosion in Leyte left at least 34 people wounded; authorities have ascribed the bombing to the Maute terrorists fighting for an Islamic state in Mindanao. Before that, the grenade attack in Midsayap in North Cotabato injured 16 people, right on Christmas Eve.
The violence can only add to the general sense of dread and foreboding as the nation heads to the new year with no end in sight to the bloody war on drugs being carried out by President Duterte’s administration. On the campaign trail, Mr. Duterte had vowed to lick the drug problem within six months—even then already a tall promise, but one lapped up by a sector that seems to thrive on braggadocio.
Six months later, not only has the President asked for an extension to his promised timetable, he has also scrapped talk of any timetable, saying the campaign would continue right up to the last day of his term, “until the last pusher is out of the street … until the last drug lord is killed.” Also worrisome is that he has invoked the specter of martial law as a handy tool for his governance, disparaging the Constitution that during his inaugural he vowed to uphold and protect, and which wisely sets limits to the presidency’s power to employ that drastic—and historically traumatic—call.
Given the unrelenting nature of the President’s flagship war, even the Christmas break and the run-up to the New Year could not offer a letup. Last Thursday brought more grim, though by now hardly atypical, news—three minors among seven shot dead by unknown gunmen in Caloocan, apparently more “collateral damage” in the now-normal environment of extrajudicial killings that would surely define memories of 2016 for many Filipinos.
Their country, after all, will enter 2017 with startling statistics—an unprecedented body count of more than 6,100 fatalities so far, and climbing, in just six months under a new dispensation. The families of those killed—many from the poorest of the poor, and often left with orphaned children—will certainly be unable to look back at this year with any sense of lightness or glee.
Elsewhere, a different kind of hardship is being felt: the lack of power, the damage to homes and infrastructure, the painful road to rebuilding as tens of thousands of residents across Bicol endure the aftermath of Typhoon “Nina.” Electricity in many parts of the region is projected to be restored only by Jan. 15, leaving residents no prospect but to mark the coming of the New Year in the dark. It is the same fate of about 1,000 families in Quezon City who lost their homes to a raging fire just two days after Christmas; the blaze obliterated a large residential area on NIA Road, leaving an elderly woman dead and three others injured.
It’s a bleak scenario to face on New Year’s Eve, and only the indestructible Filipino sense of optimism at the possibility of new beginnings may prove to be the antidote. Surveys say that whatever their station in life, Filipinos are always most hopeful at this time of year. That eternal aspiration for betterment seems more acute now than ever, given the annus horribilis that has just transpired. May 2017 be a lot better.
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