The ‘true spirit’ of ‘tokhang’
A year and a half after it was first launched, the Duterte administration’s defining policy will be reintroduced. The antidrugs campaign known as “Oplan Tokhang” will be “bloodless,” President Duterte’s favorite policeman pledged.
“The spirit of ‘tokhang,’ if implemented properly, is bloodless. That’s why it’s called knock and plead,” Philippine National Police Director General Ronald dela Rosa told reporters.
Tokhang is a made-up word, formed by joining common Visayan terms together: “toktok” or knock, “hangyo” or request or plead. But today, a year and a half after it was first launched, on the day the President took his oath of office, tokhang has become a familiar word with a familiar, unmistakable meaning: It means “killed.”
When ordinary people say, “Na-tokhang ang tren,” referring to the awful light rail system spread across Metro Manila like an ugly scar, they are referring to yet another train stalled in the tracks, and they mean, “The train has been killed” or “The train is dead.” When ordinary people say, “Na-tokhang ang baterya,” referring to a cell phone battery that has been drained, they mean “The battery has been killed,” or “The battery is dead.”
The reason this is now the widely used and widely accepted meaning is the sheer scale of violence of President Duterte’s so-called war on drugs.
Thousands of people have been killed in the antidrugs campaign, most of them poor. The total number is undetermined; it may not in fact be possible to determine the total any longer, with the PNP itself changing its definitions in the course of the campaign; the statistics themselves are the subject of additional controversy. But very few people will dispute that thousands have been killed, in an exhausting war of attrition.
Oplan Tokhang has been suspended twice.
The first time was about a year ago, when the President ordered the unit in charge of the campaign disbanded because of the killing of Korean businessman Jee Ick-joo. The murder of the kidnapping victim — inside Camp Crame itself, the PNP headquarters — took place in October the previous year, but became public knowledge only after the victim’s wife, not yet knowing she was already a widow, spoke to the Inquirer. She merely wanted to spread the word about her husband’s kidnapping.
The second time came after the President assigned the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency the lead role in the antidrugs campaign, after the controversy over unexplained killings hounded the PNP. All drug enforcement units in the PNP were ordered dissolved.
But this month, the PNP is back on the tokhang route. Dela Rosa promised that the police would now be on their best behavior. “We will make sure and continue to make sure that police will do the true tokhang, not one that is vulnerable to police whims.”
“Police whims” is a strange explanation for the violent conduct of the first stages of Oplan Tokhang. Dela Rosa himself testified in the Senate that thousands of drug personalities had been killed in police operations (Kipo), while thousands more were killed in mysterious or unknown circumstances (the label the police use is DUI, for deaths under investigation).
He justified police action that led to the Kipo as done under threat, because the suspects fought back. (“Nanlaban,” the Filipino term for that, which the police themselves use in describing the reported encounters, has also become an all-too-familiar word.)
So if the suspects fought back, in the majority of Kipo cases, what police whims is he talking about?
The case of 17-year-old Kian delos Santos, who was recorded on camera being dragged by plainclothes policemen to what turned out to be his place of execution, shook the country because it offered incontrovertible proof of police cruelty.
And yet the police have defended the actions of their men who grabbed Kian, even describing the young student as a drug runner. Is this determined circling of the wagons a police whim?
The truth is: The PNP has not come clean about its dirty policies and its dirty cops. No less than the President thundered that as much as 40 percent of the police was corrupt, or in the control of drug lords and operators.
What has the PNP done since the President said that a year ago to bring these corrupt cops to justice, to root out the causes that lead to corruption within, to discipline the rest of the force?
Unless this rot is cured, the “true spirit” of tokhang may grow strong again, but the “flesh” of the PNP will remain weak.
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