Those who were wounded in the violent dispersal of a recent demonstration in front of the US Embassy in Manila have filed charges of attempted murder, serious physical injuries and unlawful arrest against police officials at the Office of the Ombudsman. This is but right and fair. Anyone who has seen the video of the incident would have been startled by the sight of a police van plowing through the crowd of demonstrators—clearly with an intent to maim, since the driver did the shocking maneuver more than once.
Yet, despite the recorded proof, the Manila Police District has baldly denied wrongdoing, saying only that “the driver extricated the patrol car and inadvertently hit some unruly protesters who sustained minor injuries.” The MPD also said it was the demonstrators’ fault. They had turned unruly and violent, beating on the van with their sticks and refusing to disperse despite an order to do so, it said.
The police need reminding about the rationale behind their “maximum tolerance” policy. In any confrontation between citizens exercising their right to free speech and assembly and police authorities tasked to ensure peace and order, the men and women in uniform have a lopsided advantage over the demonstrators. They are deputized to carry firearms, they are presumably trained to handle tinderbox situations, and they have the overwhelming authority of the state behind them to impose order and effect arrests if necessary.
Slamming a van into the bodies of demonstrators not only violates the “maximum tolerance” protocol; it amounts to a deliberate attempt to inflict injury. The graver injustice in this case is that the violence was perpetrated on not only students and NGO members but also on indigenous peoples who had journeyed to Manila to press for the return of their militarized lands and the redress of historic grievances. These people who have endured poverty, oppression and indifference for so long had hoped for better treatment under President Duterte’s administration, as he had promised during the election campaign.
On the streets of Manila, they were met instead with brutal force—apparently merely for daring to assemble. The MPD deputy director for operations, Senior Supt. Marcelino Pedrozo, was caught on tape berating his men for their failure to end the demonstration much earlier, and for appearing too lenient despite their being cops: “Wala man lang kayong hinuli, ang dami-dami niyan… Magkagulo na kung magkagulo, pulis tayo rito eh. Pwede ba tayong patalo sa mga yan?” he said.
And then he added what he must imagine was the most compelling reason for unleashing his men to disperse the demonstrators—that the police had lost face with the US Embassy: “Anong mukhang ihaharap natin sa embassy? Kaya i-disperse nyo yan!”
While Pedrozo was barking out his dispersal order, his boss, President Duterte, was in the middle of a state visit in China where, continuing a thread, he excoriated and declared a “separation” from the United States. One would have expected at least a tongue-lashing from the President for Pedrozo’s fawning mindset of breaking up a citizens’ assembly, even by violent means, to please the Americans.
That hasn’t happened. While nine policemen involved in the incident, including Pedrozo, have been relieved of their duties for now, no censure of their actions as recorded has come from either Philippine National Police chief Ronald dela Rosa or the President himself. Instead, Mr. Duterte has mouthed the official line—that the driver of the van, PO3 Franklin Kho, panicked and ran his vehicle into the demonstrators by accident.
For good measure, the President said he’d like to have a cup of coffee with Kho to discuss the incident. No similar invitation has been extended to the demonstrators still nursing their wounds.
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