An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission
PHILIPPINES: Absence of protection thrives for decades
By Danilo Reyes
I can still remember images of twenty years ago when my mother (now a retired public school teacher) and I travelled on a night bus from our hometown to Cotabato City. In those days our hometown was about six to seven hours away. The travel time would be shorter now as the highway has been cemented unlike in the old days. (photo left: Military checkpoint: one of the numerous checkpoints along the highways in Mindanao)
In the past night time bus was available despite the ongoing protracted war and insurgencies in the south. A bus company, which already ceased operation, would leave my hometown shortly after midnight. The time of departure was calculated so that it reached or passed through the conflict areas in daylight.
This same rule applies today. The cemented road, which should have made the travel more convenient; and the numerous military checkpoints before reaching Cotabato City, did not make any difference to the travelling of passengers as it was in the old days. Twenty years on, passenger bus services stop when night falls. No passenger vehicles, from what I know, ever dared to travel at night in this area. For a child wanting to travel to other places, I did not bother to ask my mother why it was so.
Arriving in Cotabato City, I could still remember the images of my mother dragging me by the hand as she struggled through and away from the crowd of male porters. The porters, who demanded payment the moment they laid their hands on your bags, were harassing the passengers who refused to pay. Ideally a passenger would pay a porter once a service has been provided or the passenger was satisfied with the service, like literally carrying your luggage to where you are heading to. But this was not the case before and remains not the case to this day. I thought to myself that twenty years on nothing had ever changed.
My mother and I were to transfer to a ferry that was to travel overnight crossing high seas towards Pagadian, a coastal city by the hillside in another part of Mindanao. Not only did my mother have to be aware of the extorting porters, we also have to be very cautious of swindling vendors and pickpockets. One of the vendors was offering name labels in a sticker. His modus operandi was to charge a passenger excessively for one peso (the equivalent before was very high) for every letter. So, the more letters there is in a person’s name, the more he would have to pay, for a sticker that should have been very cheap.
The passenger would not know the cost until the name labeling in the sticker was done; and then the passenger had no choice but to pay for it to avoid trouble. The customers paid, not because they were satisfied, happy and they wanted the name label, but they just wanted get on and as much as possible avoid trouble with the vendors and the porters. The vendors and porters were openly threatening, harassing and intimidating persons who refused to pay; or, who refused to accept the service that they rendered at all.
This is the same scenario that still thrives two decades on. The experience my family and I had few weeks ago while on holiday reminded me of that thing in the past when I was a boy travelling with my mother. After landing at the (Cotabato) airport in Awang, Maguindanao, my brother-in-law and I had to struggle with extorting porters and public transport drivers, who were a few years older than me, from the airport to the bus terminus in the city.
A passenger rickshaw charged Php70 (HKD 13) for a short ride from the arrival area to the gate of the airport terminal. Soon after we arrived at the roundabout, where the passengers would have to transfer to a passenger jeep heading towards a bus terminus at the downtown area, a group of extorting porters were pushing and pulling our luggage to one jeep to another, like in a tug-of-war. The scene was chaotic. They did the same thing to every arriving passenger including a woman who was carrying an infant. (photo right: Passenger bus: passengers are required to alight from the bus at military checkpoints for on-the-spot inspection)
The porters first told me they would charge on a minimum fare, which is Php 15 (HKD3) per head; and transport us to our destination at a bus terminus. I agreed even thought I was very suspicious that the amount would be higher once we arrive at our destination. I agreed because they started displaying intimidating movements as they noticed that I might not agree. It was difficult to argue with them when you are with your family and relatives. The rule is to be safe and get on with it.
In between this scene, I was looking at a Police Station, a stone-throw away from where we were located thinking whether it would sensible to get some help from the police. But my instinct dictates that it would be of no use as I did not see any police officer on duty anyway. Again, the rule that I immediately remembered was to follow what it was twenty years ago: get on with it; try not to make any trouble or draw attention to yourself.
At that time, I felt helpless and could not do anything. In public view and close to the police station, the extorting porters and drivers were openly intimidating and harassing passengers, not only us, but others as well, in as much as they could to extort money from. Their actions were a criminal offence, but they did it openly; the presence of a police station and a military checkpoint close to where the porters were doing their business, did not make any difference. I did not feel protected as did the other passengers.
I thought to myself that perhaps the security and safety condition of the society where I live had deteriorated over the years that threats and intimidation, a serious criminal offence, could now be openly done in public, and that they are no longer as grave as a criminal offence that deserved to be investigated. Law enforcement is meaningless in a society where the people are in a survival mode; and where the distinction between what is a criminal offence and what is not has been grossly obscured.
The extorting porters and drivers were in a survival mode to feed their family. In a place like that, where most people have been deprived of education due to protracted wars and poverty, it was perhaps the only job available to them. They must have learned how to intimidate and threaten persons from old-timers. Some of them are probably farmers but a farmer lives on farmland. When his farm is ravaged by wars nothing can be done. Crops are left to rot in times of conflict because they cannot be harvested.
I was right. After reaching close to our destination at a bus terminus, the charge that was supposedly Php75 (HKD 13) for all of us, they demanded Php300. I also saw other passengers who alighted ahead of us visibly complaining the amount they were asked to pay. Again, to avoid making any trouble and to just get on with it, I had no choice but to pay the extorting porters what they demanded from me. The safety of my family and my relatives who were travelling with me were more important.
When we get settled in a bus, I heard a passenger complaining in a loud voice how he and his companions were ignored by onlookers, including the bus company staffs, when he was drawing their attention to ask help because the porters and drivers were harassing him. The guy was probably refusing to pay and complaining the amount that they were collecting from him; however, none of the onlookers and the bus company staff bothered to come to his rescue. The rule is: don’t get involved.
Nobody probably would have the idea where the closest police station was. And even if they did no one would probably bother going to ask for help.
The sense of compassion, being in a community, the value of helping others and the sense of humanity has deteriorated badly. In a society devastated by wars, distrust, violence and the dysfunctional system of protection and rudimentary form of law enforcement, the value of human lives would become meaningless. The people and the community survive on their own. They help themselves, not others; they trust and protect themselves, not the police.
What my mother told me in the past and her rule that I should be a cautious traveler still applies to this day. It was frightening to see how fast the security and safety condition for ordinary travelers is deteriorating. One could no longer feel safe to do simple things like travelling without fear. It was a scene from the past that continue to thrive in the south. Criminal acts are done in public view and close to police stations. The seriousness of these criminal acts — like threats and intimidation — has lost its depth in the minds of the people. The police no longer investigate and protect victims.
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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.
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