As he kept talking, the golden glow of the late afternoon gave way to the blood red Manila sunset. Suddenly, everything looked strange and unfamiliar. Have I been away from the country for too long?
Adrian Alarilla, a Southeast Asia Foreign Language & Area Studies (FLAS) Fellow in Indonesian and graduate student in Southeast Asia Studies, recently wrote about his experience visiting Manila during the winter break. He writes about the familiar becoming unfamiliar, as Manila is gripped in President Duterte’s war on drugs.
by Adrian Alarilla
On December 13, 2017, as the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency was acquiring 126 new agents, an Ilocos Sur journalist was arrested for “rebellion,” the Philippine Congress was mulling over the Dengvaxia disaster, and a new typhoon called Urduja was inching closer to Southern Philippines, I was in an Uber from Quezon City to Pasay with my brother and his fiancée. Although the trip is only about 12 miles long, in Manila Christmas traffic it could take three hours or longer. But we were in high spirits; my brother was getting married in a month, and we were taking his fiancée to a surprise bachelorette party organized by her friends (they had managed to keep it quiet, so she didn’t have any clue). The afternoon sun was miraculously peeking out from the perennial smog hovering over the city, tinting everything in gold. We didn’t even mind too much that our Uber driver, who had been silent for most of the trip, was blaring Christian praise songs from his tape player:
“Make me a channel of your peace
Where there is hatred let me bring your love
Where there is injury, your pardon Lord
And where there’s doubt, true faith in you…”
Since Quezon City is in the northern part of Metro Manila and Pasay is in the Southern part, we had to go through Manila. Crossing Pasig River, we caught a glimpse of Malacañang Palace to the right, the historic residence of the leader of the Philippines. We trudged on along Quirino Avenue, idly chitchatting about our own privileged, middle-class lives, distanced from the everyday realities of the streets of Manila. When we reached the “Paraiso ng Batang Maynila” (The Paradise of the Children of Manila), a rare public park in the concrete jungle that is Manila, we commented on the number of “informal settlers” (a politically correct term for the landless squatters of the city) camped out on the wide, tree-lined sidewalk. Suddenly, our driver decided to put in his two cents:
“Our President is right, it’s better to just kill all of them,” he remarked fiercely in Tagalog. We were shocked.
“I used to be skeptical about the effectiveness of extra-judicial killings,” he continued, “but now I am a firm believer. We’ve killed many of them already, but we should kill more. Kill all of them, and get rid of the city’s addict squatters.”
When he noticed that we weren’t speaking at all, he continued his diatribe: “Like what President Duterte said, we should follow what the president of Russia said about human rights. Human rights are for humans. The moment you start using drugs, you are no longer human. Screw human rights!”
As he kept talking, the golden glow of the late afternoon gave way to the blood red Manila Sunset. Suddenly, everything looked strange and unfamiliar. Have I been away from the country for too long? How could everything change so quickly? Here I was, staring right at the gaping jaws of hatred, fear, misunderstanding, and all I could do is gape dumbly in stunned silence. How many more will die tonight? How many of my people will continue to trample on the dead, berate them for getting killed, and laud those who continue to kill their fellow citizens and brag about it? And what can I do about it?
“…Make me a channel of your peace
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned
In giving to all men that we receive
And in dying that we’re born to eternal life.”
FLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education. FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies. Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply. Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.