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Music and Oplan Tokhang

Dennis Gorecho - Kuwentong Peyups

Five years ago, a “secret cell” in a police station linked to President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign became viral on social media. 

This is one of the intriguing scenes in this year’s Cinemalaya film “Blue Room” where young musicians had the traumatic experience of being victims of “tokhang-for-ransom.”

It revolves around the story of a progressive indie rock band Rebel Rebel composed of privileged teenagers.  

The film, in a way, showed the link between music and drugs. There are musicians who use drugs to augment their creativity. Some fans, on the other hand, use drugs to intensify the pleasure they get from music.

But after their celebratory night at the local bar after getting their biggest break at a prestigious local music festival, they were arrested for drug possession.  

Instead of the standard procedures, they were hauled to the Blue Room, a VIP detention area where they can bribe their way out through rogue cops.

After a two-year wait as a result of the series of Covid-19 lockdowns, Cinemalaya again is a face-to-face event with a full-length feature category for 11 films, including Blue Room. The cast include Elijah Canlas, Juan Karlos Labajo, Harvey Bautista, Nourijune Hooshmand, and Keoni Jin.

Canlas is not a neophyte in Cinemalaya as he previously appeared in Sundalong Kanin (2014) and Edward (2019).

He rose to prominence for his award-winning performance in Kalel, 15 where he received Best Actor awards at the 43rd Gawad Urian Awards, 68th FAMAS Awards, 17th Asian Film Festival in Italy, and 16th Harlem International Film Festival in New York.

Director Ma-an Asuncion-Dagñalan said in an interview that her motivation in making films like Blue Room is to tell the truth: “If we are ‘true’ to ourselves, we can grow and mature, learning from our mistakes. We can create a social bond with society if we are true to them.”  

Many of the scenes are perhaps inspired by Oplan Tokhang, the flagship anti-drugs program of the Duterte administration, which has been criticized by local and international human-rights groups. 

These groups exposed a pattern of unlawful police conduct in these killings, designed to paint a veneer of legality over summary executions. Many of the killings the police attribute to “vigilantes” are allegedly death-squad-style extrajudicial executions by police and police agents.

In April 2017, the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), accompanied by press people, discovered a secret detention facility hidden behind a bookshelf in a Manila police station, which was linked to Tokhang.

The facility housed a dozen men and women in atrocious, grossly overcrowded conditions. The detainees told CHR and journalists that police—who claimed the detainees were drug suspects—had abducted them and held them in the facility for a week without notifying families or lawyers.

Detainees said that inadequate lighting, ventilation, and toilet facilities forced them “to urinate and do bowel movements in plastic bags.”

Detainees alleged they were tortured by police who demanded bribes to secure their freedom.

Police denied the allegations, insisting they are still processing detainees’ arrest notifications and refused CHR requests to free the detainees.

Ironically, the Office of the Ombudsman dismissed the case filed against the policemen saying that  there was not enough proof of bad faith. “Since the burden of proof lies with the CHR, it was incumbent upon said office to prove that there was another available confinement area that is better than the one where said detainees were locked up, but that respondents intentionally and maliciously refused to accord them such.”

A case is filed before the International Criminal Court asking for an investigation into crimes committed in the Philippines related to the “drug war” killings from November 2011 to June 2016, when large numbers of extrajudicial killings occurred in Davao City while Duterte was mayor, and up to March 19, 2019, the date that the Philippines’s withdrawal from the ICC’s Rome Statute took effect.

The video of the secret detention cell also appeared in the award winning full-length movie “Aswang” by Filipino filmmaker Alyx Ayn Arumpac.

This documentary on Tokhang utilized the aswang not just as a folkloric monster but also as a creation for fear mongering that simulates its character—disguised and clandestine in food hunting prioritizing the poor at the bottom of the food chain.

Blue Room and Aswang touched upon “financial justice” wherein a person’s social standing determines whether they end up dead on a sidewalk or they buy their freedom through bribery.

 These films also show how the poor become easy targets because they do not have the means to pay for the cost of justice—a cruel reality that many victims continue to face.

Peyups is the moniker of University of the Philippines. Atty. Dennis R. Gorecho heads the seafarers’ division of the Sapalo Velez Bundang Bulilan law offices. For comments, e-mail info@sapalovelez.com, or call 0917-5025808 or 0908-8665786.

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