Editorial: A new and improved Tokhang

TWICE, President Rodrigo Duterte has asked the Philippine National Police (PNP) to back off from his war on drugs and yield the reins to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA). Twice, he has also asked them to step back into the arena.

This time around, some guidelines have been introduced to limit Oplan Tokhang’s reach as well as the risks of abuse. Under the guidelines, house-to-house visits can be done only from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Officers involved must wear their uniforms and bring along barangay officials as witnesses.

These changes are welcome because they show willingness to listen to the public’s concerns on what President Rodrigo Duterte has identified as the single biggest issue of his administration. But other steps remain open.

For instance, the PNP can be more proactive and more transparent about circulating its numbers on anti-drug operations, including arrests and deaths that result from these. It needs to strengthen mechanisms for community representatives to participate in the review of police operations, similar to the People’s Law Enforcement Boards that used to be active in Cebu City in the 1990s.

These changes are needed because at its core, Tokhang is the targeting of individuals or families on little more than raw information, some of it from anonymous sources. Despite its cutesy label—this union of “toktok” and “hangyo” or to knock and to plead--Tokhang needs transparency to limit its abuse by rogue elements of the government.

Consider that while the PNP has accepted the necessary limits to Oplan Tokhang, the Office of the Solicitor-General (OSG) has refused to submit documents on the campaign against illegal drugs. The OSG said it could not heed the Supreme Court’s (SC) order last Dec. 5, 2017 to submit those documents, because disclosure would “endanger the lives of those on the list.”

Granted, the government’s top lawyer can argue that it would be dangerous to submit the drug watch lists, as that would jeopardize ongoing or future operations. But why can’t the PNP and OSG disclose the list of persons killed in police operations from July 1, 2016 to Nov. 30, 2017? Why can’t they submit the names of those whose deaths in the same months the PNP is supposed to be investigating?

In a petition last October, when the Free Legal Assistance Group and human rights lawyers asked the SC to stop the war on drugs, they also asked that the National Bureau of Investigation be authorized to examine the killings.

One objective “Tokhangers” can aspire for is to find clarity on the anti-drug campaign’s most gruesome numbers. Some groups, among them Human Rights Watch, have claimed more than 12,000 deaths since the Duterte administration’s war on drugs began in June 2016. The PNP says fewer than 4,000 have been killed in government operations. It is time those names were made available for the Court’s and NBI’s scrutiny. A better Tokhang can emerge only if the truth is part of its non-negotiables.
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