Tokhang, trolls and Arroyo generals

The UP Third World Studies Center organized a research workshop on ‘Violence, Human Rights and Democracy in the Philippines.’ I submitted a short essay in response to the workshop question: “Based on your knowledge of and experience in your locality, do you think that the Duterte administration is violent?”

President Rodrigo Duterte has been a “very stable genius” in flaunting the violence of the state in order to perpetuate elite rule in the country. In Metro Manila, this is evident in the Tokhang campaign, the persecution of political activists, and the promotion of a vicious type of propaganda to silence the opposition.

Tokhang Terrorism

Tokhang is an example of how the Duterte government deployed state machineries to terrify the urban population. Under the guise of eradicating the drug menace, Tokhang normalized the expansion of surveillance methods and the extensive basing of the police in urban poor communities. Tokhang soon became notorious because of the killings of suspected drug operators and peddlers during police operations. Instead of removing illegal drugs, it only worsened the state of impunity because of the intensified extrajudicial killings and mass arrests of alleged drug personalities.

Some points for further research:

a. Exact number of Tokhang casualties. Government data can be verified by independent research to determine the number of police raids, arrests, victims of extrajudicial killings, and cases filed in courts.

b. Finding information if a bounty system was enforced that incentivized law enforcement agencies to produce ‘impressive’ results in a short period of time.

c. A mapping initiative of Tokhang incidents correlated with social-economic indicators. Many of the high-profile documented Tokhang cases are located in resettlement areas where income levels of residents remain low, economic opportunities are limited, and delivery of social services are either privatized or acquired through patronage.

Is the wiping out of the drug problem, through the seemingly instant solution promised by Tokhang, intended to obfuscate the failure of the state to uplift the living standards and good governance in the country?

d. Role of LGUs in implementing Tokhang. From the barangay captains who supplied the police with an initial list of drug users and peddlers to city mayors who actively enabled their police to carry out the Tokhang program, there is need to identify the actual involvement of local officials in the government’s anti-drug campaign. Two mayors initially voiced concern about Tokhang but it was only the mayor of Pateros who has consistently appealed for the rethinking of the methods used by the police.

e. Review of drug laws. Determining if there are provisions in the law that undermine the privacy of individuals and other civil liberties through constant surveillance and drug testing, differentiating the penalties for drug possession, and possible application of harm reduction strategies in addressing the drug problem.

f. Highlighting grassroots resistance against Tokhang. ‘Funeral protest marches’ were organized in Manila, Caloocan, and Quezon City by families and friends of Tokhang victims. The Catholic Church held a “Walk for Life’ procession at the Quirino Grandstand. The Movement Against Tyranny gathered thousands in Luneta and denounced the abuses committed under Tokhang. And various groups, most notably the church-led Rise Up network, have been documenting drug-related extrajudicial killings and providing support to the relatives of Tokhang victims.

How effective are these protests? What are the challenges in sustaining the organizing of Tokhang victims? What form of organization or political action is appropriate to broaden the opposition against Tokhang? How can this movement or campaign inspire confidence among the people to expose police abuse, confront the state-backed vigilantes, defeat the rebooting of Tokhang, and demand accountability from the Duterte government?

The Legacy of Marcos and Arroyo

Tokhang is clearly a Duterte prototype of state repression. Aside from terrorizing urban poor communities, Tokhang is used to stifle dissent as well. But he also copied from the political playbook of previous authoritarian regimes. He has publicly confessed his admiration for President Ferdinand Marcos and has committed to the political restoration of the Marcoses. His government is planning to change the constitution and may even expand the scope of Martial Law in Mindanao.

But Duterte’s tactics are not simply a throwback to the Marcos era. The pattern of repression that we are seeing today is eerily familiar to what transpired in the country during the reign of former President Gloria Arroyo.

After the ‘Hello Garci’ scandal in 2005, Arroyo was accused of committing rampant human rights abuses to prevent the opposition from mounting another People Power uprising. Extrajudicial killings became a common term because of the rise in activist killings. Trumped up cases were filed against activists, lawyers, church leaders and those branded as ‘enemies of the state’. In response to the deteriorating human rights situation, the Supreme Court promulgated the Writs of Amparo and Habeas Data as legal tools for the protection of civil liberties.

Some of the military generals who served under Arroyo and those who were implicated in cases of torture, enforced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings are now part of the Duterte Cabinet. The Inter-Agency Legal Action Group created under Arroyo to prosecute those abetting rebellion was revived in 2017, albeit with another name. Will this lead to the crackdown of the legal mass movement? Will Duterte order the deployment of soldiers in urban poor communities like what Arroyo did in 2006 and 2007? Will the police disperse protests by resurrecting the ‘calibrated preemptive response’ doctrine?


The most prominent apologist of Tokhang and Marcosian methods is no other than Duterte himself. He is not only unrepentant about using repressive measures but he considers this as necessary to reform the nation.

He and his troll army are aggressive in demonizing the opposition, media, the church, UN agencies, human rights defenders, and other critics of the government’s policies. His statements are often outrageous, incoherent, divisive, and offensive; but this could be a deliberate propaganda strategy to confuse and overwhelm the public.

Spew out sensational sound bites while the state is implementing Tokhang, bombing Lumad communities, and attacking the independence and integrity of democratic institutions while protecting the interest of oligarchs and campaign donors.

It is by terrorizing the poor and intimidating other political factions that enabled Duterte and his government to collude with big business in enforcing onerous public-private-partnerships, corporate-driven modernization of public services, regressive taxation, and expansion of plantations by the extractive industry.

If not challenged, this rampaging Duterte government will be further emboldened to institutionalize dictatorship by changing the constitution and allowing the indefinite transition to a so-called federal system of government. The challenge should come from all freedom-loving Filipinos and this can be harnessed in the grassroots. (

Mong Palatino is a Filipino activist and former legislator. Email:

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