Safe countries

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - November 9, 2020 - 12:00am

A day after President Duterte expressed pleasant surprise last week that the Philippines had been picked as one of the safest countries, nearly all the reflectorized markers disappeared from the traffic island along Roxas Boulevard in the city of Manila.

Reports said police are initially looking at street dwellers, who have proliferated along the boulevard throughout the pandemic. Rain or shine, they are there – from infants to the elderly, sitting on the center island, begging, sleeping in the bushes.

Their presence is a constant reminder of a failure of the state. Young boys, some openly sniffing rugby through plastic bags, vandalize cars with their forced windshield washing services. Few wear masks.

Cops round them up occasionally, but there are no facilities to give the homeless sustained shelter and care, and they are soon back in the streets.

Both the city government and the Department of Public Works and Highways have said they did not dismantle the markers. The DPWH said the markers are made of steel and might have been sold by the thieves.

Who buys them? Most likely the same lowlife fences who buy copper wires from stolen electricity cables.

Fences are responsible for the theft of vehicle parts, cell phones, portable computers. I’ve lost two aluminum ladders at home to fences. They can be dangerous: in December 2018, Ateneo de Manila graduate Francis de Leon was found dead in Marikina with multiple stab wounds and his cell phone missing. Burglars and snatchers sell their loot to fences.

In addition to the dangers posed by thieves, they are a burden on taxpayers. Now public funds, already in short supply because of the pandemic, will have to be spent to replace the stolen markers.

It’s unfortunate that this happened in Manila, whose mayor Isko Moreno has embarked on a street lighting program to deter criminality and make the city more livable. Having been born and bred in the hardscrabble neighborhoods of Tondo and Sta. Cruz, I’ve found the results impressive. When this pandemic is over, the changes will lure tourists to the city even at night.

Unless the thieves dismantle all the improvements before the COVID restrictions are completely lifted.

*      *      *

That Gallup poll on countries’ safety has raised eyebrows in the land of Tokhang and Double Barrel.

The Global Law and Order 2020 Index, drawn up by Washington-based management consulting firm Gallup Inc., showed the Philippines with an index score of 84 – tied with Australia, New Zealand, Poland and Serbia at 37th to 41st places.

Gallup covered 144 countries. The world’s safest countries, according to the survey, are Singapore and Turkmenistan, with an index score of 97 percent. China followed with 93 percent, and then Iceland and Kuwait with 93 percent. Afghanistan was at the bottom with 43 percent.

These are the questions asked in the survey:

• In the city or area where you live, do you have confidence in the local police force?

• Do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where you live?

• Within the last 12 months, have you had money or property stolen from you or another household member?

• Within the past 12 months, have you been assaulted or mugged?

Gallup noted that the sense of safety was highest in “economically developed countries with strong rule of law” and in “more highly state-controlled countries.”

I don’t think the Philippines falls in the first category, but we’re not exactly state-controlled either.

Inevitably, the government feels the survey is a reaffirmation of President Duterte’s approach to law and order, particularly his focus on the campaign against illegal drugs, which he blames for many crimes.

*      *      *

If we go by the results of surveys conducted by the two main pollsters in the Philippines, the war on drugs – bloody and brutal as it is – has in fact enjoyed high public support, to the dismay of human rights advocates.

Thanks to the weakness of the criminal justice system, Filipinos go along with short cuts to justice, and keep electing Dirty Harry types to high office. Remember, Rodrigo Duterte campaigned on a platform of killing criminals, and he had a background that tended to make people believe he would deliver on his promise. And he won by a landslide.

The police recently said some 8,000 people have been killed in anti-drug operations since President Duterte launched his war in 2016.

At the height of the drug killing spree, I asked people who lived in low-income communities that were the main targets of Tokhang and Double Barrel – drivers of mass transport vehicles, laundrywomen, vendors and salesladies – how they felt about the campaign. Nearly all the responses were, good riddance to their neighborhood lowlifes.

For sure, the response would have been the opposite if I had asked relatives or friends of those killed, or members of urban poor and rights groups.

*      *      *

I’ve never been to Turkmenistan, but I will agree that Singapore can be considered the safest country. And yes, I always felt safe in my visits to China and Iceland. Other countries where I felt a strong sense of personal security during my visits were Japan and Vietnam.

But the Gallup poll may need more nuancing, especially since it was conducted when the Philippines and many other countries have been under months-long lockdowns and curfews to contain COVID.

Even during the quarantines and curfews, and with my media pass, I wouldn’t walk alone at night in many areas in Metro Manila. Growing up in Manila, and from my years as a reporter, I believe there are too many criminal-minded people lurking in the shadows, ready to kill for a cell phone.

This is why I welcome Mayor Isko’s street lighting program. You have to visit the city at night and see the difference. I can now stroll along Liwasang Bonifacio at night without worrying about being mugged like one of our editors a few years back (plus I can now see any dog poop in my path).

So what do the thieves do? They steal the reflectorized markers that light up the traffic islands.

If they are allowed to get away with this, they will likely steal again. They could go for bigger items, and even threaten lives.

On Friday, a day after the markers were stolen, Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III lost his iPhone when he opened his car window to get a strong signal along P. Burgos street near Rizal Park.

The sense of personal safety can quickly deteriorate, and needs constant reassurance by the state.

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