In the past few days, two very different events have drawn attention to the Philippines’ war on drugs – one selfless; the other self-serving. One that looks very much like a conscientious journalist doing his job in his home province; the other, smacking of political interference in Philippine internal affairs by an American celeb with ties to the Washington establishment.
News boss, Larry Que, may have paid with his life for criticising local officials in the island province of Catanduanes in the Bicol region of Luzon. He had cited their negligence in allowing a licence for what turned out to be the biggest crystal-meth (shabu) mill yet to come to light.
The premises, a large warehouse at Barangay Palta in the provincial capital, Virac, was raided by the Anti-Illegal Drugs Special Operations Task Force at the end of last month. What that raid revealed was an industrial-sized plant – fitted with its own hydroelectric generator to ensure production wouldn’t be interrupted by power outages – capable of outputting up to 500kg of crystal meth each yield cycle. What it was meant to be was a plastics factory.
Que revealed this in an article published in his just-launched newspaper, Catanduanes News Now. On Monday, less than a week after the article appeared, he was struck by a hail of bullets from a tandem motorcycle hit team and left to die outside his office building in Virac.
Certainly, it’s not clear at this stage whether Que’s reporting on the shabu laboratory is what got him killed. But there’s no disputing that his article once more revealed a link between organised drug crime and local level government agencies. At best there appears to have been negligence somewhere within Virac City Hall concerning inspection of the premises and to ensure right-of-use was being complied with; at worse there was involvement in the enterprise.
Meanwhile, aging rock star (and apparent US singing diplomat), James Taylor, forfeited the takings from his 25 February 2017 Mall of Asia concert in Manila – seat prices ranged from PHP2,120 general admission to PHP14,260 VIP Coral – for the ‘prick of conscience’ that drove him to cancel his appearance in the Philippine capital.
“… sometimes one is called on to make a political stand,” he said, explaining his decision to cancel the event. “Recent reports from the Philippines of summary executions of suspected offenders without trial or judicial process are deeply concerning and unacceptable to anyone who loves the rule of law,” he added. Singer Taylor was joining the chorus of protest against extrajudicial killings in the Philippines which are being attributed, personally, to President Rodrigo Duterte. He’s singing from a score that’s been handed to him.
In January last year, Taylor was wheeled out to Paris to sing to French President, François Hollande, and a mourning French nation after the Charlie Hebdo attacks which left 12 people dead when Islamic militants stormed the offices of the Paris-based satirical magazine. In the aftermath, US President, Barack Obama, had been criticised for his conspicuous absence from the line-up of 40-plus world leaders who had gone to pay their respects and stand in solidarity with the French people. Five days later, Secretary of State, John Kerry, rolled up in the French capital with James Taylor in tow. And at Paris City Hall the 68-year-old soft-rocker gave a stomach-churning rendition of his 45-year-old hit single, You’ve Got a Friend.
People living in Happyland, Metro Manila – that’s not what it sounds like, it’s a corruption of the Visayan word, hapilan, meaning smelly garbage – couldn’t care less about Taylor’s political stand. They’ve never heard him sing, unless it was in some broken down videoke hovel in a dingy part of the metropolitan slum acreage. Nor could they care in close-by Aroma (self explanatory), another cesspit used for human habitation. If Taylor wants a big audience he should get to these places; they house around 80,000 people per square mile.
But of course that’s not his audience. Taylor’s high-minded protest plays to the Hollywood and Washington elites where such token gestures are the currency of prestige. And that Paris gig earned him a lot of prestige currency. In November (pictured), US President Barack Obama, stood behind him in the East Room of the White House, and placed a Presidential Medal of Freedom around his neck – that’s the highest civilian honour and it’s bestowed for “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors”. That’s not bad for that fill-in act in Paris.
James Taylor, or rather that hollow protest he made as a friend of Washington – a man who at the last count was worth some US$60 million – will not be remembered and his ‘sacrifice’ will make zero difference to the wider Filipino population. Nor will it affect the outcome of the Philippines’ battle with drugs. (Nor will it affect him incidentally; the other legs of his tour – Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – are going ahead as planned. The big loser is Ovation Productions, the local Manila-based promoter which has been selling the concert for months who now have to reimburse the ticket costs).
Larry Que died a violent death but he will be remembered. The column he wrote sought the truth on what went wrong in his province to allow it to house the biggest crystal-meth farm of anywhere on the 7,000 islands that make up the archipelago. He’ll be regarded as courageous and as someone who wanted to add his weight to the effort to suppress the flow of poison in his country. And he may have made a difference as investigators pursue the paperwork that allowed the lab to be built and to operate.
Meanwhile, and rightly, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called on the government to pull out all the stops and get to the bottom of Que’s assassination. Rightly too, the government through Presidential spokesman, Ernesto Abella, condemned Que’s killing and announced that a full enquiry into the case has been ordered. Hopefully, this will be conducted swiftly.
And so, while that goes ahead, the serious business of closing down the drug gangs continues, and as family and friends of Larry Que mourn their loss, James Taylor’s tour will proceed, he’ll be congratulated for his noble stand from fellow hissy-fitters in La La Land and his prestige as a roving ambassador of American Liberal values will rise.