Do all lives matter? Just the same? Where and how do we draw a line defining whose lives matter?

That may seem an unspeakably inhuman idea, but humans do it all the time. Governments draw up many lines defining whose lives matter the most and least. They even pass laws about it.

That’s how the privileged retain power, and some woebegone wretched lot – maybe an ethnic group like the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar – live in misery, if they live at all.

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in June last year vowing to kill drug suspects. These criminals deserved to die, he said. “They have no humanity, goddamn it.”

He spoke of shoot-to-kill and told people, “You know of any addicts, go ahead and kill them yourself, as getting their parents to do it would be too painful.” Duterte even offered bounties for their bodies.

Those chilling words were the beginning of a year of bloody carnage on the streets that has left 7,000 people or so dead. Bloodied bodies are found dead daily in backstreets or dead ends, shot or stabbed, or even tortured, perhaps bound or gagged, their crimes never proven in any court, and no differentiation made among casual users, addicts or dealers. Nearly all victims were poor, whose lives always matter less. Police reports usually say suspects were killed when they tried to fight back.

Duterte’s campaign was widely supported. One of the few critics was Senator Leila de Lima. She was accused of drug trafficking and jailed. Local Klang MP Charles Santiago attempted to see her, in his capacity as Asean parliamentarian for human rights, but was refused.

“President Duterte’s increasingly brutal war on drugs is an affront to human rights, the rule of law, and democratic accountability. Senator De Lima’s pointed criticism of it should be applauded, not punished,” he has said (tinyurl.com/star2-asean).

A pastoral letter from the Catholic Church read out in Philippine churches in February also condemned the killings, and said, “An even greater cause of concern is the indifference of many to this kind of wrong.” (See news report at tinyurl.com/star2-reuters). Indeed, perhaps what is most shocking is the silence about the slaughter.

Until last month, that is, when a 17-year-old secondary school student, Kian delos Santos, was found dead, shot in the ear and back, in the Manila suburb of Caloocan. Police said he was shot while trying to fight back. But witnesses and CCTV told another story. They said the boy was dragged from near his home and killed in a dead end as he pleaded, “Please stop! I have a test tomorrow.”

A gun was found in his left hand; yet his father said he was right-handed. His family insisted that he never had a gun, nor did drugs. In fact, dirt poor, he had barely any possessions, even sharing a bed with siblings. His mother was working as a maid in Saudi Arabia.

His death was followed by that of another teenager, Carl Arnaiz, 19. And then another. Reynaldo de Guzman was found floating in a creek with dozens of stab wounds and signs of torture. His head was wrapped in packaging tape, a grotesque hallmark of a drug killing. He was just 14.

The killing had become more indiscriminate, inevitable when lives are not valued. More so when people are paid to kill, as some police officers have told Reuters.

Some 50 children have already died in the drug war, according to the country’s Children’s Legal Rights and Development Center. One of the youngest victims was Danica Mae Garcia, five. Her family was just sitting down to lunch when gunmen burst in and shot her grandfather, Maximo, who was on a list of suspect pushers. Maximo had previously gone to the police station to clear his name, according to a report in social news network Rappler.com.

The deaths of the three teens seemed to wake up Filipino society. Many protests followed, with calls not just to investigate the boys’ deaths but all deaths in the drug war. Many families had stories to tell. Those deaths which didn’t matter before now did.

There have been deadly drug wars with extra judicial killings elsewhere. Some 3,000 people were killed in Thailand’s drug war in 2003. In Indonesia, perhaps inspired by Duterte, President Joko Widodo recently told police to just “shoot them”, referring to drug traffickers.

Drug control efforts have resulted in serious human rights abuses in many countries. In the past, conditions in government-run drug rehabilitation centres here have come under fire.

But we headed in a different direction. “Cure and Care” clinics now offer help and support to 130,000 drug users. Now, there are not many new HIV infections among drug users.

All lives matter, always. Any other way will lead us down a path of hellish humanity.


Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.