President Rodrigo Duterte has denied ordering the arrest of “istambay” (the plural form of Filipino nouns is not formed with an “s”) despite the Philippine National Police’s detention of over 7,000 mostly young people, and the death, most likely through a police beating, of at least one individual who had stepped shirtless out of his home to get a cellphone “load” only to be arrested and jailed.
Those arrested have included a 24-hour convenience store customer, a young man standing in front of his own home, and others whose illegal detention once more demonstrates how easily the police can abuse the people they’re supposed to serve and protect. The two-week-long campaign is turning into another orgy of arbitrary arrests and detention, the denial of due process, and quite possibly of the right to life itself.
The human rights abuses that have been and are likely to be committed and the lawlessness of the campaign are more than evident. What are not are the drive’s problematic definition of istambay as do-nothings who’re potential and actual criminals, and the tenuous assumptions behind it that have led to this latest assault on a large segment of the urban population.
The Filipino word istambay or “tambay” is derived from the English “stand by,” one of those quaint outcomes of the encounter between two languages and cultures in the course of the Philippine experience with US colonialism and imperialism.
Like certain other words and phrases in English — such as “sanction,” which can mean to approve of, as well as to punish — the phrase “stand by” can have two conflicting meanings, depending on the context in which it is used. One is to support, as in “The newspaper stands by its reporter’s story.” The other is to do nothing or to ignore, as in (and it really happened) “The police were standing by while the partisans of the president drove a vehicle into the protesters’ ranks.”
The word istambay as it has evolved in Filipino is generally assumed to mean to do nothing if a verb, or to refer to someone who isn’t doing anything, if a noun. Hence nakatambay lang usually means not doing anything, while istambay lang refers to an idler. Both are disparaging terms.
These popular meanings notwithstanding, the istambay as a Philippine phenomenon is more complex than it appears, and has been the subject of sociological studies. It has obviously escaped Mr. Duterte’s and his brilliant covey of advisers’ grasp. But it is obviously due to the persistence of unemployment and poverty in Philippine society.
Unable to find work, the istambay whiles away his days and even nights in the streets and the local corner store. His fellow istambay could include those who prefer indolence as a way of life. But an individual’s being an istambay doesn’t necessarily mean he’s not looking for a job, only that he can’t find one. He may also be between jobs in this country of endless “endo,” or labor contracting — a system of job insecurity in which one could have been gainfully employed the previous week only to be jobless today.
Why istambay are in the streets or at the corner store rather than at home sociologists have attributed to the poverty that afflicts them, among the consequences of which is poor, even primitive housing in which space and ventilation are at such a premium the streets, no matter how mean and dangerous they often are, at least offer enough room to breathe and move around in. The brutal heat of the Philippines’ tropical climate also explains why many of them go shirtless in the streets and in their homes.
Mr. Duterte and his police look at istambay as potential trouble-makers or as actual criminals. This is at best only partly accurate. Some do linger in an area in the hope of snatching the handbag or cellphone of a passerby, or of stumbling into some other opportunity like breaking into a house, a parked car, an office or some other potential source of treasure. But these individuals do not usually tarry in their own neighborhoods but in other communities — say a business district or a street lined with upper middle-class homes — where they’re not known.
Not only do criminals usually avoid fouling their own nests. Committing a crime where one isn’t known also reduces the risk of being caught. But other, less morally-challenged istambay do try to find some honest means of surviving the day by earning a few pesos through intermittent work such as serving as “watch your car” or “wash your car” boys, setting up hollow blocks or wooden planks for people to walk on without getting their feet wet during floods, pushing stalled vehicles, repairing leaking roofs, etc.
As usual, however, the Duterte regime is grossly simplifying another social and economic problem perpetrated by the failure of government to address its root causes. Like the illegal drug trade and drug addiction, the istambay phenomenon is a multidimensional issue that arresting, jailing, or even killing people can’t eliminate. But it’s a truth beyond the comprehension of the hopelessly unteachable political clique this country is burdened with.
No regime has ever truly addressed the root causes of unemployment, poverty, criminality or any of the legions of problems that have kept the Philippines the development laggard of Asia for over seventy years. While pretending to address them, every administration merely stood by as the problems grew and multiplied.
From 1946 onwards — from the Quirino to the Marcos regimes, and from Corazon Aquino’s to her son Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s administrations — the government approach has never been the adoption of such basic reforms as land redistribution and national industrialization to boost productivity and generate employment. Instead it has always been the use of state violence to quell the protests, rebellions, uprisings, and insurgencies driven by the gross disparities in incomes and economic opportunity and the social injustice that have characterized life in these islands for centuries.
The Duterte regime is no exception, although it has distinguished itself in its singular focus on the use of force against the long suffering poor as its primary — some say its only — weapon in the futile enterprise of eradicating the symptoms while completely ignoring the causes of the poverty that afflicts nearly 25% of the population.
The police have announced that they will no longer use the word istambay or tambay in the regime campaign against petty criminality, but expect istambay to nevertheless continue to be its victims. The campaign is perfectly consistent with what the regime has been doing in such other areas as the drug trade, the misnamed tax reform law, and others in what is fundamentally a war against the poor who, though victimized by decades of incompetence, corruption, and bad government, are being blamed and punished for their own poverty.
The Duterte regime pretends to be addressing poverty and its attendant problems while in reality merely standing by while the country continues its rapid descent into chaos and mass despair. Like its predecessors, it too is an idler and a loiterer — or, to mix metaphors, another Nero, another fiddler while the Philippine version of ancient Rome burns.
Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.