The holding of the ASEAN Summit in the Philippines brought out scores of protesters to denounce a range of issues from the host country’s war on drugs under President Rodrigo Duterte and resultant extra judicial killings (EJKs), to the visit of American president Donald Trump. The crowd was small – around 2,000 and dominated by local Leftist groups. Almost a routine matter for these kinds of gathering but what spiked the headlines was the manner the protesters were dispersed by law enforcement.
The Philippine National Police (PNP)’s National Capital Region Police Office under Director Oscar Albayalde, employed for the first time a new “weapon” against the militant protesters: sonic cannon. The advent of this new technology for military use initially has found its way to law enforcement arsenals not only in Western democratic countries but in small countries like the Philippines eager to have a better handle on local protests.
The device deployed by the PNP was a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD) or more popularly referred to as an LRAD Sound Cannon. The LRAD comes in different variations depending on the intended use. According to a fact sheet from the LRAD Corporation, a San Diego, California based company where the technology was developed; the LRADs are designed “to broadcast messages and pain-inducing deterrent tones over long distances.” Think of bull horns and PA systems, LRADs are much louder and clearly transmit sound like verbal directions over a much longer distance up to 2,000 meters.
The LRAD was developed as one of the lessons learned from the terrorist attack on the USS Cole while refueling in Aden harbor in Yemen. The attack was carried by a small craft that evaded the ship’s radar and was able to approach without much challenge from the ship caught off-guard by the brazen attack.
Today the LRAD has many uses from scaring off birds on runaway paths (prevent engine damage to the airplane) to emergency response during calamities and even as a security feature in homes or business structures. The LRAD 1950 XL that was used in Manila is capable of delivering hazardous noise up to 160 decibels which is way above the threshold of pain of human beings at 130 decibels. Maxing out the LRAD knob ensures people will run away from the intense, high-pitched sound but the indiscriminate exposure could hurt people’s inner ear and could result in permanent hearing damage.
The LRAD noise projection is controlled by the operator who turns the operational knob gradually until the desired results are attained. Protestors in Manila apparently “overstepped” their bounds (meaning they strayed outside the areas permitted) according to PNP Chief Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa and were therefore hosed with water cannons, tear-gassed and exposed to the LRAD noise. The TV footages showed the police, bystanders and the rallyists covering their ears with their hands. Some complained suffering from temporary hearing threshold shifts (momentary hearing loss) from the high noise exposure.
While the police have scored a convincing win by breaking up the demonstrations, lost in all these is the idea and value of protests because the conversation has shifted to the use of sound as a weapon against its own people. People have legitimate reasons to gripe when marginalized or hurt by government policies and to exercise such right to protest as enshrined in the Constitution through free speech. The state has a duty to hear such gripe and exercise as much tolerance to allow its citizens to voice them out as long as they stay within the legal bounds.
Defining the legal bounds during protests can be blurred as people from both sides interprets what they see unfold during the protest. What normally happens is that each will point an accusing finger as to who started it. In the use of the sonic cannon, the police will say that the on-scene commander controls the behavior of the police but in reality, the policeman operating the LRAD really has the full discretion when to turn the knob all the way to right for maximum effect without regard to what it means to people’s health. At that point the main objective becomes restoring order after the escalation of forces but did the LRAD operator have a good grasp of the Rules of Engagement or was he carried by the moment?
Burning President Trump’s effigy was applauded by many but such scene was probably interpreted as a major embarrassment to both Presidents Duterte being the host, and Trump, the offended guest and could have made police officials react differently (by trying to please the boss man in the Palace especially knowing the authoritarian tendencies of the main occupant).
The ensuing violence and melee buries the objectives of the protest to the background and instead shifted the focus on investigating the dispersal and violence. At least Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heard the message on EJK and boldly confronted Duterte with it during their one-on-one meeting. The rest of the ASEAN leaders and dialogue partners were oblivious and focused heavily instead on terrorism related issues. Duterte even got financial support for his drug war China, Russia, and the U.S.
The summit’s theme, “Partnering for Change, Engaging the World” centered on political-security cooperation, sustainable economic growth and socio-cultural development in Southeast Asia and in the world. But in the end, the summit was for show while the real action was behind the scenes with leaders negotiating bilateral agreements that are “good” for their respective countries. President Trump’s “America First” mantra I’m sure played heavily in negotiating the $250 billion dollar trade agreement with the Philippines.
The details of the trade deal are still to be divulged but this much can be said about it already, that it will reward big business. Trump is trying his best to give more money to American companies through generous tax cuts. Same can be said in the Philippines where the oligarchs will also be the winner as they profit more from these deals.
The protesters was trying to get the message through that the reigning ideology of global corporate capitalism and imperial expansion no longer has moral or intellectual credibility to ameliorate the mounting economic and political injustices endured by most of the population. But their message was drowned out and displaced by the noise of the sonic boom.
The financial meltdown of 2008 not only devastated the global economy, it exposed the lies propagated by those advocating globalization: that salaries of workers would rise, democracy would spread across the globe, the tech industry would replace manufacturing as a source of worker income, the middle class would flourish, and global communities would prosper. Instead, we have the scattering of the Filipino people as export labor, exploitation of cheap labor and subjected to abuse, destruction of the environment from irresponsible mining, and the breaking up of families because of overseas employment.
Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo championed globalization in the Philippines during her term and was financially rewarded as her family businesses prospered along with her cronies and the oligarchs controlling the economy. Her successor, President Noynoy Aquino was better in some ways but not really as he too could not bridge that widening gap between the rich and the poor and arrest the exodus of OFWs. President Duterte for all his tough talk would really have no choice but to protect the oligarchy and appease China if he is to survive his term.