On July 24, Philippine Daily Inquirer published an alarming photo of a killing in Pasay City. Lying dead in the arms of his wife was Michael Siaron, victim of an alleged summary execution due to his reported involvement in illegal drugs.
The photo, which some observers say is something similar to Pieta (Renaissance sculpture by Michael Angelo of Mary and the dead body of Jesus Christ), was caught by the camera lens of photojournalist Raffy Lerma. Lerma said he never thought he’d see something as tragic as this. He had thought the scenes in the aftermath of super typhoon Yolanda in 2013 were the worst.
But the drug-related deaths proved something else to him. “Hindi bumababa sa lima ang patay bawat araw, minsan 10, may araw na 18 (The death toll doesn’t go lower than 5 a day. Sometimes it’s even 10. There was a time when it was 18). If I will add everything for that week, it would be more than the total for the year when I first did the night shift in 2005,” Lerma decried.
The photo even found its way to the front page of the New York Times on August 3, 2016 and went viral online, some tagging it as a personification of the bloody war against illegal drugs in the Philippines, especially against suspected drug dealers.
Time has also covered Inquirer’s front page coverage of the photo, describing it as the photo that “has given the war on drugs in the Philippines a human face.”
Michael Siaron, pedicab driver, was suspected to be a drug pusher in Pasay. Unidentified men riding in tandem on a motorcycle were said to have shot him to death in the street where his wife, Jennilyn Olayres, found him lifeless in a pool of his own blood.
Though the incident didn’t happen during a police operation (but perpetrated by what looked like gangland-style hired killers), Lerma lamented how President Rodrigo Duterte had merely taken a potshot of it in his first SONA, describing the photo as nothing but “drama.”
“Sorry, Mr. President,” Lerma said, “totoong tao sila. Sino ba tayo para batikusin sila? (They’re real people. Who are we to judge them?) This is real life… they have every right to grieve for their loved ones,” Lerma told the Inquirer but indirectly addressing President Duterte.
Lerma further “told” the president: “Ikaw rin iiyak kung mangyari sa pamilya mo yan. Ikaw nga, nung nanalo ka (as President), umiyak ka sa puntod ng parents mo. (You’d surely weep as well if it were to happen to your family. Didn’t you weep before your parents’ graves when you won the presidency?) I mean, give these people some dignity.”
But Lerma got some consolation because at least the president took notice. “Napansin ng president,” he noted. To him, his photo had done its job of making people aware of what’s already happening, especially bringing it to the attention of President Duterte and the world.
He said: “May purpose ang ginagawa ko (What I did have a purpose), to shed light on this issue. Grabe na talaga! (It’s taken unbelievable! proportions) If you will multiply these deaths by six years…”
“Nakakabahala rin ang reaction ng public (Even the public’s reaction is alarming). We’re a Catholic country, tapos ganito tayo (and then look at our reaction). Kung hindi tayo magre-react (If we don’t react correctly), in a way we’re part of it.” Lerma warned.
Olayres relatives react
Siaron was laid to rest on August 3, without any eulogy because Olayres’ relatives are worried about what she might voice out in the midst of grief.
“Baka may masabing masama sa gobyerno, ma-Duterte (She might say something against the Duterte administration and get killed),” Inquirer quoted a relative.
Another man shouted, “Eto ang tinatawag na pagbabago – bawas tao (This is what we call change – killing people)!”
Olayres’s sister, Joann, reacted to how Duterte referred to the Pieta-like photo of her sister and her late husband.
“Drama-drama daw ng kapatid ko. Iiyak-iyak. Natural iiyak, mahal niya, asawa nya eh (President Duterte said my sister was too melodramatic because she was crying. Of course, she would cry, she lost her husband whom she loved),” Joann said.
Siaron’s death can be considered as part of what is dubbed as “cardboard justice,” wherein suspected criminals are killed with a cardboard sign on their corpse, identifying who they are and how they should not be emulated.