It’s a question many tourists and overseas Filipinos ask before booking their flights:
Is it safe to travel to the Philippines?
More than 90 percent of Filipinos are Christian. Most are devout Catholics who celebrate religious holidays several times a year.
Security forces under President Rodrigo Duterte are determined to keep these gatherings free from terrorism.
Every 10 feet of the annual cultural and religious Sinulog Festival parade route, there is someone in uniform — not just soldiers, but police, marshals and ROTC cadets.
Authorities have taken security one step further. While they can’t monitor the use of explosives and firearms, they have eliminated the most valuable weapon of terrorists: technology.
In an unprecedented move, the government has terminated all network services during the festival’s duration.
That means no email, no texting, no bluetooth, Uber, Twitter, GPS, and even Siri is silent.
“With cell phones, (terrorists) can detonate a bomb and at the same time, with social media, they can coordinate attacks within the city,” said Sinulog pilgrim Roland Casamina.
“There are terrorists acts in the Philippines,” said Philippine Airlines president Jaime Bautista. “The government has implemented measures to protect not only the police, but all the citizenry of the country.”
The blackout was announced just hours before implementation, not enough time for festival-goers or terrorists to make alternative plans.
“I lost my family during the parade and I don’t know where they are. No communication,” said tourist Josephine Shiu.
“In America, this would be considered censorship,” said tourist Susan Lau.
Officials in the Duterte cabinet urge westerners to withhold judgment.
“There is always the paramount national interest in every country that every country must address on the basis of their own realities,” said Perfecto Yasay, former foreign affairs director.
The reality here is that Cebu is only 50 miles north of Mindanao, a stronghold of Abu Sayyaf and radical separatist groups.
With 2 million people gathering in Cebu for the Christian observance of Sinulog, the Duterte government took the bold step.
Whether the strategy is an effective terrorism deterrent is still to be decided in an assessment briefing after the festival, but authorities are hoping it sends a strong message of how far the Duterte government will go to protect Philippine citizens.
This could never happen in America, right?
It already has.
In 2011, Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) cut off cell phone service to quell protests in four train stations.
Civil liberties groups took the matter all the way to the Supreme Court, which let an appeals court ruling stand, stating a government or private company can black out your phones anywhere, anytime in the interest of national security or public safety.
“Mixed Plate: Mabuhay” airs this Wednesday, June 21, at 9:30 p.m. on KHON2.