Manila — On May 1, the Labor Day holiday in the Philippines, a group of community kitchen volunteers in Marikina City, a suburb of the country's capital Manila, were arrested for holding an alleged demonstration in violation of coronavirus lockdown rules.
The city's mayor, Marcelino Teodoro, said the volunteers had secured the proper permit to be out on relief operations and that they were within their rights to hold placards. Teodoro urged police to release them, but the top officer in the capital area, National Capital Region chief Debold Sinas, stood his ground.
"They were arrested because they gathered in the streets, holding placards to protest. The idea is we are under ECQ (enhanced community quarantine). Even if you say you are following strict social distancing, organizing gatherings is prohibited," Sinas told reporters.
But now photos of Sinas' own birthday party, which took place only a week after the incident in Marikina, have emerged on social media, and they've sparked outrage. The photos — uploaded by his own public information team to Facebook — show him celebrating with dozens of guests, many in casual police attire.
The images were deleted, but not before they went viral. Many Filipinos suffering through the strict lockdown have called out Sinas, and the entire police force, for what many call hypocrisy and a selective application of the law.
Mass gatherings are prohibited in locked-down Metro Manila, and social distancing and face masks are required in all public spaces. In a number of instances, the police's enforcement of these rules has turned hostile and violent.
In April, a fish vendor was beaten up by village enforcers for not wearing a face mask. Police also shot dead a former soldier, diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, during a confrontation sparked by his alleged violation of the stay-at-home orders.
The police leadership has, for the most part, stood by its personnel.
"He assured me that physical distancing was observed that time. I will look into possible violations, but I trust General Sinas," Archie Gamboa, the country's national police chief, said Tuesday during an online press briefing.
But on Wednesday, Interior Secretary Eduardo Año criticized the event as uncalled for, though he described it as a tradition, rather than a party.
Sinas claims some of the photos circulating are old and edited, but he apologized, nevertheless.
"I apologize for what transpired during my birthday that caused anxiety to the public. It was never my intention to disobey any existing protocols relative to the implementation of Enhanced Community Quarantine," he said in a statement.
The Philippine National Police has launched an internal investigation into the incident.