Asia

#TanimBala Philippine bullet scam sparks anger and social media activism

Passengers push carts with their baggage wrapped in plastic and cloth Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many travellers have been taking drastic measures against alleged bullet planters in Manila's international airport

A scam in the Philippines, which allegedly sees bullets dropped into the luggage of passengers as they go through airport security, has sparked anger, fear and social media activism.

Called '"tanim bala" (which means planting bullets) it has meant passengers have been faced with fines or even the possibility of being charged with the illegal possession of ammunition.

Image copyright Getty Images

After several passengers were detained, others taken to court for refusing to pay fines and an outcry by legislators in the Philippines, it has spurred Filipinos to action.

They have been posting to social media defiant notices stuck to their luggage, wrapping suitcases in layers of plastic sheeting and speaking out about the dangers of this scam.

Officials at the Manila International Airport also set up a public help desk.


'This bag is bullet-proof'

Image copyright EPA
Image caption A Filipino passenger puts a sticker on his luggage with the message: "This bag is bullet-proof"

On Facebook and Instagram users uploaded pictures of the signs stuck to their bags.

Cautious travellers, like Raymond Britanico, uploaded photos to warn off potential bullet planters. Other users like Filipino actor Ronnie Liang, showed off plastic cling-wrapped luggage bags using the hashtags, #TanimBala and #LagLagBala (which means "dropping off bullets").

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Passengers get their luggage wrapped in the Manila International Airport

It even spawned a highly-popular mobile app game, in which users play as a "victim" at the airport who has to navigate carefully to avoid bullets from being dropped onto his luggage.

Image copyright Google Store
Image caption There is now even a 'tanim bala' smartphone game

Former Miss Philippines: 'Plant trees not bullets'

Celebrities such as former Miss Philippines Earth Alma Cabasal also took a strong stand. She shared a photograph of a warning she wrote: "Plant trees, not bullets - I refuse to be a Tanim Bala victim."

Image copyright Twitter: Alma Cabasal
Image caption Filipino beauty queen Alma Cabasal spoke out against the bullet scam
Image copyright Instagram: Alma Cabasal

Ms Cabasal told the BBC that she took measures to protect her luggage before she flew back to California.

"I paid close attention to my belongings the whole time I was at the airport in Manila," she said.

"This scam is a very unfortunate and embarrassing one. It's damaging our reputation as a country because people around the world know Filipinos for being hospitable and courteous..."


Security ahead of a global summit

People have highlighted the risks ahead of the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (Apec) summit, which will held in the capital Manila on 18 November.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Social media users raised the possibility of potential security risks ahead of the Apec summit next week

"This scam is just are giving foreign governments more reason to not trust Filipino officials - especially before the Apec summit," said Philippine Twitter user Marcial Bonifacio.

Another Twitter user Ella from Taguig city commented: "The "tanim bala" problem must be fixed as soon as possible - what if a delegate were to suddenly discover a bullet?"

Philippine President Benigno Aquino has ordered an investigation into the scam. Local media report that victims told a court their accounts.

UN officials, meanwhile, advised staff to lock up their bags and protect their belongings.

Another Instagram user Cindy Jubilee, from Manila, told the BBC that she wanted to highlight the actions of "incompetent airport officials" so those responsible could be held accountable.

It is unclear exactly why this is happening, but the government has been quoted in local media as saying it was looking into the phenomenon as an extortion racket.


A folk tradition

It is hard to imagine how empty bullets being planted in luggage came about. But according to Filipino BBC presenter Rico Hizon, the origins of bullets could date back to a Philippine folk tradition from the late 19th Century.

Image copyright Instagram
Image caption Memes like this, were also being widely shared among Filipino social media users

"There is a Filipino superstition that carrying a bullet is like a lucky charm to protect the owner from misfortune, physical danger or harm," he said.

"So the bullet is like a protective amulet, it's usually blessed with spells or prayers that will safeguard the owner from witchcraft."

In this case, it is not being seen as a blessing or protection by either passengers or the authorities.

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