The Philippines: What Change is Coming?

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An effigy of former President Aquino is led across the street by protesters.(Source: Philippine Star)

This May 9, 16 million out of the 54 million Filipinos voters elected Rodrigo Roa Duterte president of the Republic of the Philippines. Duterte was known for his successful governance of Davao City in Mindanao but also his dubious human rights record due to his suspected linkages with the Davao death squads that purged the city of its lawless elements. Walden Bello,[ref]Waldon Bello was part of the Daang Matuwid (Straight Path) Coalition of former President Benigno “Pinoy” Aquino III before resigning.[/ref] a representative to the Philippine Congress argues that the vote for Duterte is a repudiation of the liberal democratic government that the EDSA[ref]EDSA is Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue, the main road where 2 million Filipinos converged on February 22-25, 1986 to demand that Marcos step down from power. Marcos fled to Hawaii on February 26, 1986.[/ref] People Power Uprising entrenched in 1986.  He astutely observes that Duterte’s appeal to large numbers of voters lay in his sneering dismissal of the values of human rights and due process institutionalized in the 1987 Constitution, values which had emerged out of the struggle against the Marcos dictatorship.[ref]Walden Bello, Requiem for the EDSA Republic at http://interaksyon.com/article/129284/op-ed--requiem-for-the-edsa-republic[/ref]

Even during the darkest nights of martial law, when thousands were tortured, killed or disappeared, millions of Filipinos silently and bravely organized to end dictatorship. Students, farmers, indigenous peoples,  workers, urban poor,  professionals and even businessmen supported a united front for justice and freedom.  The assassination of Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino II on August 21 of 1983 when he returned from exile in the US further ignited the flames of this silent struggle. On February 26 of 1986, Marcos fled to Hawaii as millions poured to the streets demanding he step down. Ninoy Aquino’s widow, Corazon “Cory” Aquino became president of the first EDSA Republic.

How ironic then that the inept government of her son - Pinoy Aquino - would cause the avalanche of discontent and anger which would end the liberal democratic governments that ruled since 1986.

The Philippines’ Descent into Neoliberalism’s Poverty Hell In the 50’s, the World Bank regarded the Philippines as the best performing East Asian economy and the most promising in the long run. Through a relatively high level of spending on education, transport and industrial plants, the Philippines had achieved a position in the Far East second only to Japan.[ref]Alejandro Lichauco, Hunger, Corruption and Betrayal: A Primer on US Neocolonialism and the Philippine Crisis, reprinted in 2009 by the Popular Bookstore, Quezon City Philippines with permission from the author.[/ref]

Under the Marcos dictatorship, the Philippines became a guinea pig for the World Bank’s new structural adjustment programs bringing down tariffs, deregulating the economy, and privatizing government enterprises.[ref]Ibid, Bello.[/ref] The Filipino people’s descent into poverty and hunger under neoliberalism intensified. Many Filipinos do not realize, however, that it was after Marcos that the Philippines totally opened up to the agents of neoliberalism: the World Bank (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Instead of harnessing the great international support for the EDSA People Power Revolt to bargain down the debt incurred under the dictatorship, the Cory Aquino government bowed to pressure from the IMF and US banks and made foreign debt repayment a national priority. Since 1986, debt repayment has consumed 20 to 45 % of the national government budget, depriving people of essential social services and crippling the government’s ability to invest.[ref]Ibid, Bello.[/ref] The Corazon Aquino government dismantled the import controls which Marcos had imposed to protect certain domestic industries and thus started the Philippines’ return to the free trade regime of the colonial period.  

Liberalization peaked under the next president, General Fidel V. Ramos, when the Philippines hastily ascended to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). During his term, Ramos unilaterally reduced the country’s tariff levels faster than its ASEAN partners. He also completely achieved the “foreign exchange system free of restrictions” so greatly desired by the IMF. Without currency controls, the Philippine peso devalued from P26:$1 to P56:$1 when the 1997 Asian crisis hit. It hasn’t recovered. Its current value is at P47:$1. Not only did Ramos rush headlong into such liberalization, he did so without establishing safety nets for people. The presidents that followed continued down this path of free trade and globalization: The Estrada government, ousted from power for plunder, wanted to amend the Constitution  to eliminate the nationalist provisions which reserved the right to land ownership and the nation’s patrimony to Filipino citizens; the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidency committed to an absolute free trade regime.

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Johnny, an urban poor youth, seems to be pondering his future as he looks beyond the C-3 bridge to the shanties of informal settlers in Dagatdagatan, Metro Manila. There are people living under this bridge. (Photo by Bernard Miralles)

The Benigno Aquino III Government: The Promised Straight Path Gone Crooked When elected in 2010, Benigno Aquino III (Pinoy Aquino) promised his government would follow a “Straight Path” without corruption. Yet, from the beginning he has been involved in misappropriation of funds through the Development Acceleration Program that the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional. While Aquino achieved a brisk 6.3% average annual GDP growth, poor Filipinos have not enjoyed its benefits. In the first semester of 2015, 26.3 percent of Filipinos (26.48 million) were living below the poverty line. (the minimum income to meet basic necessities). 12.1 percent of Filipinos (12.18 million) were living in extreme poverty: They could not buy three meals a day.

People still remember how the Pinoy Aquino government shot hungry farmers asking for rice in Kidapawan, Mindanao killing three and wounding thirteen for “obstructing traffic.” The tragedy was a direct consequence of President Cory Aquino’s failed Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Program (CARP). Attempts by farmers and civil society to re-energize the land reform program under the CARPER (CARP Extension and Reform) were bogged down by Pinoy’s weak political will and indifference. By the end of the CARPER, 700,000 hectares of the best private land remained in the hands of landlords, violence against land reform beneficiaries was common, and rural poverty was extremely high.

Aquino was also the president who did not claim responsibility for the massacre of 44 Special Armed Forces (SAF) commandos by Moro insurgents in January 2015. As commander in chief of the Philippine Army, he had command responsibility for the infamous Mamasapano massacre when he approved the dangerous mission to arrest high value targets of the US inside Moro territory. Later, instead of attending the return of the bodies of the Fallen 44 Heroes from the battlefield, he attended the inauguration of a foreign car company plant. To Filipinos, he became a man with no compassion.

While Aquino pushed for the Basic Bangsamoro Law that many hoped would end the decades-long struggles for self-determination of the Muslim minorities in Mindanao, the Mamasapano massacre and questions on the BBL’s constitutionality prevented its passage during his term. He did not make concrete efforts to make peace with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the New People’s Army (NPA), the mainstream leftist groups in the Philippines.

All around the country, crime was rising and many people felt unsafe in the streets. The drug problem reached epidemic proportions, causing more insecurity among the people. In 2012, an estimated 1.3 million used drugs.[ref]http://www.ddb.gov.ph/newsroom/46-sidebar/58-facts-on-drugs[/ref] In Metropolitan Manila, tens of thousands of workers endure daily kilometer-long queues to squeeze themselves like sardines into the Metro Railway Transit (MRT). On a bad day, which turned out to be many times a week, MRT train cars break down, raising suspicions that the bidding for maintenance of the MRT was rigged.   If commuters choose to bus, they have to bear torturous hours of traffic which will surely make them late for work.

Had the politicians listened, they would have heard the curses of distressed Filipinos against Aquino and his government. So when Duterte blazed the campaign trail for presidency cursing and swaggering with his slogans of COMPASSION AND CHANGE, millions of Filipinos sat up and listened.

The Duterte Government: Is Change Really Coming? Totoong tao” (a genuine person). This is how many Filipinos regard President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.  During the campaign, Duterte projected himself as a man close to the poor. His main campaign promise was change and the end of poverty. He assumed the presidency on June 30, 2016, with a very high trust rating from the people.[ref]http://www.rappler.com/nation/140318-duterte-trust-rating-july-2016[/ref] This high level of trust  can provide the opportunity to make real the changes he has promised, but there is also uncertainty. “Duterte brings change, but we still do not know what change that will be”, wisely says Datu Timuay Unsad, a tribal chieftain from the Timuay Justice and Governance, the ruling council of the Timuay, indigenous peoples who are asserting for their claims on their ancestral domains in Mindanao.

A Government of Contradictions Yuen Abana, feminist labor leader, points out that there are many contradictions in the pronouncements of Duterte and in his government. Duterte has indeed surrounded himself with contradictory forces in his Cabinet. While some progressives laud cabinet appointments of at least three officials[ref]They occupy the positions of  Secretary of the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Secretary of Department of Agrarian Reform, and Undersecretary of the Department of Labor.[/ref] endorsed by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), they are a small minority among military officials close to Fidel Ramos  and representatives of big business. Financial policies will be made by businessmen and technocrats.[ref]http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/570339/news/specialreports/who-s-who-in-the-duterte-cabinet[/ref]

The technocrats have drafted a Ten-Point Socioeconomic Agenda which continues and maintains the current macroeconomic policies, including fiscal, monetary, and trade policies.[ref]http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/story/570703/money/economy/duterte-s-economic-team-reveals-10-point-socioeconomic-agenda#sthash.DxH3eCHC.dpuf[/ref]  How will the Duterte government break the cycle of poverty if it continues to follow the neoliberal policies of previous administrations?

Progressives in the Duterte government will also encounter big challenges when implementing the changes they want. Paeng Mariano, Chairperson of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (Movement of Farmers of the Philippines) and a farmer himself, will surely carry the interests of the peasant class in the Cabinet. But unless he proposes genuine agrarian reform laws, he will be bound by the existing Agrarian Reform Laws. Will a genuine agrarian reform law pass in the landlord and elite dominated legislative bodies?  Filipinos can only hope that Duterte exerts his strong influence on the Legislature to pass pro-peasant Agrarian Reform laws.

Human Rights Violations in the “War on Drugs” Duterte made a campaign promise to go after suspected drug dealers and users with little or no regard for human rights and due process.  Even before Duterte assumed the presidency, units of the Philippine National Police, under the command of his close associate General Ronald (“Bato”) de la Rosa, have turned many low-income neighborhoods in the country into free fire zones.  To date, more than 500 people have been killed in intensified anti-drug operations. What is even more worrisome is that the police do not admit to all the killings. There are signs that vigilante groups are involved with even petty criminals such as thieves and purse snatchers being executed.

As a response to the extrajudicial killings, various groups from civil society joined together to form the Citizens’ Council for Human Rights. On the day of Duterte’s State of the Union Address (SONA), they rallied and issued a statement decrying the daily bloody encounters polarizing the country between those who support the president’s quick and dirty methods of dealing with drugs and crime and those who regard them as illegal, immoral, and self-defeating.    

CCHR pointed out that there is a dangerous synergy between the Leader and his followers that is normalizing the denial and ridiculing of human rights and due process. They demanded that President Duterte order a halt to the extra-judicial killings and restore the rule of law and due process.  They urged him to desist from inflammatory rhetoric that can only turn this country into one vast killing field where a rogue police force and vigilantes roam with impunity.

They also called on fellow citizens to come out and speak up for the inviolability and universality of human rights, the rule of law, and due process.[ref]End Impunity. Stand Up For Human Rights. Uphold Due Process. Statement by the Citizens’ Council for Human Rights  issued on the State of the Nation Address of Duterte[/ref]

While thousands from the CCHR rallied to call for ending the killings under the Duterte government, 5,000 protesters from the Bayan bloc, which is associated with the CPP,  marched with “Portraits of Peace” murals to present their own Agenda for Change.[ref]http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/799218/portrait-of-peace-not-burning-effigy-in-duterte-sona[/ref] Protesters were allowed to march near the Congress during a SONA for the first time. After Duterte’s SONA, he summoned Bayan leaders to talk with him.[ref]http://news.abs-cbn.com/nation/07/25/16/look-duterte-meets-militant-leaders-after-sona[/ref]

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Caption: Human rights advocates call on Duterte to stop extrajudicial killings during his State Of the Nation Address (Photo by Judy Pasimio)

Challenges: Will Duterte Bring Peace at Last? While inflicting violence on those associated with the drug trade and crime, he is also extending the hand of peace to the Moro rebel groups and Communists. The Moro peoples have been waging their decades-long fight for self-determination in Mindanao. They believe that Duterte, a Mindanaoan, understands the Mindanao situation fully and a lasting peace agreement will be reached through the passage of the Basic Bangsamoro Law (BBL). While Duterte is proposing that federalism will bring the desired autonomy to the Moros, he also supports passage of the BBL.  Datu Unsad says that they will also engage with Duterte to ensure that the indigenous peoples (IPs) shall have representatives in the peace panels, both with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the CPP. The IPs have a stake in the negotiations because they share a claim in some of the lands which the Moros want included in their territory.  They are also caught in the crossfires between the military and the rebel forces, whether Moro or communist.

Duterte’s ascendancy also promises to bring an end to the communist rebellion that began in the 60’s.  He has made true his campaign promise to continue the stalled peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), New People’s Army (NPA) and National Democratic Front (NDF) who are waging a war against poverty and ending foreign domination of the Philippine economy and politics.  Duterte has promised to release political prisoners, and the appointment of leaders recommended by the Communists to his Cabinet are seen as signs of good will. He declared a ceasefire with the NPA during his SONA.  It remains to be seen whether a common unity will be arrived between Duterte’s Government and the Communists so that the Communists can lay down their arms.

US Military Presence in the Philippines Another critical issue that Duterte faces is whether he will allow the US to expand its military presence in the Philippines.  While the Philippine Senate refused to renew the treaty that allowed US bases in the Philippines in 1991, the Visiting Forces Agreement between the two countries allowed for continuing US troop presence. Pinoy Aquino signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which allows the US to build structures, store and preposition weapons, defense supplies and materials; station troops, civilian personnel and defense contractors; transit and station vehicles, vessels and aircraft for a period of 10 years. The nationalists” attempt at challenging the legality of the EDCA in the Supreme Court was defeated as the EDCA was ruled a valid executive agreement.

To Filipino nationalists, the EDCA allows the de facto establishment of US bases in the country.  Professor Roland Simbulan cites that Duterte refused the US government’s request to establish a US base in Davao City for US drone operations in Mindanao in 2013. He  hopes Duterte will review and revoke the EDCA.[ref]Roland Simbulan, Toward an Independent Philippine Foreign Policy: Is Change Coming ? Paper presented at the Forum on Duterte: Presidency of Change ?, hosted by the Center for People Empowerment in Governance, Univeristy of the Philippines-Diliman, July 29, 2016[/ref]  

Tensions are rising in the South China Sea where China and the Philippines are both claiming ownership over several islands. Duterte’s foreign policy, particularly in relation to the US and China, will significantly impact not only the Philippines but also Asia. Duterte to keep an independent foreign policy to prevent it from becoming a pawn as big powers wrest control over the South China Sea.

What Changes Are Coming? Filipinos have long desired regaining power and control over their country and its resources. In 1986, millions joined the EDSA People Power Revolt to oust the Marcos dictatorship.  Hopes were high that the changes will benefit even the poor and marginalized. After thirty years of the EDSA Republics, the hopes have been dashed, and only shadows of the dictatorship and the EDSA People Power Revolt are remembered. It seems that in repudiating EDSA many Filipinos are ready to give up the values of human rights and due process which they once fought for during the dark hours of the dictatorship.  It is the people’s right to try other paths to peace and prosperity. But they should not rely on one man to lead the change.  The Filipinos need to re-discover the power that lies in themselves as leaders and movers for change towards a nation free from foreign dominance.  

written by Merci Angeles[ref]The author was a student activist from the University of the Philippines in Los Banos at the time of martial rule. After the EDSA People Revolt she joined the civil society groups as a trainer and consultant on organizational and project development.  She continues to work for human rights and women’s rights in particular.[/ref]

[Note: The viewpoint expressed in this article is not necessarily that of the International Strategy Center.]