Is Duterte ‘Nation-Building’ in the Philippines?


What are we to make of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte? The Sydney Morning Herald had no doubt, introducing his overwhelming electoral victory this way:

A foul-mouthed anti-establishment outsider has been elected president of the Philippines in an extraordinary political upset that will return the island-nation to authoritarian rule 30 years after a popular uprising ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. 

Later in the article it explained:

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The victory has rattled powerful dynastic families who have ruled the country for decades and alarmed diplomats who fear the foreign policy novice could upend diplomatic efforts to ease tensions over China’s aggressive claim to the South China Sea.

Unexplained, however, is how “30 years after a popular uprising ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos” the Philippines has somehow still managed to been ruled (“for decades”) by “powerful dynastic families,” now “rattled” at the result of a popular election. And just as unexplained is what (and whose) “diplomatic efforts to ease tensions over China’s aggressive claim to the South Sea” are threatened by “the foreign policy novice.”

This confusion and ideological bias may reveal a lot about the forces Duterte confronts, but it tells us little, if anything about Duterte himself, and his political ambitions. In this article we will try and do better.

The place to start, as with so much in the Philippines, is with the United States and notoriously this is where Duterte did begin. In a long speech before traveling to the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Laos, Duterte warned of U.S. criticism of his policies with these words, addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama:

You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum.

In fact, it seems, as Duterte later claimed, that he was not referring to Obama, but to an annoying interviewer (the video seems to confirm this), and nor was he calling anyone a “whore” (in his native Bisaya ‘putangina’ is used as a general expletive, better translated as ‘screw it’ rather than a pointed slur). But as the full speech shows (a speech almost entirely absent from subsequent international reporting), Duterte certainly did criticize the United States’ place in Philippine history, angrily condemning the colonial abuses perpetrated by the U.S. against Filipinos. Prominently featured in this was the Bud Dajo massacre, and more generally the brutal pacification campaign the U.S. military waged against the Moro people.

We believe that looking closely at Duterte’s critique of U.S. colonial history in the Philippines helps us to better understand what it is he is up to – and, just as important, what he is not up to. For what he says is true, but crucially, not all the truth.

The Origins of the Philippine State and Historical Revisionism

The United States conquered the Philippines in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. To make a long and complex story very short, in the final decade of the 19th century, some of the last remaining overseas colonies of Spain rebelled. The emerging nationalist movement of the Philippines waged a successful war of independence, into which the United States, engaged in hostilities with Spain over other matters, intervened in 1898. Instead of granting independence to the Philippines (along with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam), Spain ceded these possessions to the United States. The term “Philippine Revolution” for the anti-Spanish rebellion fits nicely with sanitized national narratives of the kind invoked by Duterte in his speech, but it hides important class, geographic and ethno-linguistic cleavages.

First, and from the outset, the revolution was divided along class lines, its two major factions roughly representing the principally reformist upper- and upper-middle classes (the urban intelligentsia known as ilustrados, landowners, and early capitalist entrepreneurs), and the more revolutionary middle- and lower classes. Hinting at what would characterize Philippine politics since, the reformist faction sought concessions from Spain, collaborated early on with the Americans, and eventually had the leader of the opposing faction executed. When it turned out that the Americans came as conquerors, not liberators, the ilustrado and upper-class leaders mounted a short-lived resistance, but soon surrendered, preferring to become part of the new comprador ruling establishment to continuing the struggle for independence. (At the end of the struggle, President Emilio Aguinaldo’s secretary of foreign affairs, Felipe Buencamino, had this to say: “I am American, and all the money in the Philippines, the air, the light, and the sun I consider American.”)

Second, the revolution was not exactly Filipino. The Spanish refer to the war as the Tagalog war, as it was concentrated in the Tagalog areas–the eight provinces surrounding Manila and a few minor centers elsewhere in the country. Apart from a handful of outposts along the coasts, Mindanao was free from Spanish rule at this time, and many upland areas remained unpenetrated by Europeans.

These fault lines matter because it was the ilustrados and the economic elite who eventually built the Philippine state Duterte currently governs. For much of the 333 years of its dominion, Spain was unable to extend its territorial control to the entirety of the archipelago, lacking the military and institutional capacity to do so. Too few Spaniards had an interest in moving to a country where the prospects of becoming rich fast were bleak. Instead, state power was deputized to Catholic friars. In contrast with the Spanish, the American colonial authorities conquered the entire archipelago and quickly set out to create a functioning modern state so as to facilitate the economics of resource extraction and to ensure U.S. strategic domination of the South China Sea.

This economic and strategic logic was compounded by the American version of colonial mission civilisatrice: to make the Philippines into an American-style democracy. The rapid consolidation of a domestic landholding class and the very early introduction of elections, combined with a restrictive franchise which allowed less than 1.5 percent of the total population to vote, saw the consolidation of an oligarchic patrimonial elite. This oligarchic elite, created and enabled by American colonial authorities, built the state and geared it towards their own patrimonial and comprador interests. Just as the Americans reinforced and enabled the elite in Manila, they also reshaped the elites of Mindanao, hand-picking local leaders from among the willing segments of the traditional royal families as well as Christian settlers, sending their sons to colleges in the U.S. and later placing them in key positions.

It was this local elite who gained most from the American conquest of Mindanao and were among its primary drivers. Thus while Duterte may be right about the generally baneful U.S. influence on Philippine politics, he is not right when he paints a homogenous picture of Filipinos as the victims of American oppression. While there was plenty of victimization, not all were equally victimized, and not only Americans were the victimizers. In fact, in 1924, Moro leaders, while wanting more than anything, independence, preferred in its absence that they be an “unorganized” U.S. colony, and in 1935 requested that they be given independence separately, rather than forced into a Philippine polity dominated by the Christian parts of the Philippines.

In fact, one of the major grievances of Moros had long been the U.S. colonial government-organized settlement of Christian Filipinos from Luzon and Visayas (‘Homesteading’), dramatically changing the demography of Mindanao, encouraging land-grabbing, and generally the marginalization of Muslims and indigenous people. This policy did not cease with colonialism — later governments of the independent Philippines often intensified it, either to release demographic pressures in Luzon and the Visayas or to change the ethnic composition of Mindanao.

These injustices led to a series of insurgencies which have tormented Mindanao since 1969. When the insurgency broke out, it signaled the rejection of not only “Imperial Manila” but the particular arrangements between the Philippine state and the Moro elite through which it projected its power into Mindanao. In this sense, it challenged the Philippine state, perceived as Christian-assimilationist, oppressive, and exploitative, as well as certain segments of the incumbent Moro elite.

Duterte is not a Moro. He is from the Christian Filipino upper class. His family came originally from the island of Cebu in the Visayas region, and his greatest support lies there as well as in Mindanao. Duterte’s sanitized, simplified image of the past also glosses over more recent massacres committed against Moro people under the dictatorship of President Marcos, an ally of his father’s, and whose son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, is an ally of his.

Building a nation?

Duterte speaks the truth about U.S. colonialism, but not the whole truth. He speaks truly about U.S. colonialism and “the Philippines,” but he is not openly truthful about “the Philippines,” ignoring or glossing over important class, geographic and ethno-linguistic cleavages that lie beneath its politics of patrimonial elitism. 

One reason for the latter is, as we have seen, that he and his family are from that class itself. But this cannot be all there is to it, for his predecessors (even his immediate predecessor President Benigno Aquino III, who himself attempted, as Duterte is now, to negotiate a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) steered very clear of any overt criticism of the United States’ historical and continuing role in shaping Philippine politics. It is not only the elite: nowhere in the world does the United States enjoy as high popular support as in the Philippines.

Why has he broken with this convention? 

The fundamental reason would seem to be the conviction that the Philippine state cannot purge itself of systematic traditions of patrimonial corruption unless it does so from the foundations of a perceived and universally shared Philippine national identity. And such a shared identity, in a land of many identities, demands a single, us-versus-them, narrative foundation of the kind his simplified history of U.S. colonialism implies.

In this context his drawing of outraged Philippine attention to the U.S. massacre of the Moro people at the battle of Bud Dajo is a key move. First, in acknowledging grievances (though only by generalizing them as not only Moro, but Filipino), and second, through this generalizing, in reframing the official national mythology. For the Moro people, it is a rare public recognition of historical grievances by a Philippine president. For the leftist movement, it is an acknowledgement of their historical narrative: that the plight of the Filipino poor is due to the domination of a neo-colonial comprador bourgeoisie beholden to and kept in power by American interests.

“Nation-building” is so common a trope in public parlance in the Philippines that it is almost meaningless. It has also proved elusive, not the least because of the difficulty of weaving a common narrative in such a diverse political community riven with so many fault lines of language, culture, ethnicity, geography, and class. But it is, we suggest, entirely plausible that this is what Duterte’s actions amount to, even if it is impossible to be sure with what clarity, if any, he understands that this is what they do.

Consider too that Philippine political scientists often talk about mayors as a special breed of politician: down-to-earth, aware of limitations, and pragmatic. With over two successful decades in municipal politics, these are the traits Duterte’s behavior manifests. Drugs are a problem in the Philippines. What is the most direct way of dealing with it? Kill drug pushers and users. Is it feasible? Yes. Let us do it. China is encroaching on Philippine maritime territory. Is it possible to repel China? No. Let us deal with China, then. The insurgencies are a fundamental challenge to the state and a major loss of treasure and life. Can they be defeated? No. Let us negotiate peace with them. All these are part of what add up to an effective nation-building project, perhaps not planned, but playing out so. The insurgencies are the capstone of this. President Aquino had tried to stir up nationalism against China and not without success, but it was not an issue the Moro people or the rural poor were interested in getting behind. He succeeded in signing a peace agreement with the MILF but that was sabotaged in the legislature, by among others, Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Bongbong Marcos, Duterte’s running mate and ally.

His obsession with drugs and more broadly (petty) criminality might be based on personal conviction but it struck a chord. He was able to thematize it and create a platform that apparently all socioeconomic classes can share. By changing the national narrative as he appears to be doing, he might be able to bring those two other key segments, which have never really fit in: the Muslims of Mindanao and the revolutionary left.

However, much that great scholar of Southeast Asian nationalism, Benedict Anderson, would have disapproved of his penchant for brutal methods, it may be that Duterte sees himself (if only through a glass dimly) as, in his strongman way, constructing “an imagined political community,” a Philippine nationalism “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

Certainly this would explain his difference-denying account of Philippine political history, and his determination to set that story against the colonial sovereign authority of the United States, just as it fits with his us (good filipinos) versus them (drug dealers) narrative, and his assertion of Philippine autonomy in foreign affairs.

Whether this is a good way to build a nation is another question.

Balázs Áron Kovács is a PhD candidate in Peace Studies/Politics and International Studies at the University of New England, Australia. His thesis titled ‘Peace Infrastructures and State-building at the Margins in a Philippine Province’ is under examiners’ review. Earlier he taught at United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica and the Philippines and worked at Freedom House Europe in Hungary.

Tony Lynch is is a senior lecturer at The University of New England in Australia. Tony’s research interests centre on questions of liberal and environmental politics, the philosophy of economics and moral psychology. Tony has published two co-authored books, eight book chapters, and over thirty journal articles.

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