October 31, 2016

Restoring a people’s dignity

I watched the cultural show  “Hugpungan” (“encounter” ) mounted by the national minorities — Moro and indigenous peoples — together with UP students at the Diliman Theater last week and was at one point moved to tears.  A powerful choreography performed by youngsters, lumad from different tribes in Mindanao, depicted their pride in their culture, forces attempting to grab their ancestral lands, their determined defense as well as assertion of the right to self determination.  The word that crossed my mind was “dignity” and the beauty of their struggle to uphold their dignity as distinct peoples.

Filipinos from the national majority, most especially those who consider themselves modern and urbane, have much to learn from our sisters and brothers from the mountains.  Those who joined the Lakbayan 2016, a long journey to the National Capital Region bringing their issues and struggles combine the native wisdom and feistiness of their elders with the socio-political activism of the later generations.

Most of us grow up looking down on the national minorities as backward, uncouth and uncivilized although they are considered picturesque in their colorful “costumes” (actually their native wear) and their innocence is appealing to jaded souls from the metropolis. (The Moros, on the other hand, with their history of armed resistance to colonialism and post-colonial national chauvinism and oppression, have been caricatured as shrewd traders if not conmen and prone to violent reprisal for perceived grievances.)

How to “integrate” them into mainstream society and “improve” their lot has been the battlecry of succeeding governments. When a few of their young people are able to get higher education, they inevitably melt or are swallowed into the dominant culture and society losing their identity and distinctiveness.

The ruling elite in this country, those who partner with foreign mining companies, agricorporations and the like or are in their pay, are incredulous that these “natives” know and assert their rights.  They conclude that these people must have been “indoctrinated” by “outsiders” (the communist New People’s Army or NPA, to be more specific).  

Ergo the problem is the NPA and the solution is a counterinsurgency program to drive out the NPA by entrenching soldiers inside their communities and recruiting paramilitary groups from their ranks to terrorize them into submission.  When “peace and order” is restored, the military and other government agencies come in with social services to win back the national minorities’ “hearts and minds”. 

A simple and straightforward “solution” that has failed again and again. It is anchored on the objective of perpetuating exploitation and oppression and denying the national minorities their inherent right to determine their own future. Counterinsurgency programs no matter their “peace and development” guise only engender resistance.  Having somehow retained or, perhaps, rediscovered their dignity and strength as a unified people, the national minorities are fighting for their lives and their very existence.

We now reflect on President Rodrigo Duterte’s pronouncements and moves to leave the US sphere of influence in the light of our most recent encounter with our national minorities.  

What is most striking is that Mr. Duterte is the first president since independence who has explicitly stated he will not be a US lapdog.  He is bringing back our pride and dignity as a people when he says the Philippines will no longer be a “doormat” of the US. Under his watch, the country will hew to an independent foreign policy, an aspiration enshrined in the Philippine Constitution yet consistently observed in the breach by the political class who rule this country.

A senior citizen expressed the sentiment thus, “I never thought I would see the day when a Philippine president could say ‘F—k you!’ to the leaders of the Western powers and the international institutions they control for their brazen and hypocritical denunciation of the body count in Mr. Duterte’s campaign against addictive drugs.  They have the blood of countless Arabs, Africans, Asians and black and native Americans on their hands because of their wars of colonization, aggression and plunder.”

Mr. Duterte is using the presidency as a bully pulpit to awaken the people’s patriotic sentiments buried under an avalanche of US colonial miseducation, lies and distortions of history, mass media-fed taste for US commodities including cultural goods, and non-stop propaganda about the US being the epitome of modernity, progress, democracy and the good life.

I was pleasantly surprised when the police officer assigned to negotiate with demonstrators at the US embassy last Thursday said another clash between protesters and the police should be avoided at all cost since it would only please the Americans.  He also grumbled about the US giving crumbs to the country, its supposed long-time ally, when it allocates hundreds of billions of dollars to Israel. (It appears that all the public discussion generated by Mr. Duterte’s bold, and to some, outrageous statements, had filtered down even to the men in uniform.)

The White House, the US State Department and neoconservative US political pundits are getting very worried that Mr. Duterte’s anti-US tirade, including dredging up almost forgotten historical atrocities against the Filipino people that would be considered crimes against humanity today, are going to be backed by official action.  

President Duterte has said he wants US troops out of Mindanao nonetheless a new batch of “rotating” US Special Forces numbering more than a hundred recently arrived in Zamboanga City.  He has announced that joint military exercises this October would be the last during his term but military and defense officials have countered his pronouncement by saying such exercises have been scheduled ahead of time and cannot just be cancelled without doing damage to the two countries’ military alliance. 

In response to veiled threats by US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russell about the possible consequences of Mr. Duterte’s turning his back on the US and embracing China, the Commander-in-Chief said that he could very well scrap the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), a lopsided bilateral agreement that allows the de facto setting up of US military installations inside so-called Philippine bases, crucial to the US “pivot to Asia”.  Having been upheld by the Philippine Supreme Court as an executive agreement, it is well within the power of the Chief Executive to rescind EDCA.  But Mr. Duterte has backtracked and said he will consult the DND and AFP top brass before making such a decision since it is a “national security” concern.

What is clear and categorical by now is that the Duterte administration is moving farther away from the ambit of US domination economically and militarily with his recent state visit to China where he was warmly received and purportedly brought home a bonanza of economic investments, soft loans and outright grants.  Without giving up the favorable decision rendered by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the Philippines’ maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), Mr. Duterte was able to arrive at a peaceful settlement of the Scarborough Shoal stand-off with the immediate effect that Filipino fisherfolk are again able to fish there without being chased away by Chinese coast guard ships.

Mr. Duterte’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy is eating away at one of the biggest factors pushing China’s aggressiveness in the disputed areas of the West Philippine Sea; that is, the Philippines’ identification with US geopolitical imperatives and kowtowing to US dictates.  # 

Published in Business World 
2 November 2016



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