05-10-2018 – The people of the Philippines today are suffering under a tyrannical fascist dictator who terrorises and murders anyone who opposes him – or so the story goes. Who tells this story? Filipino workers enduring a loss of political rights? Filipino trade Unionists having their organisations dispersed by armed gangs? Left-wing anti-war activists? Hardly. The portrayal of Philippine President Rodrigo (“Rody”) Duterte as a “fascist” is spun most of all by a slew of US backed NGOs, many of whom are inevitably linked to the notorious CIA front the NED (National Endowment for Democracy). Under the 1987 compromise Philippine constitution brought in after the movement against then President Ferdinand Marcos, NGOs were given outrageous entitlements, and even a tax exempt status under Section 30 of the National Internal Revenue Code. As a consequence, the number of NGOs operating in the Philippines are estimated to number up to 100 000. Today, the activities of a list of them are reduced to fomenting conservative opposition to the administration of President Duterte, who was elected in 2016.
Most popular President ever
The overwhelming majority of the Filipino people, however, certainly do not share Western angst towards their President. Quite the contrary. Rodrigo Duterte is, by far, the most popular President in Philippine history, and his sky-high approval rating has remained above 80% virtually since his election. While there is a history of high approval ratings for Presidents in the Philippines, which some say results from a somewhat deferential Filipino culture, Duterte’s approval ratings have officially been significantly higher than any other government since approval ratings first were collected in the 1980s. A recent poll put Duterte’s approval rating at a staggering 88%, which is only marginally down from the 91% approval rating he gained on the assumption of the Presidency after the 2016 election. What is it about Duterte in particular which produces such jolting statistics?
An answer to this question must cover several aspects. Firstly, Rodrigo Duterte is not seen as one of the “trapos” (traditional politicians) that the Filipino people have endured for decades. The former mayor of Davao is genuinely seen as a man of the people, as one of them. He is certainly an outsider, and not at all one of the millionaire Manila elite, like many of his predecessors. He reportedly doesn’t wear socks, doesn’t know how to tie a necktie, and lives in a modest house rather than a mansion. While he likes fast cars, there are few signs that he cares about making money. While corruption has played a huge role in the downfall of previous Presidents from Marcos to Estrada to Arroyo, Duterte is thus far untouched by this, and, given his apparent lack of interest in living a high life, it doesn’t seem that he will be tempted into it either. In a country with a history of sell-out politicians, Duterte is largely seen as a rebel with a cause.
Defending Filipino sovereignty
Another aspect of Duterte’s popularity stems from the fact that he is the first President in the Philippines who has not been ultimately subordinate to Washington. US domination in the Philippines is pervasive given its history of colonisation by them, even taking into account US assistance against Japanese occupation during World War II. No Filipino political leader before Duterte has stood so strongly against US colonialism towards his or her country, even given some of Duterte’s later statements indicating a compromise. In October 2016, President Duterte visited Beijing to meet with the People’s Republic of China’s Premier Li Keqiang. During a speech at that time, he uttered the following extraordinary statements:
“I announce my separation from the United States… I have realigned myself in your [China’s] ideological flow… I will be dependent on you for all time.” “I will not go to America any more. We will just be insulted there. So time to say goodbye my friend.” “There are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”
No wonder Washington was alarmed !! It’s the worst nightmare for a US Empire which is in decline economically, politically and diplomatically. President Duterte’s bravery and boldness, expressed with trademark irreverence, is a refreshing relief for many Filipinos, one quarter of whom live from hand to mouth. The Philippines was meant to be cornerstone of Washington’s attempts to “contain and roll back communism” in the form of Red China. Yet Duterte’s brash-sounding statements above also reflect a reality which the Filipino ruling class is realising, along with other countries in Asia – the US no longer has the economic or political resources to dominate large sections of the planet. It is being overtaken by the gargantuan state-led economic power of socialist China, which has the financial resources to offer mutually beneficial development. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), as a non-capitalist power, does not seek to exploit and plunder neighbours and other countries in the manner that we are familiar with from the US, Great Britain and France historically in the Asia-Pacific.
Filipino sovereignty is vitally important, in a country which has been dominated for over 100 years by Spanish and US colonialism. To prosecute sovereignty, President Duterte has indicated that he has an obligation to look outside the traditional power of the US and its Western adjuncts. At the APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Co-Operation) summit in 2017, Duterte met several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Russia donated thousands of automatic rifles, 20 trucks and helmets to the Philippines, to assist its anti-terrorist operations in Marawi. Putin stated that Russia and the Philippines has a common enemy in the fight against terrorism. In response Duterte stated that the Philippines will remember Russia for all time. One can almost hear the jaws dropping in the Pentagon.
The US in Syria suffered arguably its first defeat in war since Vietnam, once Russia somewhat belatedly intervened, at the request of the Syrian government, in 2015. Russia, with its superior military air power, outplayed the US politically. They openly called for the US to join it in a fight against the terrorist death squads in Syria. The US could not intervene on the side of its Al Qaeda and ISIS patrons, and thus was forced to sit back while Syria, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah went on to expel the deranged mercenaries. It was a humiliating defeat for the US, the UK, France, Saudi Arabia, Israel and others including the Australian government, who had been expending resources in a desperate attempt at regime change. President Duterte, along with a whole host of other countries not involved, no doubt noticed how the Russians outfoxed the US, politically as well as militarily. Duterte is not the only leader from a developing country who can see the military rise of Russia, which complements the economic rise of China.
Defying liberals, foreigners, the church
Many progressive minded folk throw up their hands in horror when hearing of President Duterte’s war on drugs – especially as “war” is not used by Duterte as a metaphor. Yet it is not as if Filipino drug dealers were not warned. Duterte explicitly made the case that drug addiction is a major problem; other methods used in the past have not worked, so his administration will take matters into its own hands in dealing with drug king-pins. “You destroy our country, I’ll kill you…you destroy our children, I’ll kill you..” Duterte proclaimed as he began his Presidency. Like this approach or loathe it, it has the support of the overwhelming majority of Filipinos. They agree with Duterte that around 4 million drug users who remain addicts for years represent a significant social problem. Despite the wailing from US linked NGOs, thousands of drug addicts have reportedly surrendered and asked for treatment.
The case of the innocuous sounding Sister Patricia Fox, from Australia, is another issue which tends to alarm those with generally liberal political inclinations. Sister Fox is a 71 year old Catholic Nun who has headed up an order in the Philippines for the past 27 years. While her work and the work of her order has primarily been based on assisting the many poor, in recent years she became involved in anti-government political actions and movements. In response the Duterte administration has sought to deport her. Yet this is not a case of a unilateral quashing of dissent, for Filipino law forbids foreigners from being involved in domestic Filipino politics. Regardless of the motivations of Sister Fox, by seeking her deportation, the Duterte administration is only applying Filipino law.
In a similar vein, there is also a law against foreigners owning outlets of the Filipino press. The “Rappler” news site has been criticised by Duterte as being US funded. And, despite repeated attempts to deny US funding, Rappler has been shown to be partially funded by the Omidyar Network, set up by Ebay founder and entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam. As if this was not obvious enough, Rappler is headed by Maria Ressa, who has spent the past 18 years as the bureau chief for the notorious CNN in both Jakarta and Manila. Applying Filipino law, there is a case against Rappler by the Duterte administration making its way through the courts.
The Catholic Church is deeply ingrained in the Philippines, and yet the popularity of President Duterte is such that he can openly question some of its public positions. For example, Duterte has stated that he will assist a movement in the Philippines which sought to legalise LBGTIQ marriage. This is seemingly at odds with his tough guy image, and it is a stance which is conveniently ignored by his liberal critics.
“Communists” against Duterte
If the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) spruiks its opposition to President Duterte, this must mean that this is the view of the left – some would assume. In reality, the CPP and its off shoots such as the New People’s Army (NPA) and the NDFP (National Democratic Front of the Philippines), in practice join with the other ranks of liberal outrage – many of whom are linked to the bevy of US backed NGOs. For example, the NDFP strongly criticised President Duterte’s declaration of martial law in Mindanao in May 2017, drawing comparisons to the martial law period in the 1980s under Ferdinand Marcos. Yet the declaration of martial law was made to enable military operations against ISIS !! ISIS appeared out of nowhere when President Duterte was in Russia signing trade and other agreements with President Vladimir Putin. It is not unreasonable to suggest that the US pulled the strings on the ISIS marionette in response. Moreover, President Duterte’s military operations against ISIS were overwhelmingly popular amongst Filipinos, as many of his other moves are. A sign of this was the unqualified support for the martial law declaration from world champion Filipino boxing icon Manny Pacquiao, who is also an elected senator. Pacquiao, regarded as a national hero for his boxing feats, said the country should be grateful for the strong leadership of President Duterte.
The CPP/NPA has been waging a 50 year guerrilla war against the Filipino government, which flows from the Maoist theory of “protracted people’s war”. This sounds impressive, but in doing so the politics of Maoism outside the state where it achieved state power (China), means it constantly seeks allies amongst classes other than, and opposed to, the interests of the working class. It imagines that somehow, the capitalists, small proprietors and workers can put aside their class interests and form a bloc which will achieve a “national democracy”. This is of course impossible – there has never, and can never, exist a “democracy” across mutually antagonistic classes. All attempts in this direction will thus ultimately fail, and the politics of those prosecuting this strategy can never rise above base level reformism.
Rather than a fruitless struggle for cross class “democracy” in the Philippines, Marxists need to seek to organise and lead the working class in its struggle for the overthrow of capital. Rather than join the swamp of US backed opposition to Duterte, revolutionary minded workers need to recruit to their own banner while engaging in a temporary bloc with the Duterte administration against the encroachment of US imperialism and its intermediaries in NGOs and left-populist parties. The leadership of a Leninist vanguard party is the missing ingredient to the real revolution needed in the Philippines.