Interview with E. San Juan, Jr. by Andy Piascik
1. Who is President Rodrigo Duterte and who and what does he represent?
For 22 years, Duterte was mayor of Davao City, the largest urban complex in Mindanao island, Philippines. TIME magazine dubbed him “the Punisher” for allegedly organizing the death-squads that eliminated drug dealers and petty criminals via “extra-judicial killings” (EJK)—no arrests or search warrants were needed, the suspects were liquidated on the spot. That’s the modus operandi today. If Davao City became the safest or most peaceful city in Southeast Asia, it was also called “the murder capital” of the Philippines.
Drug addiction is rampant in the Philippines. Previous administrations either turned a blind eye or coddled druglords, often police and military officials, infecting poor communities and generations of unemployed and unschooled youth. My relatives in Manila and friends in the provinces have complained that their children have been corrupted by the drug culture in neighborhoods and schools, so that when Duterte ran for president last May, he got 16 million votes (39% of total votes cast), 6.6 million votes ahead of the closest rival, Mar Roxas, a grandson of Manuel Roxas, the first president of the Republic in 1946. This implies that people want a gov’t leader who can rid the country of the drug menace.
2. News reports described Duterte’s victory as an upset, like Trump’s win over highly favored Hillary Clinton. It seems that voters simply want a change, regardless of the substance of the candidates’ platforms. Is that correct?
While the U.S. set up the electoral system in the Philippines, the feudal/comprador classes manipulate it so that personalities, not ideology, and bribery determine the outcome. Democracy in the Philippines is actually the rule of the privileged minority of landlords, bureaucrat capitalists, and business partners of foreign mega-corporations (called compradors) over the majority.
All presidential candidates promise change for the better. In the last two decades, the popular demand has been: get rid of corruption, drugs, rapes, wanton murders, etc. Over 75% of 130 million Filipinos are impoverished, sunk in palpable misery. Consequently, over 12 million have travelled to all continents to earn bare subsistence—about 5,000 OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) leave everyday for Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, North America, Europe, etc.
Scarce decent jobs, starvation wages for contractual labor, unaffordable housing, lack of adequate medical care and schooling—symptoms of terrible underdevelopment—have pushed millions out of the country, or driven them into the hills and forests to take up arms against an unjust, exploitative system whose military and police are trained and supplied by Washington-Pentagon, IMF-World Bank, and global capitalist powers. The country has been a basket-case in Asia since the Marcos dictatorship in the seventies, outstripped by smaller nation-states like Singapore, South Korea, Malaysia, Thailand, etc.
Relatively unknown to the MetroManila political milieu, Duterte’s reputation as a scourge of druglords was glamorized to the point that he became a harbinger of change. His slogan was: “Change is coming.” The public responded to this propaganda. Although unlike Roxas and his group, among them the Aquino-Cojuangco clan and Makati (Manila’s Wall Street) corporate moguls, Duterte does not belong to the traditional elite dynasties, his campaign was supported by some of the biggest corporate stakeholders, such as the Floirendo agribusiness, and by billionaire investors (Uy, Te, Alcantara, Villar) engaged in mining, public utilities, construction with huge government contracts, etc.
We cannot underestimate the Marcos family’s contribution, which added to the P375 million that Duterte allegedly spent. This fact explains why Duterte allowed the controversial burial of the Marcos cadaver in the National Heroes’ Cemetery. Duterte’s father, & other relatives in Cebu, collaborated with the Marcos martial-law regime.
Duterte thus belongs mainly to a hitherto excluded fraction of the comprador-bureaucrat capitalist class, with links to the patrimonial landlord families. He now serves as a “populist” front of the parasitic oligarchy that has dominated the class-conflicted order of this dependency since the U.S. directly ruled the country from 1899 to 1946 as a classic colony, and a pacified neocolony during the Cold War up to now. Duterte’s regime prolongs the moribund structure of colonial institutions and practices that feed off the labor of the peasantry, workers, middle stratum, women, Moros, and the Lumads (indigenous) communities—these last two are now mobilized to oppose this predatory status quo.
3. What is your assessment of Duterte’s intent of becoming more independent of the United States and the moves he’s made in that direction thus far?
This was a burning topic before the US elections, when the Cold War was being revived. Duterte got the cue. His move to invoke his youthful experience with the nationalist movement during his student days was a smart one. Tactically, he beguiled the leaders of BAYAN (the major anti-imperialist legal opposition) and their parliamentary foot soldiers to join him against the lethargic Roxas-Noynoy Aquino fraction of the oligarchy. Obviously he needed symbols of radical change monopolized by BAYAN, which reinforced the outsider image.
Part of his strategy is to firm up his base in the Mindanao-Visayas elite and consolidate his hold on the ideological State apparatus controlled by holdovers from the previous reactionary administrations. He has been doing this when Obama, the US State Dept., and the UN entered the scene and began scolding him for his murderous method of amplifying EJKs, his jettisoning of the Philippine Constitution’s Bill of Rights and various UN covenants guaranteeing the right to life and due process for all citizens. Karapatan (a human-rights monitoring NGO), church groups, and civil-society associations blasted Duterte for the “brazen impunity” shown by the orgy of police violence and State terrorism.
Cognizant of those criticisms, Duterte offered to renew peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) and its military arm, the New People’s Army (NPA) which, up to now, is still stigmatized by the US State Dept. as terrorist. This broke the long stalemate in the peace talks during the Arroyo and NoyNoy Aquino regimes. Duterte made a token release of 18 political prisoners involved in the talks and promised to grant amnesty to 434 jailed dissenters. This was hailed by the local media as constructive and a promising sign of change-maker.
At the same time, Duterte also made noises about meddlesome US military presence in Mindanao, the annual U.S.-Philippines “Balikatan” exercises, and the US intervention in the China Sea prior to his visit to China and Japan. This triggered heavy media coverage, projecting Duterte as a Latino anti-imperialist crusader like Fidel Castro or Chavez.
4. For a while, there were rumors of a CIA plot to kill Duterte. When former president Fidel Ramos berated Duterte for his anti-US polemics and withdrew his support, was there a symptom of some crisis in the regime?
No, it was a calculated publicity technique to divert attention away from the bloody police-vigilante blood bath. Duterte’s complaint was mere grumbling, blowhard gestures of the bully in the hood. His “pivot to China” may have calmed down the turbulent waters of the South China Sea, with the US fleet continuing to maneuver from its bases in Hawaii, Guam, and Okinawa. Obama dismissed Duterte as uncouth, ignorant of diplomatic niceties. Vietnam and Japan rolled out their red carpet to the cursing Leviathan of what academics designated as “Hobbesian” Philippines. Poor Hobbes, maybe Machiavelli’s Borgia would have been the more appropriate analogy.
Nothing to worry about for Washington and Pentagon. The US military presence all over the islands, legitimized by the 1947 Mutual Assistance Agreement and the 1951 Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty, plus the recent Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, (EDCA), insure the continued stranglehold of Washington-Pentagon on Duterte’s military, police, and various security agencies. With Trump’s condoning of Duterte’s “killing fields,” Duterte has proved himself a wily demagogue whose touted popularity, however, is fast eroding on the face of mammoth protests all over the islands, and in the Filipino diaspora around the world.
5. Are we likely to see a decrease in the U.S. military presence in the Philippines soon?
Not at all. First of all, as I already mentioned, all the onerous treaties that subordinate the Philippine State security agencies are safe and stable. Even the Supreme Court and the trial courts follow US protocols, as laid down initially by two well-intentioned civilizing missionaries, Justice George Malcolm and anthropologist David Barrows. Legal scholar Eric A. San Juan has clearly documented this fact in a recent essay, “Cultural Jurisprudence” (Asian Pacific Law & Policy Journal, 2013). In short, we have been thoroughly Americanized according to the racialized, utilitarian bourgeoise standards of the industrialized metropole.
Of course, the entire ideological state apparatus, including the military- police, court and prison system, was systematically crafted by the U.S. colonial administrators for surveillance and repression of those unruly natives, as proven by Prof. Alfred McCoy’s research, Policing America’s Empire. Incidentally, Prof McCoy has also documented the role of the pro-U.S. military in the People Power revolt against Marcos in 1986 and the subsequent coups against Corazon Aquino marked by the assassination of radical militants Rolando Olalia and Lean Alejandro.
Duterte’s cabinet reflects the conjunctural alignment of class forces in society today. Vice-president Leni Robredo represents the Roxas-Aquino oligarchy which (except for Robredo, whose victory is now challenged by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Duterte’s patron) lost the May elections. Except for three progressive ministers, all the officials in Duterte’s Cabinet are pro-US, chiefly the Secretary of Defense General Delfin Lorenzana and the Foreign Affairs Secretary Alfredo Yasay.
More revealing of Duterte’s retrograde bent is the newly appointed Chief of Staff of the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) Eduardo Ano, the notorious architect of summary killings and abductions of activists in the last decade. He is the prime suspect in the kidnapping of activist Jonas Burgos, among others. The party-list youth group KABATAAN called Duterte’s appointment of this blood-stained general a signal for more massacres of civilians, forced disappearances of critics, and military occupation of the countryside. This is in pursuit of US-inspired counterinsurgency schemes launched from the time of President Corazon Aquino and intensified by the Ramos, Estrada, Arroyo and Noynoy Aquino regimes.
Like General Fidel Ramos, who succeeded Corazon Aquino, all the military and police officials in the Philippines follow U.S.-ordained training, ideological indoctrination, and political goals. Their logistics, weaponry and operating procedures are transplanted wholesale from the Pentagon and US State Dept., following treaty regulations. Military aid to the Philippines rose during the Carter and Reagan administrations in support of the beleaguered martial-law Marcos regime. From 2010 to 2015, the US military aid totaled $183.4 million, aside from other numerous training and diplomatic exchanges, for example, the active presence of CIA and FBI agents interrogating prisoners at Camp Crame police headquarters.
Given the massive archive of treaties, ideological control, customary habits, and various diplomatic constraints, only a radical systemic change can cut off U.S. stranglehold on this neocolony. At least, that’s a first step in changing people’s minds, dreams, and hopes.
6. Will President-elect Trump water down Obama’s “Asian pivot” in view of his isolationist impulse, instead of allowing Duterte to assert a more “independent” foreign policy?
That remains to be seen. As of now, there is no real sign of a foreign invasion from China or anywhere else—it’s the U.S. that has re-invaded several times. There’s no sign of a brewing confrontation in the South China Sea today. The threat to the global capitalist system comes from the masses of oppressed workers and peasants, women, Lumads, and especially the formidable forces of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which Duterte has to address by diplomatic means before long. From Marcos up to Noynoy Aquino, for over four decades now, the Moro people have resisted total subjugation and genocide. It would be foolish, if not suicidal, for Duterte to persist implementing a militaristic approach—unless the U.S. (via his generals) needs to dispose of surplus weapons following the imperatives of the profiteering military-industrial complex.
For all his braggadocio and macho exhibitionism, Duterte is unable to halt the attacks of the dwindling Abu Sayyaf group, the al-Qaeda-inspired gang of kidnap-for-ransom Moros in Basilan and Sulu. Like drug addiction, the Abu Sayyaf is a symptom of a deep and widespread social and political cancer in society. Studies have shown that its followers have been paid and subsidized by local politicians, military officials, businessmen, and even by U.S. undercover agents. Only a radical transformation of class-race relations, of the hierarchy of power linked to property and economic opportunities, can resolve the centuries-long grievances of the BangsaMoro peoples.
7. Will you address Duterte’s crackdown on drug dealing and drug use, the one thing about him people in the U.S. are likely to have heard about?
This is probably the only issue that preoccupies the infotainment industry eager for high ratings/profits. The international media (e.g.,Telesur, Al-Jazeera, UK’s Guardian, CNN worldwide) does not allow a day to pass without headlining or commenting on the new “killing fields” in the Philippines. The New York Times, Dec. 7 issue, devoted a long elaborate video/print special to this topic, in English and in Filipino(in YOUTUBE), entitled “They are Slaughtering Us Like Animals.” This equals in visual power the TIME report “The Killing Season: Inside Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s War on Drugs” (October 10) that provoked Duterte’s wrath. Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and social media have blanketed the atmosphere with Duterte’s EJK performance.
Right now, however, reports of Russian meddling in the US elections have marginalized Duterte’s antics, overshadowing even the horrible war in Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan. We might have a reprieve on the carnage in that remote outpost of the Empire.
The New York Times reporter Daniel Berehulak counted 54 victims of police raids in the 35 days he accompanied the guardians of law-and-order in the urban complex of MetroManila.
Filipino addicts and small-time pushers inhabit impoverished squatter areas in suburban Caloocan, Pandacan, Tondo, outside the gated communities of the rich in Makati or Forbes Park. As of now, the total victims of police and vigilante violence of Oplan Tokhang (the rubric for the drug war) have reached 5,800 suspects killed: 2000 by the police, the rest by vigilante or paramilitary groups. According to the Philippine National Police (PNP) headquarters, there have been 35,600 arrests that netted 727,600 users and 56,500 pushers. Duterte himself initially said he will kill another 30,000 enough to fill the waters of Manila Bay and to make funeral parlors thrive. This represents a new level of ruthlessness that has converted the country into “a macabre house of mourning.”
Most of the victims are part of the vulnerable, marginalized sectors of society. Curtailing their basic rights to a life of dignity, denying them due process and equal treatment under the law, will surely not solve addiction. Everyone recognizes that Duterte’s plan is an insane program of solving a perennial socio-economic malady. Scientific studies have shown that drug addiction springs from family and social conditions, contingent on variable historical factors. Only education in healthcare, a caring and mutually supportive social environment, as well as support from government and health agencies, can reduce the havoc wrought by this epidemic. Not by stifling human lives, no matter how damaged or dysfunctional. But as we’ve remarked, the hegemnic norms of a class-divided society does not allow this consensus to prevail.
8. So there is another motive or underlying purpose behind this terrible war against drugs
Surely there is a larger political intent: dividing your enemy, splitting communities, demoralizing the angry citizenry. To some degree the climate of fear and terror has sown animosities among members of the middle class, and incited antagonisms among the lumpen and ordinary citizens toward the relatively well-off and those who welcome authoritarian policies and security in exchange for liberties. Meanwhile, the police rides roughshod over everyone, and so far there is no sustained legislative or court opposition to the relentless executive coercive power behind this unconscionable outrage.
Karapatan chairperson Tinay Palabay has acutely seen through the smokescreen of this drug campaign: the State’s program to pursue counterinsurgency under cover of a hitherto well-meaning campaign. The AFP has labeled national-democratic militants as drug suspects, such as the case of anti-mining activist Joselito Pasaporte of Compostela Valley, Davao.
Under cover of the drug war, Oplan Bayanihan, the counter-insurgency low-intensity war of the AFP, proceeds in the form of civic action-peace and development programs. During Duterte’s 100-days in office, Palabay’s group has documented 16 victims of political murder, 12 frustrated killings, two cases of torture, and nine victims of illegal arrest and detentions, mostly involving indigenous peoples in Sumilao, Bukidnon, and farmers massacred in Laur, Nueva Ecija. Today, Dec. 12, the NDFP has documented 18 activists killed, 20 survived from attempted assassination, and 13,000 persons victimized by forced evacuations from their homes. Consider also 14,000 cases of schools, clinics, chapels and civilian infrastructure being used as military barracks in violation of peace agreements on respect for human rights signed by both the government and the revolutionary NDFP.
Irked by Karapatan, Duterte has vowed to kill all human rights activists. His agents are already doing their best to sabotage and abort the peace talks. If he dares to carry out this pompous threat, he might drastically shorten his own tenure and stimulate the opposite of what he wants: mass fury against tyrannical rule and police-state barbarism.
9. What is the state of the revolutionary armed struggle that has been going on in its modern form since 1969?
As of last week, the revolutionary elan has peaked with huge nationwide mass demonstrations against Duterte’s decision to allow the burial of Marcos in the National Heroes Cemetery. This has politicized millenials and a whole generation otherwise ignorant of the horrendous suffering of the people during the Marcos dictatorship. It has mobilized anew the middle strata of students, professionals, workers, women, urban poor, as well as Lumads, Moros, and the peasantry who constitute the majority of the citizenry. The anti-Marcos-dictatorship resurgence has diminished Duterte’s popularity, exploding the myth of his supposed incorruptibility and pro-change posture. It’s more of the same, and even worse.
It’s a mixed picture that needs to be viewed from a historical-dialectical perspective. While the size of the NPA has declined from about 25,000-30,000 fully armed guerillas in the 1980s to less than 15,000 today, its influence has increased several times. This is due to deteriorating socioeconomic conditions since the overthrow of the Marcos dictatorship. Thanks also to the immiseration of workers’ lives and the pain inflicted by the vicious rampage of the military and police in the countryside. Large areas in Mindanao, Luzon and the Visayas are under the sway of partisan units of the NPA. Meanwhile, the MILF continues to preserve and defend its liberated zones from AFP incursions.
Meanwhile, the character of people’s war has changed in its quality and direction. The shift to political and diplomatic tactics within the strategy of protracted war (following Mao’s teaching) has made tremendous gains in organizing women, students, urban poor, and Lumads.
Various cultural and social formations engage in pedagogical and agitational campaigns to expose the chicanery and deception of the Duterte regime. Not a single perpetrator of human-rights violations has been arrested and punished, such as the soldiers guilty of the Lianga and Paquibato massares, the murders of personalities such as Romeo Capala, Fernando Baldomero, Fr. Fausto Tentorio, William Geertman, Leonardo Co, Juvy Capion, Rebelyn Pitao, Emerito Samarca, and hundreds more. Meanwhile General Jovito Palparan, who murdered many activists, continues to enjoy army custody instead of regular civilian detention. The scandalous “culture of impunity” is flourishing in the killing fields of the tropical neocolony.
Many disappeared activists (among them, Jonas Burgos, Sherlyn Cadapan, Karen Empeno, Luisa Dominado-Posa, and others) have not been accounted for by the State, while martial law victims and their families have not been indemnified. All these existing anomalies may explain the belief that given the corrupt bureaucracy and justice-system, the only feasible alternative is to join the armed struggle against the rotten, inhuman system. This is why the communist-led insurgency cannot be defeated, given its deep roots in the 1896 revolution against Spanish tyranny and the resistance against U.S. imperial aggression from 1899 up to the present.
10. What is your assessment of Duterte’s overture to the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the Bangsamoro insurgency?As I noted earlier, Duterte’s overture was hailed as a positive step to solve a durable, national-democratic insurgency dating back to the sixties, when the Communist Party of the Philippines was re-organized and the NPA founded. The peace talks began with Corazon Aquino’s recognition of the role played by the underground resistance in overthrowing Marcos and installing her. Similarly, Duterte implicitly recognized the political traction of the left-wing representatives in Congress in the last few years. While Duterte welcomed the unilateral ceasefire declaration of the NDFP, lately he declared that he would not grant amnesty nor release any more prisoners unless the NDFP stops fighting and submit to the government’s dictates. The severely punished prisoners are now pawns in Duterte’s gambit to coopt the subversives. Duterte’s mandate has been changed to: One step forward, two steps backward.
Duterte allows his military and police to terrorize the citizenry. No substantive reform of those decadent institutions has been carried out. Criminalization of political activities still continues with the AFP arresting Lumad teacher Amelia Pond and peace advocate John Maniquez, charging them with murder, illegal possession of firearms, etc.—the usual alibi of detaining activists which proved utterly barbaric in the case of the Morong 45 during Macapagal-Arroyo’s tenure. Rape, torture, robbery, threat of assassination, and warrantless arrest of innocent civilians remain the State’s formula for safeguarding peace and order in society.
No tangible step has been made to seriously confront the Bangsamoro insurgency—unless Duterte’s attempt to cement his friendship with Nur Misuari, leader of the other Moro group, the Moro National Liberation Front, is a tactic to divide the enemy. That may be his Achilles’ heel.
On this arena of diverse antagonisms, with fierce class war raging all over the country, Duterte finds himself in dire straits. Sooner or later, he will be compelled to either defy the pro-U.S. imperialist hierarchy of the AFP and the fascist PNP if he is sincere in challenging the status quo, or suppress a rebellion from within his ranks. He has to reckon also with the opposition of the more entrenched, diehard cabal of the Ayalas, Cojuanco-Aquino, the comprador owners of malls and export industries, as well as the traditional warlords and semifeudal dynasties that depend on U.S. moral and financial support. That will be the day when Duterte’s fate as “Punisher” will be decided. Meanwhile, the struggle for national liberation and social justice continues, despite the trumped-up charges inficted on anyone denouncing Duterte and his friend, president-elect Donald Trump.#
E. San Juan is professorial lecturer at Polytechnic University of the Philippines, Manila, and author of recent books US Imperialism and Revolution in the Philippines, In the Wake of Terror, Between Empire and Insurgency, and Working Through the Contradictions. He was previously a fellow of the W.B.Du Bois Institute, Harvard University, and the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin; and emeritus professor of Ethnic Studies, Comparative Literature, and English.
Andy Piascik writes for Z, Znet and many other publictions and websites. His novel In Motion was published earlier this year by Sunshine Publishing (www.sunshinepublishing.org)