Soyez Realistes (Be Realistic)

A few weeks ago, anthropologist Fr. Albert Alejo gave a lecture here at Leiden University entitled “President Duterte and his critics.” Many of us know that the Duterte administration is under close scrutiny by both Filipinos and non-Filipinos abroad, so a talk by someone who has first-hand knowledge of it, and a Mindanawon to boot, was anticipated.

The hour-and-a-half seminar was really too short for an exhaustive discussion, but there were two points raised by Fr. Alejo that are worth mulling over. First was his view that strong criticism and protest coming from Davao was especially needed at this time, especially for its symbolic worth as Duterte’s bastion. I’m inclined to agree with this, especially in light of the recent violence against Davaoeños (like the killing of young artist Bernardo Clarion and the death threat against journalist Kath Cortez) belying the myth of Davao City as safe for civilians and generally “immune” from abuses under Martial Law.

Second was his lament that a genuine public sphere for discussion has all but vanished in the Philippines, with what he saw to be the tepid response of universities, churches (including the Catholic church), and other institutions that had provided such in the past. Perhaps recognizing the futility for engagement in social media, there was a hint of a challenge coming from Fr. Alejo to carve out such spaces anew, given their importance in launching any viable public movement against entrenched politicians and their allies.

But overall Fr. Alejo dwelt more upon who the different “actors” are in the opposition against the Duterte regime (I asked a Dutch acquaintance who was also there, and this was also the take-away observation). It is understandable that Fr. Alejo would speak more about persons and events of which he knows firsthand, such as the whistleblowers during the Senate hearings on the alleged death squads to whom he served as spiritual counselor. However, the almost-complete elision of the national democratic (ND) movement in his presentation is all the starker given the weight he places on personalities who are precisely antagonistic to it.

But, the motivations behind this aside, this gap must be filled for two reasons, the second I will come back to at the end. But the first reason is for clear analysis and educative purposes, pure and simple. Overlooking the ND movement – its experiences, and possible missteps as well as contributions – will do nothing to help raise the political consciousness of both ordinary Filipinos and foreign scholars who are genuinely interested in the current Philippine situation.

The simplistic notion echoed during the discussion was that the ND movement had arrived too late to the opposition. But this overlooks the fact that it was Grace Poe that the ND movement endorsed during the elections, and not Duterte. This also overlooks the lively, or even passionate, discussions among ND activists about the pros and cons of this decision, which is indicative of a dynamic mass movement eager to participate in legal arenas, and not any dogmatic communistic caricature that deals heavily with dissenting opinions.

The ND movement also seems to be taken to task for getting comfortable with Duterte in the first year of his presidency, with so-called “enticements” from the President such as Cabinet positons offered to the Left and the revival of the peace talks. As for the first, Benigno Aquino did the same when he was president, which people like Joel Rocamora accepted without any qualms. In any case, Judy Taguiwalo and Rafael Mariano were not under any illusions that Cabinet positions held the key to any substantive change. Neither did they express any surprise at not having been confirmed by the Commission on Appointments barely a year later, indicative of a political maturity that many more “seasoned” politicians don’t seem to even have.

As for the second, the acceptance of the National Democratic Front of the Philippines to enter into renewed negotiations with a new president is not unheard of; they had been doing so with every elected regime since 1986. And who can blame them for their positive outlook with a self-proclaimed “socialist” president with a track record of good relations with communist rebels in the Davao Region? Consider the alternative: if they had responded coldly they would have been demonized, little doubt by the same political commentators who now criticize them for their reciprocation of the regime’s early overtures.

Lest we forget, while all this was going on, the ND movement still continued to march, to organize, and to educate people to not just focus on transitory heads-of-state but on the root causes of poverty and inequality in the Philippines. While all this was going on, ND protesters were deliberately run over by a police vehicle in front of the American Embassy, peasant leaders were being gunned down in Compostela Valley, and indigenous peoples were evacuating by the hundreds because of continued militarization.

Omitting the ND movement also obscures the changing nature of repression under the Duterte regime. Yes, the drug war in the first year-and-a-half was horrific, and yes it cost thousands of lives for which we must continue to seek justice. But Duterte now seems to be ready to move on from just the drug wars. He now appears to have found a new scapegoat for his iron-fist tactics. Martial Law was ostensibly implemented against “terrorists,” but with Marawi re-claimed and the Maute all but dispersed, it is now apparent that its extension is a pivot towards the ND movement and anyone who is considered its supporter.

Yes, Martial Law can potentially (and unhappily) be unleashed against the opposition. But who in these ranks have so far borne the brunt of the Duterte regime, even before the declaration of Martial Law? In the same way that the sheer numbers of the drug war dead can speak volumes about the nature of the beast, so too can the undeniable fact that all politically motivated extrajudicial killings carried out by suspected state agents under Duterte have been committed against people associated with the ND movement – red-tagged individuals, members of organizations that have a national democratic orientation, or those posthumously accused of being New People’s Army rebels and thus justifiably killed. Fr. Alejo spoke about the crucial role of many clergy and parishes in critiquing Duterte’s drug war. But he did not mention that the first priest-martyr claimed by this regime, Fr. Marcelito Paez, was the coordinator of the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines (whose schools have been red-tagged), and that he was murdered right after he assisted in the release of a political prisoner. At the end, the lines (and the order) of battle are drawn according to the class character of the State and those engaged in the various forms of struggle to change it.

And this brings us to the second reason why the information gap needs to be filled. Unclear analysis leads to unclear ways forward. The Duterte regime must urgently be made accountable for the drug dead – whether through the International Criminal Court or through whatever other channels are available. But after this happens, then what? The simple restoration of “liberal” democracy? The emergence of another leader-personality to rally around?

If the national democratic movement is omitted from the analysis, then what is also potentially omitted, or at least covered up, are the basic problems that it has consistently pointed to that needs to be decisively addressed regardless of who are at the top echelons – imperialist intrusions and plunder, rampant landlordism, and bureaucrat capitalism. If the fraught engagements of the ND movement with Duterte’s government is reduced to simple “cozying up,” then this inhibits any meaningful discussion of (let alone agreement upon) of the former’s proposals for comprehensive reforms – genuine national sovereignty, land reform, and industrialization – which, if one thinks about it, will benefit all hardworking and peace-loving Filipinos, whether they are ND or not.

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