“We’ve had a great relationship,” Donald Trump told Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte on Monday morning. “This has been very successful. And the ASEAN conference has been handled beautifully by the president in the Philippines.”
This is hardly the first time Trump has gone out of his way to praise his Philippine counterpart: yesterday’s remarks, made on the sidelines of the 31st Association of South East Asian Nations Summit in Manila, follow in what is already a long list of fawning exchanges between the two presidents. In April, Trump told Duterte he was doing an “unbelievable job on the drug problem”—referring to a war on the poor that has by now killed more than 12,000 Filipinos, among them teenagers and a four-year-old. In October, the White House affirmed that Trump and Duterte enjoy a “warm rapport.”
Trump’s admiration for despots is by now well known. Perhaps more surprising is the level of support Duterte maintains in his own country. Polls suggesting that Duterte’s popularity has declined received a lot of press last month. According to one survey by the Manila-based Social Weather Stations (SWS), the sharpest declines, divided by class, are among the poorest. But overall it really is a mixed picture. Duterte’s popularity remains high among the middle class and workers in the formal sector, including a significant proportion of Filipinos working overseas. Altogether some 80 percent, or four out five Filipinos, approve of his performance.
At the same time, nearly the same proportion fear that a relative, or someone close to them, will be killed in the drug war. What explains this paradox?
Duterte’s approach to governance has been to divide and rule: offering tax reform and the facade of physical security for the richest (class A, in Philippine economic parlance), as well as a growing middle class (classes B and C), in exchange for dispensing with the basic rights of the country’s poorest, including workers in the informal sector and ethnic minorities (classes D and E). Regional loyalties also remain quite pronounced, which explains Duterte’s enduring popularity in Mindanao, where martial law is still in effect.
But if Duterte is a populist, he has brought no real gains for anyone apart from the clique of yes-men that has gathered around him. Since he took office, the budgets for social welfare, education, and the country’s “calamity fund” have either been cut drastically or have been shifted around between Duterte’s favored allies in their respective government departments. His administration recently sought to cut the public housing budget by 70 percent, to its lowest level in a decade, though the Senate has pushed back. His supporters in Congress also voted almost unanimously to strip the budget for the Commission on Human Rights (CHR) and the National Commission of Indigenous Peoples (NCIP)—again, both later restored by the Senate. A regressive tax reform package is on track to be signed before the end of the year, cutting corporate and income tax for the middle and upper-middle classes, while increasing a consumer tax on basic food and goods, at the expense of the country’s poorest.
Meanwhile the Philippine business class has, by and large, no qualms cooperating with Duterte. While he has supposedly frightened off foreign investors, he has made few changes to the country’s broad economic policies, which have in recent years indeed led to significant, if profoundly imbalanced, growth. But if rising prosperity was supposed to fuel an expansion of the middle class, it has not extended, as many had assumed, to an increase in democracy, or popular support for liberal values and human rights. Rising inequality has instead fueled the fragmentation of society and the expansion of an underclass, for whom basic rights do not apply.
The paradox of Duterte’s apparent popularity is compounded by a propaganda apparatus, mostly built up online, that has worked tirelessly to buttress his legitimacy. Internationally, diplomats have acted as effective mouthpieces, justifying the Duterte administration’s incoherent foreign policy statements (including, among others, a threat to expel EU officials).
But a more alarming development is the launch of a Citizen National Guard, supported by the Philippine Department of Justice, to defend against perceived “enemies of the state”: drug cartels, foreign intelligence agents seeking regime change, and a “seditious political opposition.” The latter now includes both the dilawan or “Yellows”—a motley coalition of liberals, social democrats, and elements of the Catholic Church—as well as the Maoist Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP).
The irony will be clear to anyone following events in the Philippines. The alliance between Duterte and the Maoist left was an open secret since the 2016 presidential campaign, although their warm ties stretch back long before that, to when he was mayor of Davao city. The alliance was premised largely on Duterte’s alleged “anti-imperialism,” and his promise of a peace process that would bring members of the left into his cabinet. As criticism of them mounted, Maoists and their sympathizers justified the alliance in terms of their efforts to push Duterte to the left. What progressive possibilities they saw in the man’s platform, which at heart has always been a policy of mass murder, is difficult to guess.
Only after the CPP’s nominated cabinet members were turned down, followed by the breakdown of the peace process and rising casualties from the drug war (which included party activists), did they finally turn against him. At 12,000 and counting, the “drug” war’s death toll now dwarfs that of the two-decade Marcos dictatorship (which saw some 3,000 documented extrajudicial killings). The tragedy is that most of the war’s victims have been denied even the dignity of being political targets. By and large, they have been the poorest of the poor, children included.
To its credit, Makabayan, a coalition of “national democratic” parties sympathetic to the CPP, has in recent months broken away from the pro-Duterte majority in Congress. Yet it is unclear whether their U-turn will mean a more honest engagement with what remains a weak and fragmented opposition. At a time that calls for a broad front against authoritarianism, frictions persist between Maoists or national democrats, centre-left parties like Akbayan, and other left-wing parties that split from the CPP in the 1990s. with a recognition of previous failures on all sides, including Akbayan’s own alliance with the previous Aquino administration and the Liberal Party—which remains a bastion of the old elite and is in much need of reform.
A more positive development is the “Movement against Tyranny” (MAT), which has sought to bring national democrats and these other elements under a single umbrella. Still, the relationship between Maoists and others on the left remains uneasy. Steered largely by national democrats, MAT echoes other political campaigns that CPP elements have left to disintegrate as soon as they strayed from the party’s brand.
Meanwhile, having supported Duterte for his supposed anti-imperialism, Maoists are recycling the same tired anti-American line in opposition to him. After having offered to aid the Philippines military in the war against ISIS-linked rebels in Marawi city, even hinting that the rebellion was a U.S.-backed plot to destabilize the Duterte administration, they have now turned this argument around to condemn U.S. military support for the campaign.
Setting Trump and his warm friendship with Duterte aside, the truth is more complicated.
Human rights and the anti-colonial card
Far from destabilizing him, the Marawi war may in fact have consolidated Duterte’s position. Western governments—notably those of the United States and Australia—appear willing to ignore gross violations of human rights, despite some rhetorical fluff to the contrary, in return for continuing “stability” in the Philippines. In the same way that many Filipinos see the drug-war killings as a trade-off for security, Western allies are willing to accept Duterte’s frontier-style politics and mounting death toll as casualties of a necessary partnership in the war on terror. This mode of “diplomacy” is part of a time-tested strategy for Duterte: playing security against almost any other social or economic concern served him similarly well in his years as mayor of Davao city, bringing together strange bedfellows including Maoists and the military. Today he projects his administration as a buffer to the expansion of Islamist terrorist activity in Southeast Asia.
While Duterte’s rule has been particularly grim, it is important to stress that the situation in the Philippines is not unique. Duterte’s attack on the country’s urban poor has been mirrored, to varying extents, by several other governments in the region—particularly those of Indonesia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Burma, which target similar social groups along class or ethnic lines.
As chair of ASEAN, the Philippines submitted a controversial resolution in September eliminating all reference to the Rohingya as the primary victims of ethnic cleansing in Burma. And on Monday, Reuters reported that a draft of the concluding statement for the current ASEAN Summit likewise included no explicit mention of the Rohingya. This marks a sudden shift from the Philippine’s history of explicit support for the rights of the Rohingya—often in tension with the sentiments of its neighbors—and its offer to take in large numbers of refugees just a couple of years ago.
Using propaganda similar to that of their counterparts in the Philippines, Burmese officials have deflected charges of a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya by accusing the West of backing regime change through a fifth column of enemies of the state. Yet as in Marawi, those denying accusations of systematic human right violations have simultaneously embraced the standard “Western” war-on-terror narrative, accusing their opponents of supporting Islamist terrorists or illegal immigrants.
In Southeast Asia, the retreat of American hegemony has coincided not with a pink tide of progressive governments, but with the regionalisation of a model of governance that is both neoliberal and authoritarian. The “anti-imperialist” posture of regional governments amounts largely to substituting Chinese, and to a more limited extent Russian and Indian, capital and arms exports for those of former Western allies. ASEAN as a regional order has no real mechanisms in place to enforce respect for human rights—political or socio-economic. With a strict policy of mutual non-intervention, the body ensures little more than a free market, leaving the region’s most marginalized at the whims of local elites and transnational capital.
For the left in North America and Europe, the situation calls for revisiting old alliances and building an alternative geopolitics of international solidarity, oriented around human rights and support for democratic movements wherever they are threatened. There is a clear link between neoliberalism and the backlash of populist nationalism, as Philip Alston, former UN rapporteur on extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, has stressed in a recent article. Fighting for socioeconomic rights is not antithetical but central to sustaining and expanding a popular base for democracy—including the basic liberal nostrums of rule of law, political rights, and civic institutions. Both should be priorities on the left.
Around the globe, stark social inequalities have led to the fragmentation of the working class, rendering those at the bottom of the ladder easy scapegoats for the far right. A new internationalism needs to confront this dynamic head on, as it plays out in complex ways from country to country. Broadly, this means building alliances between social groups targeted in both “East” and “West”: religious and ethnic minorities, immigrant workers, refugees, the victims of police brutality, and the non-unionized or unemployed.
In the Philippines, non-Maoist political parties like Partido Manggagawa (Labour Party), Akbayan, Bukluran ng Manggagawa ng Pilipino (Alliance of Philippines Workers), religious groups, and some of the major trade unions have been building such alliances nationally, exploring the role of organized labor and the left in better addressing issues of inequality and human rights. It has not been easy, as even some union leaders continue to cling to Duterte’s pro-poor facade and earlier promises of pro-labor reforms—mirroring some U.S. labor leaders’ ambiguous stance toward the Trump administration. But both administrations have clearly brought only neoliberalism on steroids. In the Philippines, moreover, the problem extends far beyond Duterte, who has exposed the deeper weaknesses of the country’s institutions. From the Supreme Court to Congress, loyalties are not divided along ideological or party lines, but tied to the latest strongman in the executive. This was the case under the Aquino administration, if in less blatant form, and it remains true today. Despite the democratic promises of People Power, which toppled the Marcos dictatorship in the mid-1980s, post-Marcos administrations have not been able to overcome this underlying system of patronage, which has too easily paved the way for dictatorial, even proto-fascist, regimes.
Few are expecting a revolutionary rupture in the Philippines today, despite hopeful signs of spontaneous protests against the government’s human rights abuses. At this delicate stage, it is far more likely that the Duterte administration will crack down if pushed too hard, while maintaining enough local, and international, support to hold onto power. Despite the urgency of the daily killings, this means that resistance entails a much slower process of community education, movement rebuilding, and much soul-searching on the left.
CJ Chanco is a freelance writer and geography student at York University. He was based in Mindanao for a few years and has written on the subject for Jacobin and Overland Journal, among other publications. At York, he is also a member of the Alitaptap Collective.