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Protests in the Philippines

Anton Cu Unjieng

November 23, 2016

Since the elections in May, the Philippines has seen a growing and popular authoritarianism. Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte—who has been called the Filipino Trump—swept the elections on the basis of promises to “forget the laws on human rights” in a drive to clean up drugs by murdering enough drug users and pushers to “fatten all the fish” in Manila Bay. Even before taking office he made it known that neither civilians nor police would be prosecuted for the extra judicial killing of suspects. Since taking office in July this year, human rights watchdogs estimate that more than 5,000 people—mostly  the poorest of the poor—have been killed in these so-called “extra judicial” murders. Remarkably, Duterte’s almost unprecedented approval ratings seem to have actually been helped rather than damaged by these murders.

Since taking office, no serious opposition has emerged against any of the administration’s policies. That is until November 18, when the nation was rocked by large and spontaneous protests against the sneak burial of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, in the Heroes Cemetery (Libingan ng mga Bayani, or LNMB). The largest of these gathered in front of the memorial to the first EDSA revolution and reached over 5000 at its peak, populated mostly by youths and students. These protests represent the first militant challenge to any of the regime’s policies and may prove to be a turning point in building the opposition to Duterte.

The Marcos-Duterte connection

This is an event long in the making. It has its roots in the concerted and largely successful attempt by the Marcoses to claw their way back into politics. The dictator’s children, Imee and Bongbong, and his widow, Imelda Marcos have all held public offices of various significance. Perhaps most terrifyingly of all, Bongbong almost won the vice presidential race in the last election. At the time of writing he is preparing a challenge to the count, and the president has openly stated that Bongbong may indeed become vice president yet.

But the Marcoses’ political resurrection will not be safe unless they can bury the spirit of the EDSA revolution that deposed the dictator himself. Perhaps Bongbong’s electoral popularity was taken as a signal that the time had come. Burying Marcos as a hero is part of an attempt to revise our history and rehabilitate the Marcos family. At the same time, the burial was a measure of how much or how little our national memory had already been revised. If they had managed to give the late dictator the parade that Imelda wanted and if the opposition had been tepid, that would have indicated quite clearly that the spirit of EDSA could be buried in the same plot as Marcos. This would have been a real boost to the Marcoses and their allies.

But the second factor in all of this is Duterte himself. Duterte both idolizes the late dictator and owes the Marcoses a political debt for having channeled much of their base into supporting Duterte. And also, for giving him a tonne of money. Duterte wants to rehabilitate Marcos because the ideology that supported the “strong-man” Marcos is exactly the one that Duterte now used to unite the nation around him. By presenting himself as the strong hand of discipline saving the future generation from the “perdition” of drugs, Duterte has been able to maintain his popularity in the face of his failure to end the conflicts in Mindanao and abolish labor contractualization. On more than one occasion, Duterte has openly toyed with the idea of martial law, states of various and perpetual emergency, and 'suspending' the writ of habeas corpus. In point of fact, the lived experience of the poor is already one in which the legal guarantees and protections against state violence simply do not exist. Nevertheless, Duterte’s suggestions that this state of affairs might be made official as well as generalized have gotten at best tepid support. This is the context in which we need to read the various attempts by Duterte and his allies to convince the Filipino people that Marcos was the best president we ever had.

These efforts were, however, embarrassingly clumsy. Their sheer transparency spurred on a collective act of remembrance. Stories began to circulate memorializing the torture victims of the old regime, major dailies ran editorials on the bad old days, the palace was forced to re-write their summary of Marcos three times on the government website. Then on November 8, the Supreme Court ruled that Marcos could be buried in the LNMB. In retrospect, they could not have crafted a ruling so perfectly suited to create a backlash. Marcos was declared to be imperfect just like all of us, but not to have demonstrated “morale turpitude”, and most gallingly of all, there was apparently no proof of crimes and human rights violations by Marcos! Since the 8th, the reaction against revisionism has accelerated exponentially.

A hero’s burial in secret

And the Marcoses and Duterte got scared. But it was too late to back out, so, rather than give organizers the chance to coordinate a blockade of the LNMB, they buried their hero "like a thief in the night." That is to say, news broke that he was to be buried an hour before the event, and they deployed a massive almost paranoid show of force by the armed forces to safeguard their 'private ceremony,' while the body itself was quietly airlifted from Ilocos to the LNMB. At the last minute, Duterte tried to distance himself from the burial; unfortunately for him, the Marcoses were less than cooperative. The nation was treated to the spectacle of Imee thanking Duterte from the fullness of her heart because he made it possible to fulfill her father's dying wish! She even suggested that he leaned on the SC personally for their sake.

And much too late, the discovered just how alive the spirit of EDSA remains. After the initial ruling, groups such as Block Marcos, Coalition Against the Marcos Burial In LNMB (CAMB-LNMB), various labor parties, and more, immediately promised to block the burial. Even the Maoists, whom Duterte has conned into an alliance, were forced to condemn his support for the Marcoses—weakly and belatedly, but when push came to shove they were compelled if not by guilt then by the shame of their own membership to contribute to the rallies.

A turning point

And so yes, Marcos was buried. But far from marking the death of the spirit of EDSA, they have re-awakened it. Not only has this been a setback to the Marcoses, it has also provided the left with the first opportunity to make arguments against Duterte himself to an angry and receptive audience. Clearly, there is a big difference between saying that people are opposing a particular Duterte policy and suggesting that they are breaking from Dutere-ism wholesale. But there is a massive opportunity to use this as leverage against Duterte's political project.

Herbie Docena, an organizer with #BlockMarcos, has commented that, “at the people power monument, I think people were shedding their fears and gaining new confidence to take on someone as powerful as Duterte and his legions of supporters. The terrain is changing!” The political connections are being made with astonishing force and immediacy. Slogans chanted include (my translation):

the fascism of the state will be crushed!

Digong is a fascist, a traitor to the nation!

Marcos, Duterte are the same, both fascists, sons of bitches (but in Filipino this registers more like: fuck em, or damn them)

The word (pasista) “fascism” does not mean the exact same thing in Filipino as it does in English, but the key point is that Marcos has always been understood in these terms. It is another sign of an important generational continuity. As Sonny Melencio, a leading figure in the Party of the Laboring Masses, pointed out, many many of the slogans used at the rally have their origins in the anti-Marcos struggle. It means that our nation’s history has not been passed down against the state’s conspiracy of forgetfulness.

Organized leftists and hesitant Liberals

It is worth saying something about spontaneity in this regard: there is an element of the spontaneous in this, but there is also the truly impressive organizing work that the various coalition were doing since the SC ruling. They were caught unawares, they thought they had at least 15 days, they got a little more than a week. But still, there is a difference between hurried and “spontaneous.” It is worth noting, furthermore the coalitions involve committed leftists and activists who have been grubbing away like moles against Duterte since the elections and in the most difficult of circumstance. It is precisely because of the months (and for that matter years) of courageous and determined work that they had been doing even before the SC decision that they were able to react as well as they did. If they had not been in place, the spontaneous anger of the students would not have found events in which to gather. To quote Docena again, if the burial proved a miscalculation for the government, this is in part “because of the work of those who were not cowed by Dutertismo, refused to ally with him, and continued to organize and present a different narrative these past few months.”

Against this, we have the shambolic response of the bourgeois opposition. The LP has condemned Duterte, the Marcoses, and the SC—but they did not call for rallies, they did not prepare them, nothing. Significantly, however, they also did not call for order. To their credit, they have seen the determination on the streets and hate Marcos enough to side with it rhetorically. No doubt, they will try to co-opt it, but for now, they are already late past the gate.

In the meantime they let a political vacuum develop, and the left rushed in to fill it. All the slogans and speakers at EDSA were basically leftists. And they intend to keep on protesting with a series of rallies and demonstrations at least until November 30. Their key demand? “Hukayin!” – Dig him up! While the thousands of dead at the hands of the Marcos regime and their families do not have justice, Marcos himself and his family of plunderers and butchers will get no peace.

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