Marcos’ ghost and a new resistance to Duterte

December 14, 2016

On November 8, the Supreme Court of the Philippines ruled that former dictator Ferdinand Marcos could be buried in the Libingan ng Mga Bayani, or Heroes' Cemetery. Marcos ruled the Philippines with an iron fist from 1965 to 1986, when he was ousted in the People Power revolution that took place 30 years ago. During his reign, more than 3,000 people were murdered by the military or extrajudicial forces.

The current President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power earlier this year with a right-wing agenda while promising to stand up for ordinary people, is a longtime admirer of Marcos. During the campaign, he proclaimed he would give the former dictator a "hero's burial," which prompted the Supreme Court decision. In response, thousands began to protest and make plans to stop the burial. On November 18, to avoid a confrontation with protesters, the government placed Marcos' body in the cemetery in a secret ceremony. When word got out, there were huge protests numbering in the tens of thousands.

These are the first major signs of opposition to Duterte, whose "war on drugs" and law-and-order hysteria has encouraged official and vigilante violence, leading to nearly 6,000 people killed since June. Herbie Docena, an organizer with the socialist organization Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers, or BMP) and the Block Marcos Coalition, spoke to Alessandro Tinonga about the growing movement to challenge Duterte.

CAN YOU talk about the background to the protests against Marcos' burial and the rising sentiment against Duterte?

ALMOST SIX months ago, Duterte won the presidential election. That was significant because that election was really a rejection of the previous faction of the ruling elite, which tended to be more neoliberal: the Liberal Party coalition and their allies, such as the Social Democrats.

Like many places around the world, the election was an expression of anger and disappointment at the failure of the neoliberal elites to improve the lives of everyday Filipinos.

My own reading of it is that it was also a rebellion of a rising middle class in the Philippines that has been the product of the particular class transformations that has taken place over the last 20 years, brought about by the export labor policy and outsourcing to the Philippines.

That has been the base of Duterte's support as well as the marginalized sections of the ruling class--meaning those who accumulate their capital from the lower provinces, like Mindanao. For example, Duterte's main funders are people like Antonio Floirendo--really large businessmen whose investments are in Mindanao. These are sections of the ruling class that have been snubbed by the traditional ruling families in Manila.

Workers in the streets of Manila to protest the hero's burial of ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos
Workers in the streets of Manila to protest the hero's burial of ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos (Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino)

So the result of the election is a product of these developments over the last 10 years. As I see it, Duterte, like many other right-wing populists, has a project to provide a resolution to the economic and political crisis in their country. He seeks to modernize the Philippines through authoritarian measures in much the same way that Ferdinand Marcos did in the 1970s.

The parallels between the two are very striking. In the 1970s, Marcos took charge of a sort of backward, dynastic economy that had been bled dry by all these traditional land-based oligarchs, which he then ousted from the government when he took power. This is very similar to what we have now.

Over the last 30 years, since Marcos was deposed, the subsequent administrations didn't achieve the project of modernizing Philippines capitalism. Now, this other section of the ruling class is trying to finish the project, and they hope to do it with more authoritarian measures, as opposed to liberal democratic measures like what we saw under the former president, Benigno Aquino III.

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IT SOUNDS like the protests against Marcos' burial aren't just outrage over honoring the man who was deposed by the People Power revolution--they're also a revolt against Duterte because he represents everything people fought against 30 years ago.

ABSOLUTELY. I think this is just a symbol.

There has been an accumulation of grievances and concerns about how Duterte is running the country. But it was the burial issue that sparked the larger protest movement. Many of the same people and organizations which have been providing the infrastructure of the protests were the same ones criticizing Duterte's "war on drugs," which has killed an estimated 5,800 people or more.

All the pronouncements by Duterte signify his willingness to reimpose a full-blown dictatorship, with suspension of habeas corpus and putting the country under a state of emergency. So the burial issue catalyzed people to be more critical of how Duterte is running the country.

It's also important to point out that there are different forces here, like any other movement.

One section of the movement is those who are supportive of the previous administration and the neoliberal section of the ruling class and its middle-class allies. They want to return to power and are waiting for an opportunity to get there. You also have a section of the left that has tried to ally with Duterte, but now is critical of him. Then, of course, you have the newly radicalizing sections, which are coming out in the street.

What we have here is a battle to define what the alternative to Duterte is. There are those who are arguing that the alternative is to return to structures like Aquino's Liberal Party, which has been more closely integrated into capitalism, but still stands for preserving elections and pluralism.

But there's also an emerging of an opposition that says we don't support the Duterte project, nor do we support the Aquino project. That's where people like me and my organization lie.

COULD YOU describe what the protests have been like, and what the government's response has been like?

THERE HAVE been pockets of protests against the "war on drugs," but they have been small--maybe 50 to 100 gather in places all over the country. But four weeks ago, when the Supreme Court ruled that it wasn't illegal for President Duterte to bury Marcos at Libingan ng Mga Bayani, there were hundreds if not thousands of students who came out on the streets that night to express their indignation.

After that happened, people started preparing for the actual burial, which is how the Block Marcos coalition was formed. Activists, students, professors and intellectuals came together to do something concrete, planning for direct nonviolent action to prevent the burial. We started having meetings, holding discussions and reaching out to other groups to prepare for the day that the former dictator would be buried.

It appeared that the Marcos family would make this event a big spectacle and mobilize hundreds of its supporters as a show of force. They wanted to show the world that they were back in business, and kick off their campaign to elect the next president. There's been speculation that Ferdinand "Bongbong" Romualdez Marcos Jr., Ferdinand Marcos' son, would run.

So we were planning to organize mass mobilizations as well as direct action. But then the government decided to bury Marcos without any prior announcement to catch everyone by surprise. It was like a covert burial.

That angered a lot of people, so there was a lot of mobilizations in the streets that day, including protests at the university and on Epifanio de los Santos Avenue, which is where the People Power protests took place in 1986 and 2001.

This time, some 10,000 people showed up, mostly young. It was still relatively small, but was significant because it was the first big demonstration against the Duterte administration.

I can't emphasize how much of a breakthrough this was, because for months, people were intimidated by how popular Duterte was. I think many people were critical, but they refused to take to the streets or oppose him publicly because the backlash would have been so powerful.

But now, people are more confident to voice their dissatisfaction and opposition to the Duterte administration. That was the first time that I saw people blasting the President--comparing him to a "tutà," which is basically calling him a "puppy" or "lackey." So there was a significant shift in public opinion.

After that, the different political forces organized their own demonstrations. The National Democrats, a Maoist formation, organized their own demonstrations, even though they are still allied with the president. All the other left forces took part, too, plus the Liberal opposition organized its own mobilization.

All together, the estimates of the turnout were as high as 20,000, which in terms of the current political context in the Philippines is a major protest.

NOW THAT larger parties are starting to take part in this movement, are there common demands bringing people together, and does this define the character of the opposition?

I GUESS the most common demand is to redress the burial of the dictator from the "Heroes' Cemetery"--that's the common denominator. Some people disagree with the demand to exhume the body. My group, for example, agree with this demand, but others don't.

Most of the disagreements have to do with how to hold Duterte accountable for what happened. For example, some of the political tendencies--particularly the ones that have tried to ally with the president--have tended to focus their criticisms on the Supreme Court rather than the president himself.

Others, like our group, have been vigorous and explicit in saying that none of this would have happened if not for the president, so he has to be held accountable. But what exactly "holding him accountable" means is a question that has not been clarified yet. Very few are calling for him to resign, so that's a minority view. There are also those who are mobilizing more generally to protest the growing authoritarianism in the Philippines--for them, the Marcos burial seems to be one of the steps toward dictatorship.

The divisions are more about who to replace Duterte with if he is ousted. The Liberal opposition, for example, might be trying to get the vice president, who is from their party, to replace Duterte. But others, like me, are opposed to that. We don't want to see a Liberal restoration if we are opposed to the Duterte administration.

WHY HAVE sections of the left, such as the Communist Party of the Philippines, given Duterte space, despite the repression and violence of his "war on drugs"?

I THINK a lot of it has to do with the fact that Duterte won the election on a wave of discontent. There was the hope that he would actually turn his back on the politics of the previous administration.

There were early indications that he might do so. For example, he appointed known leftists for important cabinet positions, something that wasn't done under previous administrations. He also made all sorts of promises that made people hopeful, like ending contract work, which is the worst form of flexible labor and is rampant in the Philippines.

Duterte also claimed that he was leftist and would be the first socialist president of the Philippines. There were parts of the left that believed that, or at the least believed he would be pushed to the left.

However, others have always been skeptical. I wrote an op-ed article early on dispelling that belief, based on his early pronouncements, such as a statement promising to continue the neoliberal policies of the previous administration. Duterte also appointed as his cabinet secretary a businessman who declared that the administration wouldn't turn its back on the economic policies of the previous one.

So clearly, Duterte was trying to show, in typical populist fashion, that he could reconcile the interests of the different classes, and he backed this up with certain gestures. What he was really trying to do was assemble a coalition of the right and left in support of his populist authoritarian project.

I think the Maoists went along with that because there was some affinity between their ideology and his project. The Maoists believe that the Philippines is a semi-colonial, semi-feudal country, and what's needed is to pursue national industrialization. Duterte, from very early on, made pronouncements that he was going to do that--that he favored national industrialization.

So I think that while they publicly called Duterte a reactionary, they think it might be possible to push him to pursue the kind of economic development project they have long been advocating.

Others, like our group and others we work with, were skeptical. While it might be possible to push Duterte in a more progressive direction, his actions were more attempts to placate the masses and build a popular coalition around his conservative goals.

I think that over the last couple months, we've been proven right. So far, Duterte has failed to end contractualization. There are reports that his new policy is called a "win-win"--that is pro-capitalist, which does little but legitimize contractualization.

There's actually nothing to show that Duterte is actually progressive or socialist. There were leftists who would avoid criticizing him because of his popularity--because they thought the masses or the working class wouldn't be able to digest this yet. The attitude is to wait for Duterte to expose himself, because he won't be able to deliver.

But now, after five months, more left groups are shifting and becoming more openly critical--less guarded and hesitant. This is also a reaction to the sentiments of the unorganized masses, who are becoming more critical, and feel that Duterte isn't delivering and isn't the first socialist president of the Philippines.

WHAT DO you make of Duterte's rhetoric that is critical of imperialism and the Philippines relationship with the U.S.?

I THINK his rhetoric is the same that so many nationalist leaders have used in the past to try to rally the masses to support them and justify repressive policies and a conservative agenda. The line is essentially that "the foreigners are against us, therefore rally behind me, otherwise the foreigners are going to get us." It's the kind of anti-imperialist authoritarianism that people got under Saddam Hussein, for example, among many other right-wing nationalists.

We see now that it's clearly not true that Duterte is breaking with the U.S. Even before he made these pronouncements, he refused to revoke the national defense agreements that have allowed the U.S. to basically use the entire Philippines as a military base. He hasn't revoked the agreement that allows joint military exercises. He hasn't actually done anything concrete that is anti-imperialist.

Now we hear that he has called Donald Trump, and relations between the U.S. and the Philippines will be great again.

So I don't believe that Duterte is an anti-imperialist. This is just a rhetorical ploy to keep people from criticizing him and ensure that he gets popular support.

This is also part of a game. To think about it more deeply, there are conflicts within the Philippines ruling class about how to respond to the changing geopolitical situation. There are sections that feel their fortunes would be better served by orienting closer to China, and others that still feel that they need to continue having close relations with the U.S.

So some want a closer relationship with China's markets, business connections and access to loans. But other members of the ruling class are are still dependent on the U.S. export market and the domestic market to sell their goods, so they don't want to antagonize the U.S.

The contradictions on foreign policy are a reflection of the conflicts between different factions of the Philippines ruling class.

The fact that Duterte wants to continue the alliance with the U.S. while at the same time pandering to China is his way of trying to advance the interests of those different factions of the ruling class as best he can. But of course, there are contradictions there, and he is caught up in them.

Right now, though, it's clear that Duterte isn't breaking with the U.S. and he's, in fact, trying to play the U.S. off against China. He's trying to get more concessions from the U.S. even as he tires to get concessions from China as well.

CAN YOU talk about the tasks facing the left and the social movements in the Philippines?

I THINK that the main task of the left right now is to provide an alternative to Duterte and the right-wing authoritarianism that he represents, as well as an alternative to what we call the "Yellow Elites" [a reference to the yellow ribbons displayed during the mass demonstrations leading to Marcos' downfall]--the Liberal establishment and the neoliberal politics it represents.

We want to avoid what happened after we ended the dictatorship in 1986, only to see the elites impose neoliberal democracy. Then in 2001, we ousted President Estrada, but another elite democracy came to power.

What's dangerous and exciting now is, on the one hand, those who were pushed out of power by Duterte's election are trying to ride the growing wave of anger and opposition to return to power. For example, the vice president is from the Liberal Party, and she is now being projected as the leader of the opposition. It seems the hope is that the opposition will grow big enough to replace Duterte with the vice president.

We want to avoid that situation, and in order to do so, we need to have a political alternative. The reason why Duterte, like Marcos before him, was popular isn't because people are brainwashed, but because there's a real feeling of being ignored by the other elites.

There's a real instability and dejection that fuels support for Duterte or Marcos. A lot people back Duterte because they feel he's "shaking things up" and fighting the other elites--so he's seen as being on "our side."

The task of the left is to expose that and show it isn't true. Duterte represents another faction of the ruling elite, which will carry out different policies to ensure the rule of the elites and the perpetuation of capitalism. So we need to fight against the authoritarians and against the Liberals.

It's crucial to show how Duterte has failed to deliver on the changes he promised, such as the ending of contractualization, building more public housing and increasing the minimum wage. The minimum wage is around $10 a day, which is well below what even the government considers a living wage. There are a lot of issues that the left can use to appeal to larger sections of the movement.

The challenge is organizing the working-class movement. It has really collapsed in the last several years for variety of reasons, including the relocation of factories from the North to the Southern provinces, as well as the failure of parts of the left to emphasize basic organizing. There's really a need to reconstruct the social base of the left to build a long-term, anti-capitalist, ecological struggle.

I think the trickiest thing is to connect questions of improvements in material conditions with the question of dictatorship and democracy. Duterte is trying to organize a grassroots campaign to people that his administration is improving the conditions of workers and the poor, with the hopes that they would support him even if he engages in authoritarian measures.

We need to convince people that the fight for human rights--against extrajudicial killings, against the Marcos burial and against the restoration of dictatorial power--is very much connected to the fight for improved material conditions for working people.

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