Hope for the Philippines?

Son of a bitch (var. sonovabitch): Something that is very difficult or unpleasant. Used to express surprise, disappointment, anger, etc. (based on Merriam-Webster)

Rodrigo Duterte, elected president of the Philippines last May, was supposed to meet with President Obama in Laos on the sidelines of the ASEAN meeting Monday. He had referred to Obama as a putang ina (“son of a bitch”) in a news conference, and earlier to U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg with what was reported as a homophobic slur.

(I understand that Duterte routinely uses the word bakla or “gay” to refer to elite men, but—like most Filipinos—actually is fine with gayness. The city of Davao, where he was mayor for many years, has lots of gay establishments and he had no problem with them. He supports gay marriage. When asked last year if he would mind if his son Paolo had a gay partner, he replied that he had no problem at all.

“It’s more of the human dignity than anything else,” he replied, adding in his typical manner combing English and Tagalog, “All human beings are created by God, So kung rerespetuhin mo ang totoong babae, tooting lalaki, at ito namang isa kung medyo alanganin sa babae, lalaki, then he is also a creation of good. So kaya magrespetuhan tayo.”  I don’t understand Tagalog but this sounds pretty tolerant. I’m inclined to think his putative homophobia is actually State Department hyperbole designed to discredit him.

By the way, have you noticed how, following the rapid unexpected legal advances gay people have made in this country since the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 2003 recognized same-sex marriages, the U.S. government itself has rapidly and shamelessly come to make homophobia—still rampant in this country, and indeed normative until recently—a cause for the vilification of selected regimes abroad? Regimes such as that in Russia—where homosexuality is in fact legal, and tourist literature advertises the “warm and vibrant gay club scene” and bars and saunas in St. Petersburg especially? And have you also noticed the ringing silence about close U.S. ally Saudi Arabia, where guys get tossed to their deaths off buildings if convicted of sodomy?)

Duterte has boasted about the accusations against him of extrajudicial killings of drug-traffickers in Davao while he was mayor and since he became president. I suppose he deserves condemnation. But from whom? In biblical rhetoric: Who is entitled to cast the first stone? Who has the beam in their eye, rather than the mote?

Asked by reporters last week about the likelihood that Obama would raise criticisms of his human rights record, Duterte declared elliptically, “I do not have any master except the Filipino people, nobody but nobody. You [Obama] must be respectful. Do not just throw questions. ‘Putang ina,’ I will swear at you in that [ASEAN] forum.”

The mainstream media was shocked at the insulting suggestion that the U.S. president would have to be respectful to the Filipino president or risk provoking some reactive rudeness. Asked in Beijing if he would meet as planned with Duterte, Obama affected mild amusement at the “colorful” Filipino leader, saying his staff was deciding when and if a meeting will happen. Its cancellation was announced son afterwards. Obama would meet with the South Korean leader instead.

There seems reason to believe that Duterte, unlike any of his predecessors, is genuinely anti-imperialist. More than that, and quite surprisingly, he has expressed admiration for the Communist Party of the Philippines, and its guerrilla New People’s Army, that has been at war with the Philippines state for almost 50 years. He was actually a student of Jose Maria Sison, the party’s founder who has been in Dutch exile since 1987, in the 1960s; the two have been in touch and remain friends.

On August 26 the long-stalemated Oslo talks between Manila and the rebels resulted in an indefinite ceasefire. Meanwhile Duterte has offered the Communists cabinet posts overseeing the departments of agrarian reform, environment and natural resources, labor and employment, and social welfare and development. He has invited Sison to return home. Sison says he longs to do so but only after an agreement is finalized. This is looking increasingly possible, barring decisive U.S. intervention.

Washington, on the other hand, views the Communist Party of the Philippines, and the New People’s Army, as “terrorists.” Just as the U.S. views all left-wing armed movements as terrorists (unless and until they can be used for common purposes, as in the case of the Iranian MEK in Iraq). In 2002 U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell took the unprecedented step of blacklisting the estimable Sison personally as a “terrorist” and the U.S. (spurred by then-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) was surely behind the Dutch authorities’ raid on his house and his brief detention in 2007 on suspicion of ordering two murders in the Philippines the year before. (He was cleared of the charges and released.)

While cozying up to the Filipino Communists, Duterte has unexpectedly responded to the World Court’s judgment in favor of the Philippines’ South China Sea territorial claims over those of China, not with a tighter embrace of the U.S. and cooler relations with China, but with outreach to Beijing. Duterte has made it clear he sees China more positively than the imperialist U.S., which seized the Philippines as a colony following the Spanish-American War of 1898, slaughtered one-tenth of the Filipino people suppressing their resistance to colonization between 1899 and 1901, acquired total control over the Filipino economy and largely retained it after according the Philippines formal independence in 1946.

U.S.-led forces suppressed the communist-led Hukbalahap rebels who had spearheaded resistance to the Japanese occupation of 1942 to 1945, treated a succession of puppet presidents with astonishing contempt, and praised as “democratic” the vicious regime of Ferdinand Marcos (president from 1965 to 1986) that declared martial law in 1972 to suppress the communist threat. The U.S. backed Marcos until the “people’s power revolution” of 1986 forced President Reagan to issue him marching orders. (Marcos settled and died in Hawai’i.)

His initially popular successor Cory Aquino first sought peace talks with the CPP. Towards this end she freed Sison, who had been captured and imprisoned in 1977. But while Sison was touring the world in the year following his release—notably, accepting a literary award for a book of poetry he had composed from the hands of the king of Thailand in October 1986—the Aquino regime under army pressure decided to revoke his passport. Ever since he has been stuck in Utrecht, Holland, advising the CPP from abroad.

The prospect of his return to the Philippines, publicly embraced by Duterte, possibly taking a cabinet post along with other members of the CPP, must be producing shit-fits in the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon. State Department spokespeople insist that the bilateral relationship remains strong. Duterte has now expressed “regret” for calling Obama a putang ina. He says he meant nothing personal. (In fairness, he calls lots of people that, including Pope Francis. That’s just Digong’s manner of expressing himself.)

But things do not actually seem normal. Not at all.

In 1992 the U.S. was forced to close its Subic naval base and its Clark air force base in the Philippines—voted out by the national legislature. It has been trying to worm its way back in since 9/11. Recall how George W. Bush once called the limited deployment of U.S. forces in Mindanao, to aid Filipino forces in defeating the tiny (and still surviving) Abu Sayyaf group supposedly aligned with al-Qaeda, the “second stage” in the “War on Terror” after Afghanistan? Even as she was further bought by a massive injection of new military aid from the U.S., she had to request that Washington stop using that phrase because the Abu Sayyaf threat was actually tiny and Filipinos getting nervous thinking their country would be the next Afghanistan.

(For a time, Georgia and the Pankisi Gorge became the next stage, and then Yemen. The neocons clustered around Dick Cheney were determined to use the post 9/11 atmosphere to expand the U.S. military presence everywhere in the world.)

Step by step, the U.S. military has returned to the Philippines. It continued port calls in Subic Bay after 1992 and by pressing Manila to sign the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement in April 2014 has acquired access to military bases in the country on a rotational basis. Meanwhile the Philippines has played a central role in the Southeast Asia Maritime Security Initiative, a U.S.-led effort to monitor and challenge the expanding Chinese presence in the South China Sea.

This is all part of what Washington calls its “pivot to Asia”—code term for its desire to just get the job done in the Middle East as soon as possible so as to focus attention on preparing for war with the inevitably rising China. But what does Duterte mean for that pivot?

In 1947 the Truman administration ordered its European allies including France and Italy to remove any Communist members from cabinets. Never mind that these parties were popular and enjoyed a reputation as having led the anti-fascist resistance. And it’s well known that CIA dirty tricks prevented a Communist electoral victory in Italy in 1948.

How would a President Hillary Clinton react, should the CPP acquire an established role in Philippines politics, Manila withdraw from recent military and “security” agreements, and the country draw closer to the PRC? Be assured her crooked cabal is already discussing coup plans. Because that’s what they do, thinking that as the “exceptional” nation they need not (as Hillary confidant Henry Kissinger once said in relation to Chile) “stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”

But that was 1970, when the U.S. had twice the share in global GDP than it has today and the world was divided by the Cold War. Ruling classes of nations forced to take sides at that time have seen been obliged by market and geopolitical forces to align, re-align, and hold out options for the future. Obama cannot snap his fingers and demand that Duterte cooperate with an anti-China, pro-U.S. balikitan program. Nor will his successor be able to do so.

The next U.S. president might face an independent country whose people are attempting to resolve their own contradictions in their own way, rejecting interference from the putang ina in Washington. What could be more hopeful than that?

Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: gleupp@tufts.edu