Duterte and the left: a reply to CJ Chanco

Stu Harrison, April 2017

CJ Chanco’s ‘Law and order’ (published in Overland 226) presents an overly grim view of politics in the Philippines at present, counterposing a dystopian present under President Rodrigo Duterte with the untraceable claim that ‘trust in the left is at an all-time low’, and various other smears against the progressive mass movement.

Unfortunately, this grim picture denies key realities of the present situation in the Philippines, from where I have just returned.

The fourth round of peace talks have just taken place between the Philippine government and the National Democratic Front (NDFP), which represents the country’s underground communist movement in negotiations. This is significant because – as Chanco notes – the Philippines has been the home of the longest running communist insurgency in Asia. Far from faltering, the armed insurgency led by the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), has continued to gain momentum even as the peace talks continue; something the government and military have condemned.

The central discussion in this round centred on social and economic reforms, which both sides have labelled the ‘meat’ of the negotiations. A key part of reform is the Philippine government’s agreement with the NDFP on the principle of free land distribution. According to Davao Today, approximately one million hectares could be up for redistribution as a result of this fourth round of talks. The progressive movement sees land redistribution – and breaking up the feudal-era system of land ownership – as central to their demands for genuine reform.

The NDFP’s Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms (CASER) outlines systemic change through land reform, nationalisation of key industries, human rights, labour and environmental protections as a solution to the country’s economic backwardness, poverty, and underdevelopment. Every demand that forms the CASER is an acknowledgement that the whole Philippine political system has failed to protect and support its people. Discussion of socioeconomic reforms is an important lesson for the whole country in the reasons for the injustice plaguing the nation.

These discussions do not simply aim to create more meaningless paper-based reforms but to arouse, organise, and mobilise the nation’s masses to fight for a new society.  In the negotiations, both sides’ sincerity in addressing these problems has been on full show. The NDFP’s involvement shows their willingness to let the government prove itself before the whole country. Is the government willing to address the root cause of the conflict? And if not, what are the means of struggle that should be pursued?

Aside from the underground communist movement and armed resistance, the Philippines is home to a large, progressive mass movement. The progressive mass movement finds its organisational form in Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (often referred to simply as Bayan), a multi-sectoral umbrella organisation that includes over a million people through its various affiliates. Bayan liaises with workers, students, the urban poor, church people, human rights workers, and environmentalists.

One Bayan affiliate is the peasant farmer movement, which is made up of hundreds of thousands of people, organised into 65 provincial and 15 regional chapters as part of Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP / Peasant Movement of the Philippines). The peasant farmer movement has an Anakpawis Partylist representative in the congress (gaining over 360,000 votes in the election last year) and a cabinet member heading the Department of Agrarian Reform.

Bayan’s activities and views are impossible to miss for even a cursory political observer in the Phillipines. Even people who never join their actions will see them on a daily basis in the Filipino mainstream media.

Considering the above, describing the underground or the legal mass movement as weak – particularly from someone based in Canada – is bizarre. It is also notable that Chanco says nothing about the progressive movement’s approach to the drug war.

At the start of Duterte’s drug war, a new organisation called Rise Up for Life and Rights was established, to organise against the heightened atmosphere of violence with impunity. They set themselves the monumental task of turning the tide against the drug war, and introducing policy that addresses the root causes of the drug trade.

Rise Up, with the help of other organisations, has been making a name for itself with capacity-building activities to support victims’ families to hold protest actions and take legal action against the police force and other vigilantes. The group has also collected hard data on the effects of the drug war, and run education campaigns in affected communities to inform them of their rights. They provide livelihood services to the families of victims and sanctuary in churches to people believed to be on ‘kill lists’.

Chanco also derides the role of progressives who accepted appointed positions in Duterte’s cabinet. Unlike in Australia, where being a cabinet member demands 100% obedience, the progressives in Duterte’s cabinet have continued to speak out when appropriate. This is particularly true of the three activists appointed to head the Department of Social Welfare and Development, Department of Agrarian Reform and the National Anti-Poverty Commission. These cabinet members have spoken publicly and joined protests on the drug war, the hero’s burial of former President Ferdinand Marcos, and Duterte’s attempts to reinstate the death penalty. In between these disagreements, they have played a vital role in the distribution of land, widened the reach of social welfare services and disaster aid, fought bureaucratic corruption, launched investigations into human rights abuses, and even welcomed protesters into their offices to take part in the processes of government.

These cabinet members have shone a bigger spotlight on the issues they champion by sticking in their roles, than they might have by resigning. Their conduct is a practical example of how leftist cabinet members can wield power.

If there’s one thing I have learned from my time with the Philippine progressive movement, it is that there is no choice but to be optimistic even while acknowledging limitations and faults. Everyday may be a crisis, but it is also a chance to fight back and win. One saying you’ll often hear from the activists is, ‘if you don’t fight, you lose!’

Long may they fight!



Read the rest of Overland 226

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Stu Harrison

Stu Harrison is a Melbourne-based progressive activist and member of Philippine Australia Solidarity Association (PASA).

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. It’s funny that Stu barely engages with my essay in full, and took the few paragraphs that I wrote about the CPP to write an elaborate defence of the party that I have seen before: http://pinoyweekly.org/new/2016/02/misunderstanding-duterte-and-the-philippine-left/

    It’s even funnier that he critiques me for being based in Canada, considering he’s an Australian activist who parachuted into the Philippines for the first time and thinks he knows my country.

    I arrived in Canada last August. Before that, I worked for a couple of years with organisations linked to the CPP, worked in Mindanao among indigenous communities, with People’s surge during their Haiyan ‘relief’ operations, and in Manila with urban poor groups, including the CPP-aligned Kadamay and KMU. I know how they work, and how there is a pattern to the party’s taking up of various causes, redirecting them only to serve its own ends, as opposed to building a genuine popular “mass movement” that isn’t simply part of their shrinking church.

    Their alliance with Duterte is just one example of the party’s duplicity. The irony is that for years the CPP’s front organisations were calling on Aquino to resign for his “human rights” violations, even calling Aquino a “fascist”: http://manilastandard.net/news/top-stories/183140/palace-paranoia-slammed.html .

    9,000 extrajudicial killings later, under this administration— which has openly endorsed these murders and spits on “human rights” — and they are notably silent on any call for resignation.

    Less than two years ago, today’s social welfare secretary, Judy Taguiwalo, and her fellow activists lobbied actively against Widodo on behalf of the overseas Filipina worker, Mary Jane Veloso, who was on death row in Indonesia on false charges of drug smuggling. Taguiwalo now walks arm in arm with Widodo: https://twitter.com/sec_judy/status/858515360772800512 and the Philippine National Police. DSWD under her leadership serves willingly as an Orwellian “leftist” face to Duterte’s drug war, offering relief and rehab to thousands locked up in the country’s jails.

    No amount of “community education” is going to deter from this hypocrisy. It’s ironic too that it was Bayan and other aligned organisations who were always up in arms about the need for the government to adhere to human rights norms and international law. Apparently these things only apply to governments where they are not in the cabinet.

    The party appears strong from a distance in part because they excel with media relations. It’s a hot air balloon. I’ve been waiting for a long time to see someone do a national survey on the CPP’s alleged popularity, especially in communities that are apparent “hotbeds” of the CPP. Many indigenous communities in the south have long been in the crossfire between government forces and the CPP’s own pointless and manipulative “people’s war”.

    I also know people, including CPP members, who have been killed in this drug war — politically targeted for their activities. To see their own “comrades” still in bed with this government have left many in despair, including myself.

    It is beyond many of us to understand what the CPP hopes to achieve by allying with what is by far the most right-wing government this country has ever had. Brokering peace with a fascist is no peace at all.

    There also appears to be no limit to the blindness of the international/Western far-left (and leftist academics) to what goes on in places like the Philippines, Syria, Cuba, or Venezuela.

    We are their short-fling honeymoons when it’s convenient; when our “mass movements” disappoint them, they move on to another country, hoping a revolution will come.

    At the end of the day, they really don’t see us. There is not going to be a revolution anywhere, anytime soon. The least we can do is prevent fascist regimes from coming to power and the far-right from claiming even more lives, or worse, lending them legitimacy at precisely the time when we should be uniting against them, not working with them!

    If ‘the left’ (whatever the means anymore) refuses to stand consistently on the side of basic human rights and hard-won democratic norms, who will?

  2. Dear CJ,
    1. Please stop redtagging progressive organisations (you sound like fascist Senator Trillanes…)
    2. Attacks on DSWD Sec. Judy Taguiwalo are the preserve of the right-wing. She has been firm in her stand against EJKs and has been widely recognised as the best DSWD chief the Philippines has had, so far. The attempts to oust her have been based on her real attempts to fight corruption in the government agency.
    3. By being in Canada you should understand what a “weak left” actually looks like. Its something that Australia also contends with.
    4. No, I don’t think I know everything about your country. I only mentioned a few important points that you seemed to conveniently leave out in each of your articles.

  3. Stu, the fact that these organisations are aligned with the CPP is an open secret. They march on May Day with flags of Stalin and Mao and it doesn’t take great intelligence to see past the rhetoric.

    There is nothing remotely progressive about organisations that choose to work within a far right government (well before the peace process even began)

    Taguiwalo’s choice is akin to Sanders (I wouldnt put her in the same league but still) accepting a position in Trump’s cabinet.

    Every rebuttal by apologists of the party draws a rightwing strawman:

    ‘You are in this camp, and therefore all that you say is illegitimate. Yiu are CIA. You are yellow… You are a pseudo fascist’

    These are not arguments.

    Indeed every president before Duterte appears to have been a ‘fascist’ in the CPP’s limited vision. Here a real one walks in and they fall head over heels for him. The word has lost all meaning.

  4. It is striking that Stu Harrison on May 4 claims Judy Taguiwalo has ‘been firm in her stand against EJK’. First of all, opposing state-murder should not be a point of credit, it is bare minimum. Secondly, Harrison’s claim is not true. The day before Harrison posted his reply, Taguiwalo declared it was a ‘no-brainer’ that Duterte is against EJK’s (http://www.rappler.com/nation/168701-ca-suspends-taguiwalo-confirmation-cpp-ndf-npa). The EJK’s happen under responsibility and with approval of Duterte, everbody knows this and by now it is implicitly admitted by the Maoists as well. But Taguiwalo still suggests he is opposed to this policy of murder.

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