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!