OPINION: President Duterte and our revolutionary history

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While the current administration is waging a war on drugs and pushing for a more independent foreign policy, an award-winning writer explores the history of our colonial distrust, and remembers the blood spilled in the name of our storied revolutions.

Editor's note: Gina Apostol is a Filipino writer living in New York City. She is the author of the novels “Bibliolepsy,” “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata,” which won the the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award), and “Gun Dealers’ Daughter,” winner of the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award. She is currently working on the novel "William McKinley's World," which uses her research on the Balangiga massacre and the Filipino-American War to cast a lens on our contemporary wars.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN Philippines Life) — The recent interest in our revolutionary history, especially our anti-imperialist war against the United States in 1898, has been intriguing. President Rodrigo Duterte’s take on it had its sensational global debut before he left for the last ASEAN summit at Laos, when, at a press conference, he was clearly irked by a reporter’s question: “What will you say to President Obama if he brings up the extra-judicial killings?”

As we know, more than 3,000 Filipinos have died in a “war against drugs” since Duterte took his oath on June 30. There is nuance about how the thousands have died. But it is a mark of this drug war that death, in the Philippines, has become an arguable tragedy — as if the loss of a body must be weighed, and if found wanting, then that body need not be mourned.

How cheap is a Filipino that her death can be weighed in value by the state like a ganta of rice.

Duterte’s chilling crusade against drug lords, pushers, and even users was an election promise — he vowed to “dump all [those involved in drugs] into Manila Bay and fatten all the fish there.” Many approve his so-called will to fight crime; but no one, not even stony Chief Bato, would disagree that lack of due process is also a crime. The killing spree, by police, ordered to kill only if there’s violent resistance, and alleged vigilantes, has resulted in some murder raps against policemen. But the drug dragnet remains indiscriminate, narco-lists have gaping holes, scenes of duct-taped bodies tagged “user” on street corners are so ordinary they have become macabre motifs for Halloween decorations — and numbers are rising.

Duterte says he is “happy to slaughter…three million drug addicts” in the Philippines, as if governance were a race to atrocity. He brought up these numbers in response to a question from the media on critics comparing him to Hitler. He has apologized to Jewish people for his remarks on the Holocaust. He has not apologized to Filipinos.

Among the victims of the killings are five-year-old Danica Mae Escaño, shot in a makeshift bathroom by killers out to get her grandfather, a bedridden laborer who had “used drugs before.” Another is four-year-old Althea Barbon, on the way to buy popcorn on the back of her father’s motorcycle. More recently, there is the unlucky OFW, Mark Culata, last seen alive biking by a police station in Tanza, Cavite, his body thereafter duct-taped, labeled “pusher,” and added to the roll call of lives cut simply by coming home.

The government disavows the killing of many of the dead; but the president does not disavow killing.

“The Philippines is not a vassal state,” President Duterte replied to the reporters that day before boarding his plane to Laos. Then he began a remarkable five-minute rant on the colonial history of the Philippines — occupied by the U.S. from 1898 to 1946. The rant was remarkable in that no Philippine president has invoked that obscure period, the Filipino-American war, with such sure — and accurate — venom, and no Philippine president has invoked the savage war waged by Americans to defend his own government’s killing ways.

How cheap is a Filipino that her death can be weighed in value by the state like a ganta of rice.

 

It was as if the country was caught between two mirrors, and thus in that doubling, our tragedy as a nation was made infinite. Caught between the trauma of our history and the trauma of our present, Filipinos were gaslighted. An abuser condemned an earlier abuser of the nation in order to sanction his own abuse. I found myself reeling, wondering if I had misunderstood why the country had waged revolution in the first place. This infinite regression of trauma is not for the weak of mind: but it weakens us. It further destabilizes our vague memory of that revolutionary past.

I’ve spent almost six years now collecting material on the Filipino-American war for a novel that never seems to end. What is difficult about writing this novel is that the tragedy is enormous but our ignorance of that war makes it worse. The novel requires backstory, connective tissue, and multiple strands of heroes who become traitors and outlaws who become mayors and some simply haunting men and women who fought for their country barefoot with a bolo or mere prayer — and yet few know who they are: Casiana Nacionales, Florentino Peñaranda, Valeriano Abanador, Vicente Lukban, Ambrosio Moxica, Juan Villamor.

The Filipino-American war is a multitude of tragedies and a movie set of ghosts. Epifanio San Juan numbers the Filipino dead at 1.4 million, while the conservative estimate of the scholar Brian McAllister Linn places them at 200,000. Either way, the scenes are heartbreaking and forgotten — the massacred women who formed the advance guard of a doomed offensive led by Gregorio Aglipay in Badoc in 1900; the legend of the rosary held aloft by Casiana Nacionales to signal the tolling of the bells of Balangiga in 1901; the merciless burning of Tondo, due to cholera, not insurrection, but cruel anyhow; and the razing of the Luzon plains by Arthur MacArthur Jr., better known as the father of Douglas. It is shocking to realize the numbers of our revolutionary dead whom we will never name or know.

What a novelist wishes to do is honor them. And it has been an uphill climb trying to figure out exactly how to excavate the stories to make palpable the horror of their oblivion and yet find links between the honorable dead and the country that has risen from their blood.

Duterte_Obama_CNNPH.jpg "If you can answer that question and give the apology, I will answer [Obama]," says Duterte on the Bud Dajo massacre. "I am not beholden to anybody.”  

It is clear that the vestiges of war, as Angel Shaw calls it, shadow us — in particular the maniacal savagery and racism of the Americans that prosecuted that war and subsequently made us “in [their] image.”

For us, a country with a divided self wrought by our colonial experience, Duterte’s rant oddly undermines and yet intensifies the reasons we fought in the first place. Simply put, in 1898, we fought for sovereignty over our bodies. We fought tyranny. But the specter of Duterte, ranting about that war, amplifies how the structure of tyranny is oddly the same, local or foreign, though the tyrant has changed. There are other ways to be a vassal state: vassalage can be homemade.

Duterte rules with the prospect of peace in Mindanao and with the communists. On this matter alone, I looked forward to his office. He has pro-poor policies, and it is too early to quarrel about their fruition: in good faith, one must hope for and support those policies’ fulfillment. Duterte is correct to reconsider our stance on military treaties with the United States (though it is not yet clear if his stance is only bluster). I have always been against EDCA, and a pivot to pragmatic alliances with our neighbors, including China, is sensible (though problematic, I know, given China’s ways). Above all, it is right to detach ourselves with diplomatic measure and productive clarity from American interests that do not serve us: diplomatic and productive are key words. So I agree with a so-called “independent” foreign policy — cast as my own views are in the shadow of that longue durée, of anti-colonialism.

And yet the moral bankruptcy of Duterte becomes clearest to me precisely when he goes on historical binges.

It was as if the country was caught between two mirrors, and thus in that doubling, our tragedy as a nation was made infinite. Caught between the trauma of our history and the trauma of our present, Filipinos were gaslighted. An abuser condemned an earlier abuser of the nation in order to sanction his own abuse.

 

Duterte raged to the reporters, “We have long ceased to be a colony of the United States … Wala akong pakialam sa kanya [I don’t care about Obama]. Who is he? Well, as a matter of fact at the turn of the century, before the Americans left, the Philippines, in the pacification campaign of the Moro … how many died? Six hundred. If you can answer that question and give the apology, I will answer [Obama]. I am not beholden to anybody.”

Apart from the irony that Barack Obama is the U.S. president most likely to understand that dark past, the fact is, the anti-colonial grievances of Filipinos against the United States are grave. Filipinos can fill up the craters of Mars — the angry planet — with many historical incidents of our outrage. The Bud Dajo massacre of 1906, or the second Bud Dajo, or Bud Bagsak, massacre of 1913, or the monstrous Indian-war-like tactics that prosecuted the Filipino-American War, and so on. From 1898 to 1913, we waged brave battles for freedom and can count their bloody costs.

And so Duterte’s rant has teeth — but no virtue.

The slippery slope of his self-serving rage is that, on top of having bare knowledge of our history, now we must also misapprehend its ethics.

Via Duterte’s pique, our history becomes mere trapo — a ragged cloth to wipe off spittle from a foaming pikon mouth.

But most of all, his rage misreads our history as blind nationalism. His is history as neurotic fetish, egotism’s scar — not space for reflection.

When I read about the Ilocano women who strode before American Krag-Jorgenson rifles to their deaths on an open field in Badoc in 1900, I wonder — what drove them? As a novelist, I keep trying to see them in their full humanity. To be honest, just imagining that scene of women at war makes me weepy. The reasons for anyone’s choices, I know, are overdetermined, having multiple causes — but at heart what I have come to is that a deep instinct for fairness and justice must have driven their acts. They believed they were wronged so they did what was right: they resisted. Recognizing a deep ethical sense in that war is the only way I can penetrate their dying.

But the specter of Duterte, ranting about that war, amplifies how the structure of tyranny is oddly the same, local or foreign, though the tyrant has changed. There are other ways to be a vassal state: vassalage can be homemade.

 

In 1906, Mark Twain shared that sense of justice. He wrote about the Mindanao massacre that Duterte cited, in a journal entry pitched in such bitterness it was published only after Twain’s death. Six hundred “Moros” — men, women, and children — sought refuge in the bowl of an extinct crater, Bud Dajo, pursued by General Leonard Wood’s army. As Twain notes: “They were hostiles, and bitter against us because we have been trying for eight years to take their liberties away from them.” In 1898, Wood had commanded the Rough Riders who had stormed San Juan Hill and was much admired by his subaltern, the young colonel Theodore Roosevelt (not surprisingly, Wood’s sons later on were the center of a bank account scandal, absconding money from Manila — a familiar story, scandal politics being one more legacy of our colonial history). Twain singles Wood out in 1906: “General Wood’s order was, ‘kill or capture the 600.’ The battle began — our forces firing down the crater with their artillery and their deadly small arms of precision … it ended with a complete victory for American arms. The completeness of the victory is established by this fact: that of the six hundred Moros, not one was left alive....”

Duterte is correct: Bud Dajo was gruesome and there has been no reparation. But Duterte is wrong when he condemns in history what he condones in the present.

The Americans killed 600: Duterte boasts of a desire to kill in the millions. I do not believe he is joking. He weaves a psychotic knot with historical allusions. As the saying goes, just because one is paranoid does not mean one’s delusions are untrue. Similarly, just because your allusions are true does not mean you are not perverse in citing them.

It is important to remember the subhumanity assigned to Filipinos in our war against the Americans — Americans labeled us juramentados, or insurrectos, or googoos, or savages. This labeling allowed American soldiers to “civilize [us] with [their] Krags,” with impunity. The labeling of the murdered in Duterte’s Philippines — adik, pusher, user — is similarly instructive.

Bud Dajo 2.jpg "The Battle of Bud Dajo" in 1906 as discussed in CNN Philippines' "The Source."  

The juramentado in 1900s Philippines was, in fact, a freedom fighter. That cannot be said of the so-called addict. The drug addict is no rebel with a cause. But the point is — it is the labeling that gives license to impunity. The indeterminacy of the crime or identity of the labeled should give us pause. If we cannot give due process to the labeled, we are as vicious as Americans slaughtering Katipuneros. The parallel is imperfect but illuminating. But the structure of tyranny can be the same, local or foreign, though the victims have changed. There are other ways to be a vassal state.

A Filipino is a Filipino is a Filipino is a Filipino is a Filipino.

It is enough of a tragedy that we can barely recall our past. We do not also need, through Duterte, to misrecognize it — through the lens of his gall — the way Duterte sees everything through the pea-brained hole of his personal angst, a bloated sense of his virtue, or his vaunted “destiny.” Our history is not that petty.

Oblivion marks our trauma. Our forgetfulness is a sign of the enormity of our losses during the early years of the American occupation. I have found only one extant contemporary memoir of that war — the diary of Aguinaldo’s flight from Malolos, written by Colonel Simeon Villa, the father of the poet Jose Garcia Villa. He was Aguinaldo’s doctor and, it seems, designated diarist. The diary was captured, along with Aguinaldo, in Palanan.

It is important to remember the subhumanity assigned to Filipinos in our war against the Americans — Americans labeled us juramentados, or insurrectos, or googoos, or savages.

To survive that war, Filipinos could not even keep their memory of it.

Duterte’s citation of the Filipino-American war thus only brutalizes further that memory lost. It distorts us. To cite our “vassal state” because his ego is bruised and his belief in extrajudicial murder is justly scorned — to perform his sham anti-colonial rage because of his own ethical gaps, huge as a Bud Dajo crater — to rub salt into historic wounds in order to prop up a war against drugs that kills children and undercuts our long-fought-for rule of law, however fragile — trivializes the gravity of our colonial, oppressive history.

Our president should know better. So should we.

Abraham Lincoln, a hero of Andres Bonifacio, who was an avid reader and had in his library a book called “A History of the Presidents of the United States,” called vigilantism and lynching in his own desperate times “the mobocratic spirit.” How to counteract it, Lincoln asked: “It will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate [its] designs.”

We know, as Filipinos, we have it in us to frustrate such designs. Citizens can unite and persuade the president who can still shift course — we can be revolutionary in the deepest sense, with a historic instinct to do what’s right. These sanctioned killings must stop. We need to remember: we were the civilized people in that long-ago, barbaric war.

History tells us that we once resisted subjugation at great loss of life — emerging, despite the odds and no matter how faulty, with a democracy intact. No matter how much he invokes it, as the killings go on, Duterte’s rule erodes that history.

The Philippines deserves its revolutionary past to be better remembered.