Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Camiguin is no ordinary island. It’s a small island province dotted with several volcanoes. Its five towns are sitting on top of ten volcanoes. One of the volcanoes is Mount Hibok-Hibok whose catastrophic eruption in the 1950s forced the government to establish the Phivolcs. But life in mystical Camiguin is as ordinary as the other volcano-less islands of the country. Perhaps the people there have learned to accept the permanent presence of the volcanoes which allowed them to confront the other vicissitudes of life. Or maybe it’s the threat of the next big explosion (the next big one) that spurs people into action. This alertness to disasters – the constant anticipation of tragedies – is the stuff of life.

This makes Filipinos a special breed of human beings since they are living in the most disaster-prone part of the world. Situated inside the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Philippines manages to withstand a record number of strong typhoons, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions every year. (We eat disasters for breakfast). Indeed, the land is blessed with abundant natural resources but everyday is a struggle to survive the violent elements of nature. Filipinos are trapped.

Many foreigners find the Philippines majestic and enchanting but it’s actually a difficult place to live. President Gloria Arroyo described it as a “densely populated, rocky archipelago with relatively few sources of fresh water.” Gregorio Brillantes thinks it’s made up of “strange, incompatible islands amid ambiguous seas.” Only the blind and clueless like Standard and Poor’s would hail it as an ‘island of calm’.

Here lies the uniqueness of this place and the people who inhabit it. In these ‘sand-and-coconut-tree’ islands of volcanoes, giant crocodiles, and exotic coral reefs, the people are too busy to be bored with life. Hence the feasting, the merrymaking, the fighting, the taming of the terrain.

To borrow some words from Alexander Herzen, Filipinos belong to geography rather than to history. And as E.H. Carr reminded us, beware of people without history because they are potentially revolutionary.

Manila’s vulnerability

Manila is an easy target. Colonial powers were able to subjugate it by attacking from the seas. Limahong, the English, the Americans, the Japanese – all of them invaded Manila through the western corridor. Even today, foreign powers and aggressors are able to terrorize us by sending their nuclear warships and oversized quasi-military fishing boats near our shores.

Corregidor served as Manila’s first line of defense against invading forces but other than this ‘rock’ fortress, our colonial masters have failed to establish a solid naval defense system to protect the capital. Maybe because the colonizers, after imposing military hegemony in the city, were too busy fighting the barbarians, pagans, and other disobedient indios in the mountains that beefing up the coastal defenses became a secondary priority for them.

Bonifacio was certainly not the country’s first guerilla but he provided the blueprint on how to invade the city from the suburbs and mountains. From the vantage point of his rebel base in Montalban, he directed his troops to attack Manila from several key locations: From the east, the San Mateo and Marikina forces will attempt to shut down El Deposito in San Juan which at that time controlled Manila’s water supply. From the north, Caloocan and Tondo forces will attack Binondo churches, hospitals, and the telegraph and railway lines. From the south east, Taguig, and Pateros forces will cross the Pasig River, establish a base in the hills of Hagdang Bato (Mandaluyong) and Guadalupe (Makati), and proceed to attack Pandacan and Sta. Ana. From the central suburb, Sampaloc forces will attack Sta Mesa and Quiapo. From the south, Cavite forces led by Aguinaldo will attack Ermita, Luneta, and finally Intramuros.

Based on this plan (details provided in Zeus Salazar’s book, August 29-30, 1896: Bonifacio’s Battle for Manila), we now know that Bonifacio was also an outstanding military tactician. He understood the strategic value of maximizing the mountainous terrain around Manila to attack the capital. In the second phase of the revolution, Bonifacio’s idea of establishing a mountain rebel lair was successfully realized in Biak na Bato.

Combine the attack route used by the colonizers and Katipuneros and what emerges is an enduring formula to effectively dominate the capital, at least from a military perspective.

Will the ‘Nice People Around’ who are exercising Red Power in the boondocks grab this attack recipe as a gift from History? Or maybe, after four decades of waging a people’s war, they might just surprise us one day with a demonstration of their updated and hopefully, upgraded version of how ‘political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’

Island Dynamics

The central part of the archipelago of what has come to be known as the Philippine state is composed of small and medium-sized islands. These islands are Palawan, Panay, Negros, Cebu, Samar, Leyte, Bohol, Mindoro, Romblon, and Masbate. Island mentality is most evident in these places. It’s political, economic, and social manifestations deserve to be probed further.

The current system of classifying the islands into various provinces under different political regions blurs the existence of what we call island mentality. Decades of gerrymandering and Imperial Manila’s desperate but egotistical aim of pacifying the islands have almost severed the organic ties of these islands.

Palawan was made part of Luzon when just two generations ago it was still part of Minsupala (Mindanao, Sulu, Palawan). In fact, the Moro people consider it as part of their ancestral domain. Panay was subdivided into six provinces. The case of Masbate is interesting: It’s officially part of the Bicol region but geographically, it’s within the Visayas range. In fact, there are towns in the province whose dominant languages are not Bicolano nor Masbateno but Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and even Waray.

Estancia in Panay is nearer to Roxas City than Iloilo City but it’s part of Iloilo Province. Roxas is known by everybody as the country’s seafood capital but nearby Estancia in a neighboring province prides itself as the ‘Alaska of the Philippines’ because it supplies the fish needs of many provinces. It gets more complicated. There are many Estancia college students who come from Masbate. Asked about the direction of Masbate, residents will just answer ‘over there’ or ‘one lantsa ride away.’

More examples: Despite being part of Western Visayas, Boracay buys its seafood supply from Romblon, a province of Luzon. Dumaguete is a university town in Negros Oriental but many of its students come from north and west Mindanao, particularly in Dipolog and Dapitan.

Negros Occidental is Western Visayas while Negros Oriental is Central Visayas. But there are towns in Negros Occidental which are literally and figuratively closer to the Central Visayas region. During a solidarity event with Escalante City farmers in north Negros which I recently attended, most of the student participants didn’t come from Bacolod but from Cebu and Bohol. I learned that the northern and eastern sides of Negros Occidental are actually closer to north Cebu than to Western Visayas. There are ferry rides that transport residents of north Negros to north Cebu and vice versa.

Island mentality is neither good nor bad. Arroyo successfully cultivated and benefited from this political dynamic when she received the support of Cebu’s ruling political families and parties in 2004. Isn’t it tragic that one person (Big Boss Danding) seems to control the present and future of Negros Island?

Then and now, the wealth and resources of the islands are monopolized by a few families. The money is siphoned off to Manila where absentee landlords hideously spend their idle time on non-essential goods and services. We are unforgiving to poor migrants who are swarming like rats in Manila yet we seem to forget that the city’s wealth is based on the ruthless accumulation of capital by despotic families in the rural islands.

The dominant attitude in Imperial Manila is to maintain and widen the division of the islands. This is a legacy of the colonial era. What is needed is a revolutionary force capable of uniting the islands to challenge the tyranny of the reigning political blocs.

Perhaps this is the reason why at one point in the 1980s, the Visayas Commission of the Communist Party generated so much fear and respect in the region. Maybe for many people, it allowed them to imagine a different future.

Archipelagic warfare

Even his critics admit that Jose Maria Sison’s Specific Characteristics of Our People’s War is an outstanding contribution to Marxist literature. The document affirmed Sison’s reputation as an original Marxist thinker but more than that, it comprehensively discussed the appropriateness of using the innovative path taken by the victorious Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong. At the same time, it underscored the particularity of the Philippine People’s War by identifying the challenges and advantages of launching a nationwide guerrilla war in an archipelagic country like the Philippines.

This is a must-read for all students of politics. It can explain why the rag tag Red Army of peasant rebels has managed to survive in the past four decades. It’s also a brilliant exposition of the link between geography, military warfare, and revolutionary politics.

Sison noted that in launching the People’s War, the more important considerations are population, forest area and the country’s mountainous terrain. But is guerrilla warfare applicable in an archipelago?

“In the long run, the fact that our country is archipelagic will turn out to be a great advantage for us and a great disadvantage for the enemy. The enemy shall be forced to divide his attention and forces not only to the countryside but also to so many islands. Our great advantage will show when we shall have succeeded in developing guerrilla warfare on a nationwide scale.”

“If on one hand the archipelagic character of the country has a narrowing effect on our fighting fronts, its mountainous character has both a broadening and deepening effect.”

The narrowing and broadening effect of the terrain led Sison to describe the war in the Philippines as “intensive, ruthless and exceedingly fluid.” He required all fighting fronts to practice self –reliance by reminding them that the rebels have no “powerful rear” to retreat unlike the rebels in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos which shared land borders with Red China.

In the 1970s, Sison anticipated the building of a central revolutionary base in north Luzon

“Amidst the twenty guerrilla bases and zones already in existence and on the basis of the experience gained in creating them, the central leadership can proceed to establish the central revolutionary base somewhere in the well-inhabited mountainous area of Northern Luzon. The guerrilla bases and zones of Northeast Luzon, Northwest Luzon and Central Luzon can stand as the future terminals of regular mobile forces that are to arise at the central revolutionary base.”

Since the Communist Party will never publish the current status and other details of the People’s War, we can only speculate that this central revolutionary base has yet to be established.

Meanwhile, Sison echoed the attack formula of Bonifacio

“On the eve of the nationwide seizure of power, Manila-Rizal shall be caught in a pincer between regular mobile forces from the north and from the two regions of Southern Luzon.”

Sison also mentioned the need to develop sea warfare.

“Because our country is archipelagic, it is a matter of necessity for us to develop guerrilla bases and zones along the seacoast.”

“Within the Visayas, boating is as common as trucking in the Luzon or Mindanao mainlands. If we take lessons from Southwestern Mindanao, especially from Sulu archipelago, we can further develop sea warfare, a form of guerrilla warfare making use of small bancas (boats) and big as well as small islands. This would constitute a good support for our guerrilla warfare on land.”

Rejecting Sison’s strategy, the controversial Popoy Lagman mocked the emphasis given by Sison to geography in advancing the revolution: “So this is what is specific to the Philippines: its terrain!”

But the intellectual Lagman should know better that Sison had more than adequately written about the ‘paritcularities’ and ‘specifics’ of the Philippine revolution. His ideological differences with Sison must have blinded him from recognizing the other salient points raised by the author. But I’ll put forward an even more daring idea: Even if Sison’s only output is this document which I have summarized in this article, his stature as a Marxist intellectual is assured.

Because after the political line is established, and if the fighting forces are already positioned, the next important consideration is the discussion of the terrain. It’s the terrain, stupid.

Related articles:

Bundok, dagat, pulitika
Labanan sa Tubigan
Rice Revolution
Power dynamics in the islands

2 Responses to “‘Filipinos belong to geography’”

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