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.

Asia-Pacific welcomes the new year – with declining freedom. A disturbing regional trend in 2017 is still evident in the first month of the new year, which featured a threat to close down Rappler news website in the Philippines, the revival of criminal libel law in Samoa, and the filing of a draconian espionage bill in Australia.

Protests and a court victory amid state of emergency, constitutional amendments and media attacks: Asia-Pacific in February. Pakistan celebrates a court ruling which declared mobile service suspension as illegal, Cambodia’s constitutional amendments threaten free speech, Maldives extends the state of emergency, media attacks in Oceania, and creative protests from Thailand’s #WeWalk to China’s #MeToo campaign.

Women march, an eye-roll breaks the Chinese internet, and worrying new legislation. Some backlashes against marches by women’s groups across Asia-Pacific, a surge in social media censorship in China, Sri Lanka’s state of emergency, journalist killings in India, and passage of repressive laws are highlighted.

Written for The Diplomat magazine

Internet in the Philippines is bemoaned as one of the slowest and most inefficient in the region. Despite the absence of censorship, Internet freedom in the country is only categorized as partly-free because of the unabated media killings, government intimidation of critics, the existence of state-backed online trolls, and the passage of a restrictive anti-cybercrime law.

There have been various suggestions on how to improve the situation. Proposals vary from boosting the privatization of the IT sector by welcoming the entry of a third major telco, legislative remedy, and stronger regulation.

To strengthen Internet freedom, the starting point of any campaign should not focus on legislative reforms, but the overhaul of the political economy of the country’s IT infrastructure and media industry. Instead of blindly pursuing the growth of the IT sector through the tried and tested failure of privatization, the government should be prepared to perform a greater and decisive role in expanding Internet access and promoting consumer welfare. This is different from the state-backed monopoly which was the situation before 1995 because what is being proposed as an alternative entails public-private cooperation. The government is urged to demand accountability from the telcos aside from ensuring that state resources are utilized to build and improve a national broadband network.

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Addressing the migration of Filipino health workers

Written for The Diplomat magazine

Migration of health workers is not a new phenomenon in the Philippines. But in the last two decades, there was a sharp increase in the number of doctors and nurses migrating to other countries which seriously undermined the nation’s capability to provide health services to its people. This matter became a national concern when topnotch doctors began to leave as nurses and hospitals were forced to stop operations due to a lack of qualified health workers. The high worldwide demand for health workers is expected to continue which makes it imperative for ‘donor’ countries like the Philippines to implement policies, procedures, and programs to protect its health human resources.

Managing migration today is crucial to avert a possible collapse of the health care system. Failure to stem the alarming number of migrating doctors and nurses will further cripple the deteriorating health service in the country. This will jeopardize the attainment of development goals which seeks to empower people by eradicating poverty.

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Written for IFEX

Amid the worsening human rights situation in the Philippines, an online news group has been ordered by a government agency to stop operating — a move which many denounce as an attack on press freedom.

Rappler assured its readers that it will not back down in the fight for truth and democracy. 

“We intend to not only contest this through all legal processes available to us, but also to fight for our freedom to do journalism and for your right to be heard through an independent platform like Rappler.” 

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Cartoonist Choi Seong-guk: Expression that breaks down barriers

Written for IFEX

Choi says that prejudice is the biggest concern facing North Korean defectors in the South, and works to challenge this through his popular online cartoon strip, Rodong Shimmun: The Enthusiastic Resettlement Diaries of a Male North Korean Defector.

Choi believes that culture will play a decisive role in the reunification of the two Koreas. 

“Guns and knives are frightening, but culture is more powerful than weaponry. When I consider my experience in the North, selling ‘Korean culture’, I can say that nothing has as big an impact as culture.” 

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Written for The Diplomat Magazine

June 12 will be known in history as the day when United States President Donald Trump met North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. But for Filipinos, June 12 is significant because it is the day when revolutionaries declared independence from Spain in 1898.

June 12 is an official holiday and the government celebrates it each year by honoring the heroes of the independence struggle. But this year, various groups mobilized on June 12 to denounce the ‘mendicant’ foreign policy of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The government downplayed the June 12 protest and insisted that it is unnecessary to antagonize China.

Perhaps the government should rethink its response because this indifferent attitude towards legitimate grievances could only spur more anti-Duterte groups to unite despite their ideological differences.

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Is the Congress Coup in the Philippines a Threat to Duterte?

Written for The Diplomat

In a significant recent development in Philippine politics, former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo is now the new Speaker of the House of Representatives. Though it is still early days, it is worth examining what this might mean for the country’s political evolution in general as well as the presidency of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte in particular.

With respect to Duterte and his presidency, Arroyo supported Duterte’s presidential bid in 2016 and has been an influential member of the so-called ‘super majority’ in Congress for the past two years. Her election as Speaker was not viewed by many as a direct threat to Duterte since it was mainly triggered by a conflict between factions supporting the president.

Perhaps it is a relief for Duterte, then, that the opposition and activists have started reviving their attacks against Arroyo, given that protests against higher taxes, impunity killings, and other unpopular actions of the Duterte government had been continuing to gain momentum beforehand. But Duterte also has reasons to worry. It also means that Arroyo is now perceived to be more than just a political patron but a real contender for the position which she once occupied for nearly a decade.

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Published by Bulatlat

In 1917, Russian communist leader Vladimir Lenin published “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism,” which provided the working class with a theoretical tool to understand the capitalist crisis, the great war in Europe, and socialism as a feasible alternative.

Since then, the book has become a standard Marxist reference in analyzing the global economic situation and in particular, the real cause of the recurring social crisis engendered by capitalism.

Its continuing relevance was recently affirmed by Ibon’s Institute of Political Economy which published “Lenin’s ‘Imperialism’ in the 21st Century,” highlighting the contemporary manifestations of imperialism.

Lenin’s thesis on imperialism was applied in assessing the legacy of neoliberalism, rising militarism, rivalry among superpowers, and the prospect of the global socialist movement.

In the book, Antonio Tujan Jr. discussed how imperialist powers led by the United States exploited neocolonial economies. Paul Quintos explained how the financialization of production could lead to war. Demba Moussa Dembele linked primitive accumulation in Africa to the rise of colonial capitalist powers. Pao-yu Ching traced the history of Chinese integration in the global economy and its impact on workers. Fred Engst debunked some myths about China’s rise as a superpower and its relationship with the US.

Roland G. Simbulan updated the status of the American military empire and hardware. Pio Verzola Jr. focused on inter-imperialist rivalry and the various proxy wars of the 20th century. And finally, Joma Sison gave an overview of the proletarian struggles across the world while emphasizing the superiority of the socialist alternative.

It is instructive that all contributors summarized Lenin’s famous five characteristics of imperialism. More significantly, the contributors updated the features of monopoly capitalism by identifying old and new bubbles such as the tech implosion, the property and housing crisis, and rising debt induced by neoliberal austerity measures.

Lenin expounded his ideas on imperialism by citing economic statistics and other data available during his time. Ibon’s book retained this format by supplementing the descriptive text with the latest information on global trade, production, capital investments, military deployment, and the everyday situation of the working classes.

Also useful was the succinct presentation of how Lenin’s ideas on imperialism reflected the earlier works of progressive economists and thinkers.

Lenin wrote his book during the heyday of the free market doctrine when the Great Depression era was still more than a decade away. He was one of those who saw the inevitable collapse of finance capital and its disastrous implication for the world’s poor, thus, making it more crucial to hasten the revolutionary upsurge.

Ibon’s book proved how Lenin’s ideas on imperialism never became obsolete as these continue to serve as a guide to understanding the geopolitics of the world today. That despite being rebranded by some as neoliberalism, globalization, or empire, there’s no doubt that imperialism is still the supreme scourge in the world that must be vanquished. Lenin’s book is still an effective antidote against those who mindlessly preach about the supposed goodness and invincibility of capitalism.

It is noteworthy to mention that Ibon’s book also devoted special attention to the political and economic consequences of China’s aspiration for global hegemony. Contributors presented a compelling narrative of China’s growing influence in the world while juxtaposing it with the efforts of US imperialism to preserve and even solidify its position. Contributors were meticulous in exposing the underside of capitalism with Chinese characteristics. Or how workers and citizens in the 21st century continue to experience abuse, exploitation, and discrimination as capitalists extract more super profits across the world.

Like Lenin’s original book, Ibon’s book was not just intended for use in the academe. Both were written to aid the workers and other oppressed sectors in their historic battle to defeat imperialism. Both were illuminating, inspiring, and agitating. Imperialism was demystified, dissected, and deplored through a comprehensive critique that also rallied readers to dream and fight for a new world.

The re-publication of Lenin’s book on imperialism is a fitting tribute to the centenary of the October Revolution. It is a testament to the enduring legacy of Lenin as a Marxist theoretician. More so, it validates the necessity of combining theory and practice in building a strong revolutionary movement capable of uniting the oppressed against imperialism and all reactionary regimes.

Published by Bulatlat

What does it mean to live in the era of neoliberalism? It is to recognize that the world is a mess and that I, as an individual, can fix it by being responsible for my life. So far, nothing perverse with this line of thought. Then we add this in the equation: If everybody will behave like I do, making the right life choices and focusing on self-improvement, the world can be a better place to live in, all else being equal.

If this is our guide to ethical living, then it reflects how we unknowingly internalized the logic of neoliberalism. It complements triumphalist individualism that blindly worships the magic of the ‘invisible hand’ of the market while fanatically disavowing the role of the state and other visible collectives in society.

It is one thing to be a responsible individual, but another to think that promoting individualism is the primary solution to society’s woes. It is understandable to blame recidivists, but why expect everybody to stop demanding systemic reforms until we first address our own problems. It is rational to expect the state to be efficient, but to reject the mandate of the state with regard to delivering vital services is quite a fundamentalist (neoliberalist) view.

How did this disturbing ideology of individualism become dominant in society? First, it was made normal through the school sorting machine. Then it became appealing through corporate media and popular culture. The state enforced it through various programs and laws; but its ultimate endorsement is by outsourcing its core functions to the private sector supposedly to motivate citizens in accessing (read: buying) a greater set of public goods.

Reinforcing this ideology is the rapid rise of information technologies that facilitated the further alienation of selfie-obsessed netizens from the rest of society. It gave a false sense of power, but perhaps deeply satisfying, to individuals who can now instantly retrieve information, expand social media influence, and make transactions through mobile internet.

The belief that digital apps enabled netizens to acquire better capital without needing the help of others and the state reveals the pervasive power of the ideology of individualism. But it is at best illusory because what is not rendered visible is the labor of those who installed the fiber optic cables, those who assembled the smartphones, the collective process of training individuals, and the contribution of family, friends and other institutions in making virtual networks popular and possible.

The ubiquitous spread of the so-called digital economy has given the state a persuasive arsenal to pin the blame back to individuals for the deteriorating state of living in society.

This is manifested in statements exhorting the public to continually update themselves with information that can save their lives (disaster advisories) or improve their life chances (job notices or labor trends). This is extended to almost all spheres of life under the purview of the state. Traffic? Seek alternative transport through the information bulletins provided by agencies. Low wages? Acquire financial literacy. High tuition? Publish all fees of schools to improve consumer choice.

Amid the dizzying exchange of digital content, netizens are hypnotized to absorb tons of information hoping that some of these data sets could prove useful to their lives. Information overload is not considered a destructive symptom but an opportunity to transcend the difficulties of modern living.

Hence, the emergence of cyber-addicted individuals who are always searching not just for spectacles, virality, and online notoriety but information that seemingly matter and trends that could potentially equip individuals with the hoped-for power, influence, and advantage over others. The netizen as a modern individual who seeks a better representation of the body and the self in this day and age when everything can be programmed, coded, and fact-checked.

Individuals now spend more attention trying to blend their online and offline profiles, which gives them less time to ponder about politics and the lives of others.

Individuals are distracted by the fantastic offerings of the Internet algorithm instead of the inequalities generated by the power dynamics in society.

Individuals are overawed by the knowledge economy without understanding the political economy of the web.

Individuals are deciphering the flaws in the flow of information and not the global distribution of real and imagined wealth. There is no probing of the structures of inequality and injustice that could easily explain the worsening Internet exclusion in the world.

The state elevated information consumption as an individual duty. This was done at a time when the state was methodically smashing and undermining the social forces in society that traditionally created strong bonds among individuals such as unions and cooperatives. Yet it arrogates upon itself the right to preach about duty and responsibility.

The poor netizen – unemployed, uneducated, and unlisted from receiving social welfare – is an easy prey to state propaganda that his situation is of his own undoing. That it was his failure to connect and access information from publicly available networks that doomed his career. In other words, as mentioned earlier when we were discussing individualism under neoliberalism, the individual failed to take responsibility for his life.

This is the real legacy of neoliberalism in the 21st century. Individuals are frantically googling everything about what is wrong with their lives instead of taking a deeper look at the world around them. Individuals think they are rigging the system by manipulating information on the web, but so far the oppressive structures of power are still existing.

Beyond keywords that unmask neoliberalism, what we need today are solid acts of solidarity, resistance, and revolution.

Written for The Diplomat magazine

Church leaders are among the victims of extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses in the Philippines. Some bishops are now speaking about a bankrupt moral leadership in the country and they warned that Duterte is preparing to impose a dictatorial government. If the attacks and killings of priests continue, it could inspire more church leaders to combine their spiritual activities and support to the people’s clamor for justice. In other words, Duterte is risking his presidency by provoking the wrath of holy men and women across the country.

Why Duterte Wanted to Talk Peace with the Reds Again

Written for The Diplomat magazine

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s order on April 4 to resume the peace process with communist rebels baffled many since the government has a pending court petition which seeks to declare the Communist Party (CPP) and its armed wing as terrorists.

Duterte’s advisers probably underestimated the capacity of the broad peace constituency in demanding a review of the government’s social and economic policies. Despite this, news of the revival of the peace process should still be welcomed as a positive development in asserting the implementation of reforms necessary to address the root causes of the long-running insurgency. Indeed, Duterte may have his own self-serving agenda in pursuing peace; but this should not stop peace advocates from campaigning for justice, protection of civil liberties, and the strengthening of democracy while the talks are ongoing.

Published by Manila Today

Time is an important currency.

A farmer relies on weather patterns to plan the cultivation of his land, a worker’s monthly wage is calculated through the bundy clock, and a modern day speculator accumulates virtual cash by engaging in realtime trading. Based on the preceding, many would probably assume that the digitization of everything leads to progress. The truth is that realtime processes obfuscate the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the hoarding filthy rich. This is done not by raising productive capacities in the real economy but through instant gambling made possible by capitalist games like stock market investments. Again, based on these examples, many would probably continue to prefer realtime stealing over the backbreaking agrarian and industrial living.

And so we must discuss the real-life consequences of making money through financial wizardry: Let’s take the case of a speculator who became an overnight millionaire or billionaire. He could use the money to buy cheap lands in both rural and urban areas, turning his fake wealth into a tangible entity and even making it capable of pump-priming some parts of the local economy. But absent a long-term plan to develop an industrial base, the production of new capital is used to invade spaces that would generate quick profits. Thus the dizzying construction of condominiums which masks the housing crisis, the rise of call centers instead of manufacturing plants, and the confirmation of the ideology that raising virtual money is all that matters in life.

What the buzz over realtime innovation does not reveal is the continuing existence of labor exploitation in the real economy. That virtual transactions are not entirely wireless because real wires are required to be buried and hoisted somewhere in order to connect through the cyberspace. It is in these analog zones that capitalism as we know it solidifies the system that creates and appropriates the surplus value created by labor.

Think of peasants rendered obsolete during tiempo muerto (dead season) in the sugarcane fields, agency-hired workers in sweatshops despite the eight-hour work regulation, subcontractuals slaving to fulfill the piece-rate quota, and migrant Filipinos bound by a time-specific contract. These are real people in the real economy whose time, energy, and labor power are used not just to speed up the profiteering mechanism of turbocapitalism, but also to establish the backbone of what we call realtime transactions.

The regulation of time is indeed a disruptive act. Every device or mechanism that reorganizes and recalibrates economic relations in a specific socio-historical milieu is more than just a technological breakthrough, but also a political intervention that involves the retooling of time.

More than a century ago, the telegraph revolutionized how people communicate which boosted global commerce and conflict at the same time. Today’s telegraph is the Internet.

As the world becomes more connected and transformed into a so-called global village, transnational corporations emerge more powerful by investing in remote spaces where labor is cheap and strictly controlled. This is facilitated by developing technologies that control time and spatial dynamics.

In the 1980s and 1990s factories started to close shop as investors relocated to nearby countries in the East Asian region where minimum wage is cheaper. This is also the same period when free trade doctrine made the country more dependent on imports instead of developing its manufacturing potential.

In the current global production chain, the designated role of the Philippines is to export precious but raw materials, provide manpower needs of aging economies, and host outsourcing operations. The last item is credited for the booming service sector of the economy. It’s mainly an urban-based phenomenon which links call centers to customers from other countries, mainly the United States. Even Business Process Outsourcing centers in the provinces referred to by technocrats as next wave cities are serving the industry needs of other countries and not the rural economy.

The local urban economy is partially sustained by the spending habits of young employees and the real estate requirements of the BPO sector. Meanwhile, the market has been conditioned to absorb the rejected and redundant goods of exporting nations.

But can the Philippines develop a strong and inclusive economy through this blueprint without reviving its agricultural and industrial sectors?

Fantastic but also quite absurd that local workers are interacting with customers from other countries and facilitating consumer inquiries through realtime transactions.

Indeed, it led to faster and more efficient operations for big corporations; and short-term work opportunities for skilled workers in a semi-feudal society. But, at what cost?

The rise of an industry delinked from domestic production, the massive deployment of office-based employees in air-conditioned sweatshops, the normalization of the graveyard shift, and the validation of the neoliberal dogma which rejects the building of an industrial economy.

A million educated working population literally sleeping during the day because they work in the evening. Realtime interactions are innovative but for workers responding to overseas calls, they have to adjust their body clocks in order to function properly during the graveyard shift.

Night life is changing in the cities, stores operating all day and all night are increasing, malls are proliferating, and imports (read: smuggling) are catching up with the high demand for consumer goods courtesy of a workforce with petty cash to spare.

What is the impact of this changing lifestyle on urban politics? In the 20th century, industrial workers gather en masse after work in the afternoon or early evening to discuss politics and union building. This method of political organizing has spawned a powerful labor movement that gave it varying influence in society to demand concessions from both capitalists and politicians.

But when the anti-worker doctrine of neoliberalism rose to prominence in the 1980s, it reinforced perverse individualism in society. The mainstreaming of the Internet has made it even more challenging to consolidate the political power of the working class.

Realtime economy diffuses the strength of labor, collective actions of the multitude are idealized while undermining the legacy of the proletariat, and politicization is carried out through superficial virtual means. How can people express solidarity if realtime processes generate micro divisions in all layers of society?

Realtime appears to operate beyond the jurisdictions of politics. It is even seen as above politics and economics. The state is governed by bureaucratic procedures, red tape, and election dynamics. Non-state actors deal with these factors in calendaring their campaigns. Even the revolutionary movement is conducting predictable annual actions related to party milestones and historical occasions.

Meanwhile, realtime seems broader, free from physical and institutional restraints, available to all, and thus empowering. It’s obviously a naïve perspective because an Internet shutdown can be easily managed by the state. Cell phone jamming during religious events has clearly demonstrated this. Besides, Internet penetration remains low which is unsurprising given the poor infrastructure and obscene exclusion of the poor in society.

But beyond the technical aspect of the Internet, what realtime offers is the seductive appeal of instantaneous political engagement. Realtime is supposedly useful for citizens unable to directly participate in bureaucratic affairs but are now able to interact, albeit virtually, with agencies and some civil servants. Realtime assures public feedback and even administrative attention; a crucial outcome that traditional politics has pledged to fulfill but unable to realize. Hence, virtual communication is presented as a substantial aspect of democratic politics. Interaction among citizens, even among trolls and paid partisans, is exaggerated as a form of political struggle that mimics class-based struggles in the real world.

But political transformation is a long process. Political struggles that advance the cause of the grassroots do not produce instant solutions and overnight societal changes. Realtime amplifies public outrage but it does not capture the whole essence of political resistance. Beyond clickbaits and memes, resistance movements and revolutions demand greater commitment and sacrifice to change the present by hastening the arrival of the future. Realtime politics does not exist. An intense conversation on hyperdrive does not elevate it as the space where conflicts in the real world are waged. Politics is anchored on changing the power dynamics.

Realtime is political in the sense that it obscures the ideological battlefield by naming itself as the 21st-century arena where forces collide for dominance. Even Internet activism is a misnomer because every online initiative has to be translated into an offline intervention.

If not realtime, what then constitutes radical politics in the time of Facebook and fake news?

The NPA burning of cell phone towers is more than real, it is symbolic. It recalls the political situation during the Spanish era when church bell towers were used to signify the domain of the colonizers. Those beyond the reach of church bells were considered rebels, pagans, barbarians. The cell phone towers today are intruding into the space of the rural where Maoist revolutionaries are building Red power. This is where the urban-based capitalist machinery, which peddles realtime innovation, encounters the real revolution.

Blocked, banned and muzzled: Asia’s tough month. The month of October saw the banning of websites, books, mass organisations, and, in the weeks leading up to the International Day to End Impunity For Crimes Against Journalists, on 2 November, an uptick in attempts to silence independent media by governments intent on eliminating what they deem ‘threats’ to national unity and public order.

Ending impunity and defending democracy: November in Asia-Pacific. Cambodian democracy takes a hit, while IFEX members mark IDEI in Nepal, Pakistan, Mongolia, Australia and make strides against gender-related violence

Defiant cartoonists, detained foreign journalists, and ‘recalcitrant’ activists: December in Asia-Pacific. December was a tough month for free speech advocates across the Asia-pacific region: Several cartoonists faced state persecution, two Vietnamese bloggers received harsh prison terms, foreign journalists were detained in Kashmir and Burma, China remains the ‘world’s worst abuser of internet freedom’, and Singapore detained a ‘recalcitrant’ activist.

Published by Manila Today

President Rodrigo Duterte thinks that he can usurp more power by using the machineries of death and destruction. In 2017, this fascist approach led to greater disorder as Duterte completely exposed himself as a rabid human rights violator, corrupt trapo [traditional politician], protector of oligarchs, and puppet of imperialist powers.

But while Duterte was on a self-destruct mode, the people faced this madness with various acts of resistance. Instead of cowering in silence, the people confronted the fentanyl-addicted dictator by mounting protests from Mendiola to Davao.

2017 was not merely about Duterte’s ramblings, his inane and deadly ways of governance, and his unfunny flip-flopping on social welfare issues. It was also the year when more people embarked on the path of resistance by joining the Lakbayan, Kampuhan, and Occupy protests.

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