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.

Published by Channel News Asia

Almost one year since Duterte took over as the Philippines’ President, he continues to enjoy high popularity ratings, despite having a reported reputation as a misogynist and harbouring a questionable attitude towards the importance of human lives.

His crime-fighting agenda may have earned him significant political brownie points before he became president. As mayor of Davao City in the southern island of Mindanao for almost two decades, he made crime-fighting his top priority which made Davao a safer place for both the business community and the local population.

A maverick, he also enlisted the support of various leftist groups in implementing several progressive reforms in Davao, like the passage of a local law to protect the rights of women.

One also has to give him credit for winning the 2016 presidential election despite being the inexperienced underdog, who lacked the political machinery to mount a nationwide campaign. He truly inspired a groundswell of support from ordinary voters who saw themselves in the image of the little known leader from the poverty-stricken, remote island of Mindanao.

In Philippine history, no Mindanaon has ever assumed the role of President before Duterte came along.

Duterte also endeared himself to the masses by using street lingo in his speeches. His platform of fighting illegal drugs resonated with the middle class who felt threatened by rising crime. His bold statements against oligarchs made him more famous among the poor.

He successfully presented himself as an anti-establishment leader who spoke out convincingly against the country’s political system.


But his performance as President leaves one wanting.

On the one hand, Duterte was able to quickly fulfill his promise of combating illegal drugs by aggressively deploying state forces in communities and declaring a war on drugs. The police claimed this succeeded in undermining the operations of drug cartels.

But human rights advocates say this has also triggered a spate of extrajudicial killings that targeted the poor in Manila’s settlements. So Duterte spent his first year in office having to defend the government’s iron fist approach in dealing with the drug menace.

Perhaps he could have appeased some of his critics from other countries, including UN officials, if he only devoted more time emphasising his social reform agenda.

He could have also paid better attention to public opinion, to talk about his policy successes. For instance, he could have explained the political importance of the peace process which he initiated with communist and Moro rebels, the inclusion of leftists in his Cabinet or the removal of close associates accused of corruption.

On the foreign policy front, he could have talked more about his signing of the Paris climate change agreement, the imposition of a new nationwide smoking ban, and his support to auditing destructive large-scale mines.

If Duterte thinks the international press is unfair for focusing on the fire his drug war has come under when reporting his presidency, he has no one to blame but himself and his subordinates for making the anti-drug campaign his pet project.

Beyond issues of public communication however, Duterte seems to have a dubious record when it comes to how much he is willing to accept casualties to achieve his policy aims. While he restarted peace talks with communists in Southern Mindanao, he also ordered the military to launch an all-out war offensive against rebels in February, which displaced thousands of residents in several regions of Mindanao. Activists have recorded 55 cases of political killings in the past 11 months.

More recently, Duterte placed the whole island of Mindanao under martial law after an Islamic State-backed group attacked parts of Marawi City. The number of reported killings, torture cases and arrests without warrants is expected to rise as martial law continues to be in effect.

Although Duterte has strong public support for the current anti-terror operation, reports of massive civilian casualties caused by indiscriminate airstrikes in Marawi and mass arrests in Davao have surfaced.

One thing is for sure. At least imposing martial law succeeded in partly taking off the spotlight on other issues such as the UN probe on Duterte’s war on drugs, his careless remarks about rape and the underlying attitude towards women it betrays, and the quick dismissal by Congress of an impeachment case against Duterte.


Not all 16 million who voted for Duterte will be satisfied with his strong words, or his actions in Marawi and see these as proof of good governance. Filipino people need to see something concrete like an improvement in the economy and the easing of their daily hardships.

Perhaps in anticipation, Duterte’s economic team has rebranded the government’s ambitious infrastructure plan as part of so-called “Dutertenomics”. His advisers are claiming that “Dutertenomics” will improve the lives of Filipinos by building better and bigger transport networks that would connect the rural and the urban regions of the Philippines with the rest of the world.

But it is unclear if the benefits will trickle down to ordinary citizens. Moreover, will Filipino citizens be persuaded to pay more taxes in order to fund the government’s proposed infrastructure projects? Some are also realising how little these projects differ from the macroeconomic strategies of Duterte’s predecessors.


To be fair, one year is not enough to make a conclusive judgment about the Duterte government’s performance. There have been bold initiatives that could potentially transform the future of the country for the better such as the accelerated peace process and the commitment to oppose destructive mining.

Even the controversial anti-drug campaign was initially welcomed by those who assumed that it would target crime bosses after Duterte named several military and police generals accused of protecting drug lords.

But one year is more than enough to observe and be alarmed over the deteriorating situation in the Philippines in terms of casualties and the allegations of killings in Duterte’s war on drugs. If there are grave findings, Duterte will have to be held accountable. He will have to probe and punish state forces involved in extrajudicial killings.

Duterte began his bid for the presidency by impressing the electorate with his pro-poor and nationalist rhetoric. But one year on, we are still waiting for results on this front.
He will have to accelerate economic programmes, for one.

Until rhetoric bears out reality, Duterte the President is far from the candidate Duterte who bravely rallied the poor and powerless in defeating the mighty forces of the elite at the polling stations.

After naming a general as his next secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG), Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte quipped that he will soon establish a junta and allow the military to take over the country.

Duterte may be joking but for some of his critics, there’s nothing funny about an idea that could soon be a reality. After all, Duterte now has 12 retired generals holding key positions in his Cabinet. Three of these Cabinet members were named in the past two weeks.

Excerpt of my contributed article to The Diplomat magazine.

Is Duterte Already a Dictator?

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly admitted his admiration for former dictator Ferdinand Marcos who ruled the country from 1966 to 1986. He allowed Marcos to be buried at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) in 2016 and he recently hinted that his government is open to facilitating a compromise deal with the Marcoses for the return of their ill-gotten wealth in exchange of immunity from prosecution.

It’s one thing to admire the leadership skills of a former president, but it’s quite different and disturbing for an incumbent president to justify authoritarianism in order to solve the country’s problems.

A year after Duterte promised to bring change in the country, his government is accused of killing 13,000 drug suspects, a martial law regime is in effect in Mindanao, critics face trumped-up cases, and the ghost of the authoritarian Marcos rule is being revived. Dictator or not, Duterte has eroded respect and protection of human rights in the country.

Excerpt of my contributed article to The Diplomat magazine.

Published by New Mandala

Section 66 (d) is a controversial clause of the 2013 Telecommunications Law that carries a three-year prison term for defamation made using a communications network. It’s undermining media freedom and is behind a spike in defamation cases, writes Mong Palatino.

Various activist groups and media networks have petitioned the parliament of Myanmar to prioritise the proposed review of the Telecommunications Law. In particular, they wanted to scrap section 66(d) of the law, which they claim is being abused by some officials who wanted to silence critics of the army (Tatmadaw) and the government.

The Telecommunications Law was passed in 2013 to promote foreign investment in Myanmar’s information technology sector. Section 66(d) of the law was originally intended to protect the welfare of technology providers and users, but over the years, it has become a legal basis to charge government critics with defamation.

Section 66(d) states that whoever uses a “telecommunication network to extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb inappropriately influence or intimidate,” if found guilty, can be “punished with imprisonment for a term extending to a maximum of three years, and shall be liable to fine or both.”

In the past three years, section 66(d) has gained notoriety after many officials invoked it every time they were criticised either by the mainstream media or ordinary Internet users. Since 2013, Myanmar courts have received 48 cases related to section 66(d). Last year alone, 29 people have been charged for violating this provision.

Many are disappointed that section 66(d) is still enforced despite the electoral defeat of the military-backed government in 2015. Worse, the new government headed by the former opposition party National League for Democracy has done nothing to amend the law or clarify the vague wording of section 66(d).

Myanmar’s Penal Code already covers defamation but activists think section 66(d) is more repressive. Under the Penal Code, a person guilty of defamation can be detained up to two years, while section 66(d) prescribes a prison term of up to three years. A person charged with violating section 66(d) is also not allowed to post bail.

Analysts also noted that an increasing number of section 66(d) cases involving the military were initiated not directly by army officials but by civilians. This trend has alarmed activists who believe that it has a chilling effect that undermines free speech. For instance, writer Moe Thet War explained how the law has already affected the behaviour of many Internet users in Myanmar.

“Ever since the creation of Section 66(d), citizens have become hesitant to publicly share anything on Facebook, even if they’re actually pointing out someone else’s wrongdoing.”

Human rights groups have long advocated the review of the severe punishment for the crime of defamation. Bo Kyi of the Assistance Association for Political Protection believes that there are other ways to promote responsible exchange of ideas in a democratic society.

“Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law should be removed—it is better for the country’s future if we try to solve problems by discussing them patiently while fostering the culture of democracy and compromise from all sides,” he asserted.

Human rights lawyer U Robert San Aung emphasised that “it is not appropriate that a citizen who criticises someone more powerful should face legal action of this kind.

Activist Ko Maung Saung Kha observed that section 66(d) is invoked excessively while authorities were slow to act on the rising incidences of religious hate speech and online abuse against women.

The controversy over section 66(d) highlights the continuing challenges faced by the media in their struggle to overcome military-enforced censorship and repressive state regulation. Despite the abolition of a media censorship board in 2012, the laws used to silence dissent in society are still used with impunity.

Published by Manila Today

Distinguishing the public from private spaces in Metro Manila is quite confusing. Consider these examples:

Balintawak Market is privately-owned yet we consider it a public market. In fact, Metro Manila’s biggest city has only one government-owned and managed market.

Jeepneys and FX taxis (or now more popularly known as UV Express) are public utility vehicles (PUVs) but the government does not give subsidies to their private operators. These are operated to generate household incomes to huge company profits.

Public trains are bequeathed to government by the original foreign builders and operators and now operated by private corporations that the government had given one too many guarantees. These guarantees include that the private contractor would get the profit they want, that they could demand a fare raise as much and frequently as they wanted and government should pay the difference if the fares are not raised to the amount they demanded and many others.

Tollways are public projects but they were built, operated, and maintained by a few corporations composed of the triumvirate of the government, local business and foreign investor. Using this type of corporation for this build-operate-transfer scheme, a precursor of the public-private partnership, was orchestrated to comply with the constitutional requirement of corporations being majority Filipino-owned and run. Millions of profits through decades of steadily rising public toll fees have gone to the coffers of the government’s public counterparts, while there have always been speculations that it is the foreign investors that truly own these corporations.
What is the category of Bonifacio Global City? A city within a city, a former military base before its conversion into a high-end business and commercial center.

Similarly, Ayala Triangle is a private property of an old Spanish clan but it is open to the public. Sometimes, even political protests are organized here.

There’s a curious, ambiguous term used by many people: semi-private. What does it mean especially when used to describe a hospital or school? That it is a private company but offers cheaper fees? Or that it is public but the services and amenities are comparable to the ones provided by the private sector?

There’s another curious term, perhaps one more familiar inside our public hospitals: micro-private. In the case of our government hospitals, this refers to a service that is purely privately-owned within a public hospital. An example of this would be the high end and not-so-high end technologies and equipment that the government does not have or invest and that could not be catered for free or even at a discounted rate for indigent Filipinos for the sole reason that a private company, and not the government, owns them.

Perhaps the issue doesn’t matter anymore since everything today ends up being privatized. Most of government-funded institutions have become prime targets of corporate takeovers. Public services are outsourced to profit-oriented companies in order to “pursue modernization and efficiency.”
But did the selling of government properties really serve the public interest? Or did it merely facilitate the transfer of tax revenues to the financial elite?

If in the past a public agency is seen as brutally disorganized, the first remedy is to overhaul it. Privatization is the last resort, and in most cases a non-option. But today, even self-sufficient government-owned corporations are sold to the highest bidder. The government is aggressively promoting privatization while creating favorable policies that deepen the influence of the private sector in all matters of governance.

The result is the dominance of the corporate ethos in policymaking and development planning. It seems that the private is the new public. The public exists to make money for the private corporation. And under the new order, the government is the most effective tool to enforce the needs of the free market.

One overall result is a Metro Manila that is retailed out to the fashions of the highest bidders or wealthiest corporations. There is grossly no urban planning. Not even a system that best caters to bolster these free market designs such as an effective transportation system, better traffic flow, fast internet, etc.

The absurdity of our situation today is evident through the Electric Power Industry Reform Act that prohibits the government from building a power plant in order not to distort the competitiveness of the market. The all-powerful government can construct a waiting shed or basketball court but it is forbidden to generate and distribute power to its citizens. What horse manure is this!

That is why it is essential to recapture the idea of the public and clarify or even limit the role of private capital in society.

Basic social services such as health, education, and transportation should remain in the hands of the public. And if a vital industry or sector is under the control of a private company, the state should intervene to break the monopoly. The government should maintain its leading role in the economy.

But the policy prescriptions enumerated in the preceding paragraph are considered taboo under the dominant neoliberal ideology. In fact, the governments of the past three decades have faithfully and fanatically espoused neoliberalism as the country’s development blueprint.

Through state-backed neoliberal propaganda, many people today are dangerously embracing the idea that rapid job creation can be effectively done by offering tax incentives and exemptions to capitalists. That labor rights must be curtailed to entice investments. That the private sector or capital must have the freedom to move in and out cities. That state regulation is abhorred except the ones that boost the dividends of shareholders.

The great success of neoliberalism is to turn citizens into consumers, make public interest compatible with market interest, and persuade the government to promote the corporate agenda.

Metro Manila’s spatial restructuring in recent years was largely influenced by the rise of neoliberalism. Politicians, urban planners, and neoliberal fundamentalists conspired to obtain prime lots in the nation’s largest urban region that can be transformed into so-called business-friendly spaces.

Resettlement housing villages can be rezoned into commercial centers overnight. The urban poor can be displaced from their homes if their land is suddenly targeted for real estate development.

An idle land will remain idle until it becomes a strategic location for developers and contractors. The empty lot could have been used to construct a school, health center, or playground for children but local authorities are more interested to convert the property into a profitable venture in partnership with election campaign donors. Public parks are integrated into the medium-term plans of cities if feasibility studies require them to be developed in order to enhance the local business competitiveness.

Land conversion or modernization is done primarily to attract investors and not to improve the delivery of services to citizens.

For example, the methodical destruction of public markets in Manila is justified as an act of modernization, a change of management that will ostensibly redound to the benefit of the community. Essentially, it is free market doctrine which is at work here. It means the demolition of public markets so that consumers can have the ‘freedom’ to choose between Save More, Puregold, and other corporate-owned supermarkets.

Even the unlamented decline of Metro Manila’s manufacturing hubs is a legacy of neoliberalism. The country repudiated domestic production in favor of free trade or trade liberalization. Factory shutdowns coincided with the government’s sustained push for tariff reductions which led to the dumping of cheaper imported goods to the detriment of local producers.

Today, industrial centers are being converted into malls, condominiums, and call center offices to cater to the service sector economy. This trend is praised as a visible sign of progress but it masks some serious evils such as the pauperization of the working class, the displacement of the very poor and near poor, the phenomenon of jobless growth, the incestuous ties of corrupt politicians and tycoons, the deliberate dismantling of domestic industries, and the total loss of public control over key city spaces.

Corporate-led development is presented as a better and rational alternative over the wasteful and clumsy style of government-led planning. Perhaps it is true but only if we accept the assumption that all development schemes must generate unlimited profits.

Yes, many public projects are notoriously substandard but at least we can make the government accountable. Citizens can demand greater transparency and responsibility. But how do we fulfill these civic duties if the parties involved are faceless corporations which are not elected by the public? How can we reclaim our cities and our future if capitalists own everything in the community and everyone in the upper echelons of the bureaucracy?

The neoliberal political agenda is an attack against the poor, the organized democratic forces, and the collective aspiration to build a city of the people, for the people, and by the people. The alternative cannot be achieved as long as we do not destroy the hegemonic influence of neoliberalism in society. Perhaps a good start is to strengthen the various collectives that can challenge the reign of capital. Let us do this by asserting the right of the public to reshape society.

Published by Bulatlat

The most important peace document submitted by the National Democratic Front of the Philippines contains seven parts and is 82 pages long.

Here’s a summary of the proposed Comprehensive Agreement on Social and Economic Reforms or CASER:

The preamble links the country’s economic backwardness to its colonial history. But it also highlights the potential to solve underdevelopment by tapping the country’s vast resources;

Part 1 underscores the necessity of developing the economy while focusing on the upliftment of citizens and marginalized sectors in society;

Part 2 proposes the creation of a political authority that will implement CASER even if a new government is elected into power;

Part 3 identifies the essentials of building a strong domestic economy: agrarian reform, national industrialization, and environment protection and rehabilitation.

Part 4 enumerates the people’s rights, including the rights of indigenous peoples. It also discussed the program to promote nationalist culture and literature.

Part 5 explains the meaning of economic sovereignty, independent foreign trade policy, and the urgency of reversing the three-decade doctrine of denationalization.

Final provisions tackles the technical aspects on the implementation of CASER.

Curiously, the New People’s Army is only mentioned four times in the document. What will be its new role once the peace process is finalized? The NPA will be mobilized to implement the land distribution program aside from tapping their labor skill in building an industrial future.

The draft is actually not a listing of concessions demanded by the NDF, but a new blueprint for national and/or nationalist economic development. It is a comprehensive primer about the situation of the grassroots, an alternative history of the local economy, and a program of action to overhaul the political economy.

As a social reform measure, it seeks to provide the following pro-poor services for FREE: land distribution, irrigation, support services to farmers, legal assistance and titling services to single mothers and widows in rural areas, comprehensive child care, education in all levels, continuing training for teachers and health personnel, and health care up to tertiary level.

The regressive Value Added Tax will be abolished. In terms of budget priorities, six percent of the national spending will be allocated to education, five percent to health, and 15 percent to social protection.

But how will the state finance these programs? With regard to fiscal matters, how will it pursue the ambitious goal of building a self-reliant economy?

The funds will be derived from the assets confiscated from despotic big landlords, oppressive foreign plantation owners and cartels, savings from the repudiation of anomalous foreign loans, reduced budget for the military, scrapping of all forms of pork barrel, raising of taxes on alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and luxury goods, review of tax incentives given to big business, and strict regulation of financial activities of transnational corporations.

The term ‘inclusive growth’ is not cited in the document but the means of achieving it are specified through the explicit advocacy of making the economy responsive to the concrete needs of farmers, workers, indigenous peoples and other sectors in the peripheries.

As an economic treatise, it offers a refreshing perspective on economic growth: that it should be based on real production, that it should develop the rural resources and produce an industrial base, that it should enhance sustainability, that the state and not big business which should manage and direct economic planning, that it should strive for an independent foreign trade policy, and that the rights of the people are prioritized.

Let us examine in detail the essentials of developing the local economy: land reform, national industrialization, and environment protection and rehabilitation.

‘La La Land Reform’

Confiscated lands will be distributed for free to small farmers. Aside from haciendas and foreign plantations, abandoned lands owned by churches and schools will be under the land reform program. Even golf courses are targeted for distribution.

The policy of compensation is encouraged so that landlords will be motivated to invest in industrial production. A better compensation package is reserved for professionals, migrant workers, and retirees.

Landowners will be allowed to retain five hectares to be used exclusively for food production and boost rural productivity. Owner-operated fisheries not exceeding three hectares are not subject for distribution. Rich peasants can have surplus lands but they must raise wages of farm workers. Corporate farms will not be dismantled but they can be turned over to a cooperative or rural association.

Land conversion is prohibited to ensure that the country’s food self-sufficiency is not undermined.

Philippine-style Industrial Revolution

Once the rural potential is unleashed, the raw materials will be utilized to revive old industrial centers and build new manufacturing hubs. Instead of merely exporting minerals and other precious finite resources, which is the practice today, these can be used to stimulate local production.

Admittedly, this basic economic principle is no longer popular. The current dogma consigns the Philippines as an exporter of cheap raw materials and labor. Through trade liberalization imposed by rich countries, the country imports food, consumer goods, high value machines; apparently almost everything including trash from Canada.

The preferred employment option is provided by the outsourcing sector. But can this generate enough jobs, raise production, and build a strong economy in the long run? Most mainstream thinkers and policymakers believe the expansion of the service sector is good for the economy. Indeed, outsourcing is booming but real production is declining, especially in the agricultural sector.

CASER rejects this economic model and proposes instead to adopt what rich countries did in the past: protect local producers, build local industries, create stable jobs, and nationalize strategic and vital assets.

What CASER is envisioning is not really a socialist utopia dominated by collectivization and mechanization schemes but a very basic capitalist principle of large-scale production of consumer necessities, intermediate industries, and capital goods.

Below are further clarifications about the CASER reforms related to the business sector:

Is CASER anti-business? Cartels will be dismantled but legitimate businesses have nothing to fear. The state shall continue to support big and small local producers, MSMEs and startups.

Is CASER anti-foreigner? Foreign investments will not be curtailed. Surprisingly, CASER adopts the constitutional provision of limiting foreign equity to 40 percent. However, the retail trade industry will be 100 percent Filipino-owned to prevent foreigners from controlling the distribution of goods in the country.

Similar to what many countries are doing, vital and strategic industries will be nationalized. Foreign-owned investments in these industries will be expropriated except those with good record of treatment of workers and contribution to the domestic economy. These vital industries include but not limited to power generation, water, sanitation, mass transport, telecoms, and mining.

Foreign experts will be hired for five years and foreign technology will be used to develop the country’s scientific capabilities and innovate local industries.

Will CASER end private sector investment in the economy? State economic planning is the general principle but the private sector will continue to perform a big part in developing the economy. According to CASER, investments will be done mainly by the public sector, joint public-private ventures, cooperatives, and individual entrepreneurs.

But private industrial enterprises should have workers’ councils, banks will be reoriented to serve the needs of farmers and the poor, the ‘no union, no strike’ policy in export processing zones will be revoked, and salaries of workers should be indexed to the rising cost of living.

Comprehensive Reform

The third essential component of building a strong economy involves the protection and rehabilitation of the country’s natural resources. CASER wants to end open pit mining, large-scale reclamation, export monocrop production, and logging for export. No mining activities will be allowed in small islands, coastal ecosystems, primary forests, watersheds, and prime agricultural lands.

Growth is meaningless if the welfare of the people is ignored. CASER devotes several sections enumerating the rights of the poor and powerless in society. It lists several draconian laws and repressive agencies that have to be removed in order to uphold democracy and civil liberties.

And finally, CASER promotes the teaching of nationalism among the youth. This last point is not only symbolic but politically significant because one requirement in developing a strong national economy is the emergence of a nationalist sentiment among the population. It isn’t enough that a nationalist economic program exists, the people have to embrace it. The youth must have confidence in the capacity of Filipinos to build a new economy, produce our own needs, enrich the countryside, and create innovative industries.

Is CASER feasible?

Except for the legalization of same-sex marriage, majority of the proposed reforms in the CASER have been implemented already in many rich countries. Land reform and industrialization are political-economic strategies that transformed even small societies into global powers in the 20th century. CASER will not turn the Philippines into a socialist society. CASER is an opportunity to veer away from the tried and tested failure of blindly following the dictates of rich countries which do not want the Philippines to develop its productive base and become a potential competitor in the global market.

Those familiar with Philippine laws and the programs of various public agencies will find it easy to support the progressive framework of CASER. Despite its revolutionary intent, CASER was packaged as a program that both the government and NDF forces can implement in their respective territories. Deliberate or not, CASER echoed many programs, laws, and principles that are already being discussed in the bureaucracy. CASER adopted the progressive advocacies of civil society groups and people’s organizations.

Only the rabid defenders of landlordism and foreign cartels will outrightly reject the proposed reforms in the CASER. Those who fear that the NDF is sinisterly trying to impose its communist outlook should better read the CASER document and be prepared to be disappointed that there’s no reference to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.

But CASER does have bias for the poor and oppressed. For some, this is sufficient proof that it is a ‘communist manifesto’ disguised as a peace document.

The challenge for the Philippine government is to come up with a better CASER proposal or debunk the social reform measures proposed by the NDF. In the meantime, let’s continue talking about CASER and present it as a viable approach to address the roots of underdevelopment and injustice in the country.

According to the 1987 Constitution, Congress is supposed to convene a joint session in order to review the government’s martial law proclamation. But leaders of both houses of Congress said a joint session is unnecessary since the majority are supporting the president’s decision anyway.

This is unfortunate, since there are questions related to martial law that only defense and military officials can answer in a Congress session. And even if these concerns may not be addressed by the Duterte government, they are worth laying out in greater detail because they will likely be explored or exploited by various parties in the Philippines in the coming weeks.

Few would disagree that these are complicated questions with complex answers. But it is exactly because of this reality that the Duterte government must resist sweeping these under the rug and confront them head on. The situation in Marawi is Duterte’s most serious test since he took power last June, and it could have major implications not just for the Philippines’ domestic politics, but also its foreign policy. Questions cannot just be left lingering.

Excerpt of contributed article for The Diplomat magazine

Did Duterte normalize martial law in the Philippines?

In less than a year, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has declared martial law in the southern part of the country and convinced the Supreme Court to affirm it. He was able to do this without generating widespread opposition while buttressing his hold to power and undermining the alleged destabilization plots against his administration. Martial law’s extension for several more months is also supported by Congress leaders.

The normalization of martial law as a legitimate tool of a sitting president to enforce law and order appears to be a political victory for Duterte, although this has remained unacknowledged.

Duterte got what he wants but not all. He got the backing of several important institutions in the government but not the silence of groups which have consistently fought against the return of martial law. He gave too much confidence to the ‘reformed’ military and ignored the reminder of human rights groups about the bloody record of some of his trusted generals. An extended and expanded martial law is prone to all sorts of abuse especially if the implementers are accused of causing the displacement of indigenous peoples in Mindanao, the violent dispersal of peaceful protests, the kidnapping of activists, and the sabotage of the peace process.

Perhaps the Duterte government is emboldened by his record-high public trust rating and the relatively smaller protests against his decision to declare martial law. This is the time for Duterte to remember what happened to his idol Marcos in the past. Wasn’t Marcos also popular during the early years of martial law, and wasn’t it also true that it took some years before a vibrant protest movement defied the dictatorship?

Excerpt of contributed article for The Diplomat magazine

Various political analysts and commentators have already shared their views on Rodrigo Duterte’s first year as president of the Philippines. But so far, only a few have said something about Vice President Leni Robredo’s first year in office.

Those unfamiliar with the Philippine political system might ask the relevance of discussing Robredo’s performance as vice president. After all, isn’t she part of Duterte’s administration?

This is precisely the dilemma of the vice president in Philippine politics; in fact, he or she has no specific mandate to perform in the Cabinet or in government other than to attend ceremonial functions.

If the Duterte government ends up pursuing constitutional reforms, it should include the need to enlarge the powers of the vice president for these reasons. Even if its supporters argue that it is not in its narrow self-interest, it could actually help smooth things for the remainder of Duterte’s term by clarifying the division of labor between the two posts.

Read more at The Diplomat

The Plot to Oust Duterte

Excerpt of contributed article to The Diplomat magazine (January 2017)

Since last month, Filipinos have been talking about two conspiracies that aim to unseat President Rodrigo Duterte. Are these reports credible?

The first plot involves former United States Ambassador Philip Goldberg who allegedly left a blueprint for the ouster of Duterte before he left the country last year. This was reported last month by Manila Times, a major English language daily.

The second plot pertains to the publication of an archived e-mail thread of the Global Filipino Diaspora Council which reportedly discussed the campaign for the removal of Duterte. Social media supporters of Duterte have accused Vice President Leni Robredo of being part of this campaign.

Duterte, who is proud of his knowledge of local history, should know better that two Philippine presidents were deposed by a peaceful uprising during the first quarter of 1986 and 2001. Perhaps the reported anti-Duterte plots reflect a real fear of the ruling party that some groups are preparing to repeat history

Published by Manila Today

Epifanio delos Santos Avenue or EDSA is no ordinary road. It’s the site of two (or is it three) People Power uprisings; and it remains the principal and most important highway in Metro Manila (apologies to C-5 and Commonwealth Avenue). The growth centers of the country’s premier urban hub are all accessible via EDSA. Nearly anyone who has something to do in the capital, whether a tourist or terrorist, cannot fail to pass or travel along EDSA.

Yet our top survival tip to visiting friends and relatives from abroad is for them to avoid EDSA like a plague. Avoid it at all cost or pass at your own peril. It reflects the state of EDSA today: a busy road converted into a semi-parking lot because of traffic gridlock. The notorious carmageddon is proof of uneven development and bureaucratic inefficiency but some callous politicians had the gall to describe it as a sign of progress.

Who enjoys spending three to four hours to travel more than 10 kilometers of EDSA every day, anyway? No one. Not the few bikers risking their lives as they evade MMDA barriers in sidewalks or the dark fumes of colorum vehicles. Not even the bus drivers desperate to earn the money they will remit to their company bosses.

Because of traffic, EDSA has become another word for hardship. A surreal death march on wheels during rush hours. It seems there’s no other way to experience EDSA today other than to endure its apocalyptic lanes. It’s a unique equalizer: everybody suffers. Rich or poor are punished every time they get near that road. Of course, the working, alienated poor end up sacrificing more but the idle rich also lose their precious time and sanity in EDSA.

Alas, things were a little less awful in the past.

There was a time when EDSA represented something hopeful and even inspiring about our society. Mention the word EDSA and politicians will cower in fear. When people demanded change, it was in EDSA where great political events took place. Today, even pedestrians are barred from walking on EDSA. Nakamamatay daw. It is the MMDA and police that already dominate EDSA, the people’s highway.

A long, long time ago, EDSA was also a symbol of a changing but vibrant metropolis. It facilitated the spread of the urban beyond the old and congested Manila. It offered to give space to those who dreamed of a better life in the city.

This was wishful thinking on the part of our well-meaning urban planners. Because how can EDSA spur urban renewal when development in the neocolonial state was lopsided? Further, there was no master plan to balance the progress of cities and the countryside.

Still, the unfinished nation-building process was evident in EDSA. For example, EDSA Makati was the citadel of the elite. But in EDSA Mandaluyong, it was the home of a small industrial and commercial center. Meanwhile, EDSA Cubao was an entertainment complex. The rest of EDSA were open spaces, government centers, housing resettlement sites, and public markets. EDSA was anything but an exclusive playground of the haciendero rich and the nouveau riche. EDSA was both periphery and center of a modernizing Third World metropolis.

A generation ago, travelling by bus in EDSA was quite fast but passengers were still be able to see snippets of Metro life such as the walled enclaves of Forbes and Dasmariñas, the factories in Mandaluyong, the Ortigas lands, Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo, Cubao, the green spaces of Quezon City, the housing center and people’s park market in North Avenue, and the Balintawak north diversion road.

After 1986, several of EDSA’s open spaces became business centers and shopping malls. Pockets of urban poor communities were demolished. The North Triangle residential area was rezoned into a commercial center. Curiously, but not surprisingly, Forbes Park and other walled subdivisions remained residential villages despite the quick transformation of Makati into the country’s main financial center.

After the construction of MRT in 1999, bigger malls were developed. EDSA became too small for Henry Sy, which probably led him to support the extension of EDSA in Manila Bay. The Ayala Makati skyline was challenged by the booming development in Ortigas and Fort Bonifacio.

As the economy became more service-oriented in the past decade, which meant deploying more workers abroad or forcing them to accept the graveyard shift, EDSA underwent a new real estate facelift. Factories and decrepit government buildings were demolished to give way to high-rise condominiums. A new business center is rising in Quezon City. Call center offices are spreading. Public markets are threatened with eviction in favor of mixed-use buildings owned by presidential campaign donors.

The ubiquitous symbol of EDSA’s transformation is the high-risk but expensive giant billboards plastered in front and atop buildings along the highway. Colorful and bright ads that seduce the working class to buy products they don’t need in life. Gone are the hand painted movie billboards of Cubao; big tarps are in.

An MRT ride along EDSA is not only unpleasant and dehumanizing; it’s also boring. From one station to another, all MRT passengers will see are the same spectacles of dirt, bumper-to-bumper traffic, and false indicators of progress such as the mall, the condominium, and the call center complex.

The uniformity is excruciating to witness because it is being done at the expense of the poor. EDSA’s reterritorialization is presided by the rich which explains the fanatic and frenetic campaign to displace the poor from their homes, workplaces, and even on sidewalks.

Soon, people might totally fail to remember the proletarian legacy of EDSA. That it once provided shelter and hope to various sectors and classes in society. That it was a space where people from all walks of life gathered, mingled, and transacted business or politics. That it can be inclusive. That EDSA has a radical, subversive potential.

That Forbes Park in the south was atrociously elitist but at least it was balanced by the San Rogue community in the north. That megamall in Mandaluyong is enormous but it’s merely a modern counterpart of the bagsakan markets of Balintawak.

If EDSA’s corporate-led transformation will continue, people might readily accept the narrative that only the rich and properties classes have the right to dictate the future of this valuable stretch of road. That the poor have no choice but to vacate their so-called ‘eyesore’ homes and allow the corporate redevelopment of cities along EDSA. That a residential place can be rezoned into a commercial hub but not Forbes and Dasmariñas. That the state has to surrender its authority to neoliberal capitalists over what happens in EDSA except to regulate the traffic on the road. That the people are powerless to reclaim EDSA and change the paradigm of urban development.

But EDSA, our EDSA, is no ordinary road. It was and it should be reappropriated into a space where people impose their politics and collective will in order to reshape society.

Though it is still early days, what has been the impact of the Mindanao-wide martial law on these ongoing peace initiatives thus far?

Since the declaration of martial law, most of the headlines have been devoted to the Maute group and the ISIS threat in the Philippines, while very little has been discussed about its impact on the various peace processes involving armed groups in Mindanao, which Duterte had signaled as one of his administration’s top priorities upon assuming power. As the weeks progress, it will be interesting to see whether the administration uses martial law as part of a narrower anti-terror campaign, or whether it uses it as part of a broader political strategy to resolve the armed conflict that has been plaguing Mindanao for decades.

Read more at The Diplomat

Philippines: Duterte Ends Talks With Communist Rebels

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has announced that he is canceling the peace talks which his government had initiated with the Communist Party of the Philippines.

This was his response after the communist-led New People’s Army (NPA) said it will end its unilateral ceasefire with the government effective February 10.

Read more at The Diplomat

*Summary of my contributed essay to the workshop organized by the Third World Studies Center of the University of the Philippines-Diliman and the Conflict Research Group of the Ghent University. The workshop’s theme is “Politics and Power in the Philippines: Towards a Contemporary Research Agenda”. Published by Bulatlat

Political forces vie for national dominance but it is in the grassroots where the significant battles take place.

The electoral machinery and political base of rival mainstream parties are established at the local level. Revolutionary movements build their influence in working-class communities.

The political party capable of mobilizing the support of the grassroots has the best chance of controlling not just the bureaucracy but also the initiative in setting the national agenda.

The traditional model of building support in the grassroots involves political patronage. In modern Philippine politics, this was notoriously exemplified by the government of Gloria Arroyo. It was during her term when the cash transfer program was introduced; she marshalled vast resources to sustain the loyalty of local politicians across the country; and she exercised to the maximum her presidential powers to coopt the bureaucracy.

This model of governance in the grassroots remains in place. However, two innovations in political organizing have become apparent in recent years.

First is the expanded role of civil society organizations in advancing the politics of the ruling party. It can be interpreted as a critical partnership to guarantee the delivery of goods and services in the grassroots on one hand; but it can also appear to be an unprincipled endorsement of political patronage on the other.

Second is the ubiquitous use of information tools in building a large army of political followers. Maximizing the social media for good governance has become a partisan mechanism to defend party ideology, increase the number of fiercely loyal members, and tilt (or even distort) public opinion against rival political parties and personalities.

Propagating political narratives is now an act of sustaining patronage in modern politics. In the age of Internet, this means rewarding followers who promote unity and greater divide at the same time. It is no longer enough to distribute the political largesse, members of a particular political community must be persuaded too that they are embracing a popular and winnable perspective. The ruling party expands its influence not just through pork projects but also by overwhelming the public with its weapons of mass (dis)information

President Rodrigo Duterte has already demonstrated that he is a cunning warrior in the information warfare. He is not only the chief executive responsible for the welfare of his loyal constituents, he is also the chief propagandist of his online army.

And while the propaganda war is succeeding in distracting the public, Duterte’s party is aggressively recruiting in the grassroots aimed at building a popular movement supportive of federalism. The state-directed organizing is taking place amid the bloody campaign to rid the country of the drug menace. Communities, however, are hostaged by the terror tactics of state forces.

Organized resistance should be the response against the creeping militarization in society. But the disempowering effect of political patronage, after decades of being the dominant practice in government, is now palpable in the grassroots.

The poor and unorganized were conditioned to cooperate with the bureaucracy even if it meant sacrificing some of their civil liberties like the right to privacy.

The idea of challenging the state is already alien to many who spent years if not decades assisting politicians in refocusing the energies of the people’s movement into a mere passive lobby force in the bureaucracy.

Political patronage has diluted and falsified the concept of grassroots political organizing. It promoted the erroneous idea that political action ceases when some reforms are implemented by the state. It exaggerated the impact of these reforms as if these have to be celebrated as a revolutionary moment. It is obsessed in demonizing activism as a disruptive, destructive, and even undemocratic alternative.

But it is through militant activism and collective action that we can hope to reenergize the fighting capabilities of the grassroots, in order to effectively counter impunity in society. The state is spreading fear through shock and awe extrajudicial actions; this should be challenged by radical acts of resistance by ordinary citizens.

The Left offers a programmatic approach in building this resistance. It features the solid, systematic, and swift organizing of basic sectors who are oppressed in society such as the peasants, workers, and other toiling masses. Sectoral struggles can be linked to place-specific campaigns until a powerful broad mass movement is developed.

The long-term goal is not just to encourage individual acts of courage and defiance but the collective empowerment of the grassroots.

Further, if the state is using the language of reform to justify the adoption of anti-people and anti-poor policies, then the organized grassroots should expose this deception by launching an all-out propaganda war about the justness of upholding the politics of resistance. Information tools should be used in aid of activism like the Facebook-initiated ‘Million People March’ against corruption, and not as a means to foment further fragmentation and hate in society.

A collective challenge to any rising threat to democracy is essential to defend the grassroots. A collective and militant movement, backed up by solid political organizing in the grassroots, has more potential to decisively influence the political program and priorities of any ruling party.

Concretely applied today, it means a strong citizen movement should retake the initiative in the grassroots and compel the government to rethink its political strategy. Duterte, the so-called Leftist, should not just mouth the slogans of the revolution. He should be made aware that revolution requires the constant mobilization of the grassroots to fight injustice, inequality, and other preventable miseries in society.

But grassroots organizers have to do some serious reflection about how they conduct their political work. They have to study the disturbing rise of populism vis-à-vis the uneven growth of progressive forces across the country. They have to ask why an increasing number of the alienated poor are enthusiastic in promoting the narratives of the elite. They have to be self-critical about their tactics and recalibrate the strategy to renew the vigor of the mass movement and make the language of the revolution more relevant than ever.