What’s the Deal With an Authoritarian in Manila?

Hello All!

The Filipino Archipelago

The Philippine Archipelago

Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that knows the difference between archipelagos and atoll formation (thanks, Darwin).

In this edition, we’ll discuss the fascinating and irascible new Filipino leader Rodrigo Duterte and his new stance on Pacific relations with both China and the United States. We’ll examine if there is a possible connection between Filipino-U.S. historical relations and Duterte’s posturing for his country.

The Current: Popular and Unpredictable

In a recent speech and meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping back in the fall, newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte said he wanted the Philippines and United States to push toward splitting ties, a big blow to the United States’ “pivot” to Asia and the 100+ year alliance between the two countries. Following this, Duterte said he wanted the alliance to continue, but just to have U.S. troops based in the Philippines out. This severing of relations now seems to be tempered even further after significant briefings on the military alliance and the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency in Washington, D.C.

Xi meets Rodrigo

Xi meets Rodrigo

Duterte is extremely controversial internationally, calling President Obama a “son of a whore,” comparing himself to Adolph Hitler in his quest to rid his country of drug dealers and hustlers, but also confusing, saying that “God warned him off swearing,” and then proceeding to curse a reporter investigating the anti-drug campaign.

His back and forth and unpredictable actions along with his populist flavor that brought him to the highest office in the island nation have had some people calling him the “Filipino Donald Trump”, referencing the unpredictable political style peppered with many invectives and offensive comments made by the United States’ president elect.

another victim of extra-judicial killing

another victim of extra-judicial killing

Last week, the New York Times issued a photojournalist account of the strong anti-drug crackdown that has been violent and brutal in its extrajudicial killing of drug kingpins and accused drug users – a total of 3,500 estimated people have been killed. The Anti-drug crusade was a campaign promise by President Duterte prior to his election and received popular support from many Filipinos whose lives have been deeply impacted by the drug trade. Indeed, many Filipinos wrote in to the Times to support the President and the crackdown saying their fear from kingpins and for their general safety is greatly reduced.

The case of the of the drug crackdown is an interesting one as it shows an unwavering popular support of a strongman whose “popular cause”  violates international law (he has been indicted by the ICC) and the Filipino constitution. Their support could come from a feeling of inaction by the preceding government of Benigno Aquino and the stigma from a feeling of high levels of corruption.

Duterte's plays the strong security role

Duterte’s plays the strong security role

To understand the popular support of Duterte and his large shift against the U.S., let’s explore historical relations and the more recent political history of the archipelago nation.

From One Colonial Landlord to Another

The American “acquisition” of the Philippines following the Spanish – American War in 1898 via the Treaty of Paris was no mere handover of the reins of colonial power from a has-been (Spain) to the strengthening newby (U.S.). During the initial war, the U.S. Navy secured control around the islands by pummeling the Spanish fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay allowing a resistance / independence leader Emilio Aguinaldo to declare an independent Philippines on July 12, 1898. As U.S. ground forces took Manila, they promptly excluded Aguinaldo from the negotiation talks with the Spanish (ignoring the independence declaration) and took 400 years of brutal colonial rule and simply changed hands to a new imperial power.*

Aguinaldo as the stoic leader

Aguinaldo as the stoic leader – of the continuing resistance

The resistance movement that followed proceeded to last almost 4 more years and cost the lives of 4,374 American soldiers and 36,000 Filipino soldiers and civilians. The resistance was particularly brutal as the Filipinos (who were outnumbered and outgunned) used guerrilla hit and run tactics – which were responded in kind by ruthless American repercussions. The war became a matter for moral debate in the U.S. as the atrocities on both sides became known. Finally on July 4, 1902, newly sworn in President Theodore Roosevelt declared the resistance resolved as most fighters had been captured or killed and Aguinaldo had acquiesced to the Philippine becoming an American colony.

*Interestingly, the Philippines were unknown to most Americans upon defeating the Spanish including President McKinley himself who infamously could not find the islands on a map. McKinley struggled with what to do with the Philippines after defeating the Spanish – wavering between granting independence and semi-autonomy – but then ultimately decided to maintain American colonial control as it was in America’s business interest. A devout man, McKinley may have been divinely inspired to “christianize” the Filipino islanders as an impetus, but this doesn’t seem relevant since most Filipinos were already Catholic after 400 years of Spanish dominion.

Filipino – U.S Relations:  An Ocean Apart, Yet an Omnipresence

America's first imperial president

America’s first imperial president

The U.S. stance on overseeing the Philippines was officially titled “Benevolent Assimilation” – based on a proclamation by then President William McKinley to set up a civilian government under U.S. control that would bring religious freedom, set up judicial systems, secure private property, and upgrade transport and civilian systems “for” the Philippines. All this, was of course, decided without the consent of the 7,107 islands of 7 million disparate, mainly impoverished peoples within the “nation” which contain hundreds of distinct ethnic groups.

The installed civilian government was overwhelmingly in favor of independence led by the Nationalist Party (following the movement led by Aguinaldo) – but this demand was ignored by the U.S. for decades until 1934 when the U.S. Congress approved a proposal with the Tydings-McDuffie Act (Philippine Independence Act) of 1934 to grant independence within 10 years. This was delayed a couple of years by the end of World War II, but then was realized for the Philippines in 1946.

Subic Bay Naval Station

Subic Bay Naval Station

Despite allowing the Philippines to lead its own government after 1946, the United States maintained two major military bases: Subic Bay and Clark in order to maintain a strategic presence in the region. Following the second world war, General Dwight Eisenhower recommended that these bases be transferred to Filipino control but was overruled.

Eisenhower saw that the bases would be a sore spot for most Filipinos – the bases would be come to seen as continuing American imperialism and control – despite bringing in money for the local economy*. The bases became an even more vital to U.S. interests following the escalation of the Vietnam conflict under the Lyndon Johnson administration in 1965. The bases were finally relinquished to the Philippine government in 1992.

From this short history of U.S. – Filipino relations, we should take away the following:

  • Instead of allowing self-determination and independence following a centuries long colonization by Spain, the U.S. imposed their dominance to use the Philippines as an outpost colony in the Pacific. 
  • The Philippine War was the initial stepping stone for an enlarged American global presence in the Pacific
  • While the war quickly faded from memory in the U.S., in the Philippines it is remembered for its bloody years and the fomenting of subsequent decades of continuing imperial control by a foreign power.
*the same phenomenon could be applied  to the Okinawan islands south of Japan that came under American military control at the end of WWII and thereafter was an air force base for the United States. The pushback by the Okinawans (a distinct group native to the islands) following economic repression and crimes perpetrated by U.S. servicemen, has made both Japan and the U.S. consider the social cost of maintaining military bases around the world.

The Philippines Since Independence

Between independence and 1965 Filipino governments had peacefully transferred and saw high levels of economic growth but had suffered from internal uprisings and corruption and graft – all while social problems among most Filipinos remained. In 1965, the election of Ferdinand Marcos brought forth a period of authoritarianism, corruption and repression that may help explain the interesting connection to Duterte’s government.

Marcos was elected to two four year terms, but during his tenure, his indifference to the injustices experienced by most Filipinos touched off armed rebellions. In response, in 1971 Marcos declared martial law, suspended Congress and the constitution, cancelled the upcoming presidential election and ordered mass arrests of opposition figures. Using his enlarged power for the next 16 years, Marcos ran a series of protected monopolies through the government to steal billions of dollars – enriching himself at the expense of his people.

Marcos increases power

Marcos increases power

While Marcos repelled all sitting U.S. Presidents through his corruption and repression, the U.S. government continued to give billions in military aid – likely because of the continued need for the military bases and a presence in southeast Asia. The U.S. was able to proctor the release from prison of the main opposition leader, Benigno Aquino in 1980, who came to the U.S. for medical treatment following a heart attack while awaiting a death sentence by a military commission. Upon his return to Manila in 1983, Aquino was assassinated by a military squad soon after landing.

Aquino’s assassination touched off a huge rancor of protests from opposition groups and the majority of Filipinos who were tired of the corruption, intimidation, and repression at the hands of an authoritarian. Hoping to weaken the growing protest movement, Marcos called for an election on February 7, 1986, in which he claimed victory – but which only served to spark more protests as the results showed that Aquino was the winner and the election was clearly tampered with. The increased protests combined with the turn of 2 major military figures against Marcos forced his hand. The U.S. remained by his side until February 25th, when he escaped in exile to Guam and then to Hawaii until his death three years later.*

the widowed Corazon Aquino

the widowed Corazon Aquino

Taking the mantle of leadership was the widow of Benigno Aquino, Corazon Aquino. While difficult social and economic issues continued, she restored democracy and ended the term of U.S. ownership of the two major Naval bases at Clark and Subic Bay in 1992. The Aquino’s son, Benigno III, was elected president in 2010 and stayed in office until this past year 2015 with the election of Duterte.

The independent period of time of the Philippines shows:

  • The rise of the authoritarian Marcos led to extreme corruption, repression of freedoms, and a reduction in the pace of economic growth and prosperity.
  • The U.S. supported the Marcos dictatorship in order to maintain their military bases on the Philippoines – at the expense of democracy and economic
*Marcos made his escape in an American chopper to an American territory (Guam) and then to the U.S. itself. The U.S. was complicit in helping the dictator escape – just as they were implicit in their complacency to allow Marcos to impose his ruthless authoritarian government.

The Rise of Duterte: The Return of Authoritarianism?

The election of President Duterte in the Philippines at first look seems like an aberration. Many economic factors* indicating significant growth and stability during the Aquino III administration made many political scientists figure that a continuity candidate from the government establishment would continue the gains made by Aquino. In addition, on the foreign policy side, the increased aggression from China in the South China Sea would seem to warrant closer relations with the United States and its policy of freedom of navigation.

Duterte on the stump in Davao

Duterte on the stump in Davao

Throughout the electoral campaign process, however, it was the political outsider touting strong security (law and order), tough talk on drugs, departure from close relations to the U.S., and anti-corruption that eventually would prevail. Duterte’s message and political record on these issues from his time as mayor of the city of Davao on Mindanao island struck a chord with the majority of Filipinos – many of whom did not see the gains made by the country as a whole – Filipinos who experienced the brunt of Typhoon Haiyan, extreme poverty**, and whose urban communities experience the wrath of the drug trade, child labor, and even sex slavery.

Perhaps the violence against Filipino fishermen and the recent concessions by China have convinced many Filipinos that the direction of the future is a rising China and not the U.S. who many consider to still be the imperial power. The continuing memory of the United States as imperial overlord (from historical relations) may have indeed influenced the rise of Duterte. Given these factors, both domestic and international, Duterte’s populist appeal is understandable – yet does not erase his detestable behavior and brutal actions since he took office.160705-philippines-drugs-0424_6511015396fe9f74410fe81789a2b863-nbcnews-ux-2880-1000

Duterte has certainly carried over his local crackdown on drugs from Mindanao over to the national sphere vowing to “kill criminals” including drug users and addicts. The crackdown on drugs has been called “state sanctioned killing” by Amnesty International as multiple reports allege that the police and military have been complicit in the extrajudicial killings. Major scandals from his mayoral days including charges of financial corruption and conflict of interest in addition to charges of human rights abuses.

The candidate with essentially no foreign policy or national governing experience has many hornets nests to handle including the challenge of China as an aggressor in the South China Sea (see previous posts for background), the long running war between minority Muslim rebels and the state within the Philippines, and major free trade agreements to consider. Finally, Duterte has controversially given former dictator Marcos an official burial in Manila’s cemetery of heroes, something that every sitting Filipino president has publicly refused to do.  Interestingly, this received quite a backlash from the public and from public figures such as his Vice President.

Did the arguments for Duterte justify his election? Corruption was already being tackled (although not completely eliminated) under the outgoing Aquino administration. And what of drugs – are they not an issue? The drug “menace” and the numbers related to drug users, actors, and dealers have been inflated. Duterte had claimed that there were 3.7 million drug addicts that Duterte said, “must be slaughtered.” The number inflation though has not been seen as a problem according to officials it is worth it to “increase awareness” and community involvement. These high numbers, more dangerously, have provided the impetus to increase the violent crackdown.

*factors such as total economic growth of 6.5%, a stable inflation rate of 2%, and a low national debt. Factors that would likely continue should foreign investment and other influences remain.
** the population earning $1.90 / day or less increased from 12% to 13% from 2009 to 2012.

Conclusion: Prescient Connections

Cut from the same mould?

Cut from the same mold?

If these descriptions of a rise of the Filipino president sound familiar to readers it is because they are eerily similar to those ascribed to Mr. Trump, the president elect in the U.S. Interesting connections can also be made to recent elections around the world including Narendra Modi in India where an outsider to current political trends won through populist appeal – although the level of incompetence, brutality, and boisterous disregard for decency to other human beings is not on the same level as Duterte and Trump.

What can we take away from our discussion of historical relations and recent presidential elections?

  • The Filipino election of Rodrigo Duterte has a connection to a populist backlash to the status quo – a status that ultimately was also recognized in the United States’ own election.
  • The United States’s century long relationship with the Philippines has at times been tenuous – and the imperial feeling overhanging the Philippines has continued with the adoption of the military bases and the inaction against the dictator Marcos
  • Both Duterte and President elect Trump have little / no political experience, are brutish and disregard issues related to human rights, and have financial connections that should be labeled as corruption.

Despite the issues surrounding Duterte, he does remain very popular among Filipinos – likely for his attitude of sticking with a campaign promise – something that Mr. Trump will likely have trouble doing.

Until the next upset election, your faithful historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:








The Philippines’ vice president is passive-aggressively shaming Rodrigo Duterte on Twitter

Kinzer, Stephen. Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Times Books, 2006.





Image link: http://www.freeworldmaps.net/asia/philippines/


About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
This entry was posted in American Intervention, Asia, colonialism, Elections, International Affairs, Justice, U.S. and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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