Making Sense of Present-Day Philippine Politics

Barely four months into his term, the new Philippine president, Duterte is making moves and shaking the world’s political landscape.

Duterte has become a tricky subject of conversation among my Filipinx family and peers here in the United States and with my family in the Philippines. My Facebook newsfeed is filled with articles about his sexist remarks and the Philippines’ recent suspicious drug-related extrajudicial killings (which are viewed by many as a consequence of his administration’s war on drugs).

I quickly dismissed him as a Trump-like character, doomed to bring the Philippines into a deeper level of corruption. It’s easy to do so. I’m miles away from my family’s homeland, this new president, his administration, and these killings. The majority of information I receive on his presidency is from the mixed perspectives of family members and U.S. and Philippine media, a majority of which, paint Duterte as a villainous threat to the current state of our world.

And when I heard about his move to break ties with the U.S., it was easy to dismiss him as crazy and a threat to the “peace” between the United States and the Philippines.

It was the hopeful reactions of family members who live in the Philippines…and my own father, which has caused me to re-evaluate my perspective. Hearing such reactions to Duterte’s recent remarks and decisions is like hearing family members say they support Trump (to my knowledge, even the most conservative Republican members of my family can’t get behind Trump).

A few weeks ago, I took a day to study Philippine history from the Philippine perspective, one that recognizes that the Philippines has been in a centuries-long class struggle impacted further by years of colonization specifically by the Spanish and the U.S. And something clicked.

Quick rundown on some Philippine history. During the first presidential election, Emilio Aguinaldo was elected over Andres Bonafacio (who led the liberation struggle against Spain) because Bonafacio was seen as less educated and of lower origin than Aguinaldo. Despite Bonifacio’s understanding the people’s everyday struggle, Aguinaldo’s book smart perspective won over and Bonifacio was eventually arrested and executed.

Since then, Philippine president after Philippine president has made deals with the U.S. that allow for the U.S. to use the Philippines to its political and economic advantage. The Philippines is a rich and fertile land. It’s no wonder the U.S. continues to make excuses to maintain its military presence on Philippine soil and hide that from most of U.S. media.

Without the history between the Philippines and the United States from a non-U.S. centric perspective as context, Duterte’s decision can appear life-threatening. Filipinx Americans are increasingly assimilating into U.S. culture, working to build lives of comfort and security for their families. But what about all the other Filipinx people? What does this mean for the Filipinx diaspora: families separated by miles in pursuit of better opportunities for future generations? It’s already difficult enough to save enough money to visit family in the Philippines. There is pain and heartbreak involved in this kind of forced separation.

From a non-U.S. perspective, the U.S. has been a bully to the Philippines. Duterte just happens to be the first president to not respond with a fake smile, nod and handshake. He is the first president to give no f*cks about what would happen to the Philippines if it cut ties with the United States. And there is a history and a lot of nuances to understand before anyone can really form an opinion of his policies. Perhaps the Philippines can take a step toward actually being seen as an equal rather than the U.S.’s “little brown brother.” And that’s empowering.

All because he’s doing what the U.S. doesn’t want him to do … doesn’t mean he’s leading the Philippines in a bad direction. Nor does it mean he’s leading him in a good one. We’ll see where his approach leads the Philippines in the next six years.

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