Filipino Brute: President Rodrigo Duterte and US Imperialism

Empires are often in the habit of producing brutes. Colonies, once left to their own devices, can either improve in the face of history, or degenerate.  The Philippines provides an example of cruelty fashioned into office: dictatorships with a pro-US strain; subservient administrations.

What is in power in Manila is Rodrigo Duterte, a figure from that same cloth, albeit of a different, independent strain.  For the first time in decades, the Philippines has a leader who insists on the sovereign issue against the interests of the United States. Even when it comes to the extrajudicial killing of 1,300 drug suspects over the last two months.

Pointedly, he has emphasised the obvious, but sometimes forgotten point in Washington, that “I am a president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony.  I do not have any master but the Filipino people.”

In fighting fashion, Duterte was keen to throw the book back at the United States at his now famous press conference at Davao International Airport.  It was the language of one brute against another, the pupil of history turned teacher. “Who is he [Obama] to question me about human rights and extrajudicial killings?”

In deciding to rebuke and rubbish the US president, Duterte was touching a rich vein of tortured history. The statement of Obama being “a son of a whore” should not have caused much fuss.  Duterte has not been discriminating in his remarks. He also feels that Pope Francis is such a son of a whore. For a different touch, he decided to throw a varied insult to the US ambassador to the Philippines, whom he labelled a “gay son of a whore.”  Sweet stuff indeed.

Such comments make more sense in the historical colouring they reflect.  Duterte is far more than a deliverer of sharp insults.  The independence of the Philippine state proved a short lived one, steamrolled by US colonial interests in the 1899-1902 war that saw the cost of anywhere between 250,000 and a million Filipino lives.

This historical incident barely registers a mention in the US school syllabus; when it appears, it assumes the form of well meaning benevolence: the Filipinos were being taught a great American lesson in the art of democracy.  According to William Howard Taft, who served as first US governor general between 1901-1904, the Filipinos were “our little brown brothers”.

The contradictions of that savage lesson were aptly described by that long student of anti-imperialism Mark Twain in “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” (1901): “There must be two Americas: one that sets the captive free, and one that takes a once-captive’s new freedom away from him, and picks a quarrel with him with nothing to found it on; then kills him to get his land.”

Even in the aftermath of the Second World War, with the Philippines reeling from the effects of a thoroughly cruel Japanese occupation, there remained a sense that one state of captivity was being exchanged for another.  In 1946, the granting of independence, again by the United States, was conditional on generous access by Washington to the country’s natural resources and markets, and equal rights between the citizens of both countries.

During the Cold War, the Philippines was further brutalised by the pro-US regime of President Ferdinand Marcos, who received ample support from Washington while looting the country.  Interest in Marcos only waned in the Reagan administration after the assassination of opposition leader Benigno Aquino in 1983.

“America has one too many to answer for the misdeeds in this country.”  The president was in the mood for giving his own lesson on US imperialism, with its continuing debilitations for his country.  “As a matter of fact, we inherited this problem from the United States.  Why? Because they invaded this country and made us their subjugated people.”

The reaction to Duterte’s style was always going to be remorseless in certain quarters. Sovereign assertiveness and market behaviour do not always tally.  Foreign investors wrinkled their noses at the president’s vulgarity, helping the Philippine Stock Exchange Index shed 1.3 percent to 7,619.10 in its most dramatic fall in five weeks.

The voice of the market came in the form of such commentators as Jonathan Ravelas of the BDO Unibank.  Advertised as a chief market strategist, Ravelas suggested that, “The latest incident raises concern that President Duterte’s unpredictable behaviour in politics will be disruptive and could eventually spill into economics and business.”

What is bothersome about Duterte is his delight in brutal measures. He evidently loves them, and regards rehabilitation as a pansy panacea.  Keep it rough; keep it lethal. Under his watch, death squads have sprung up to roam the streets ostensibly to target drug pushers. Instead of treatment clinics, morgues have become more common destinations.

Where Duterte is on solid ground is pointing the finger at the US for past abuses.  Arguably for the first time in decades, sovereignty is a word that has currency in Manila’s circles of power.  The new president of the Philippines has shown how troublesome he will be on that score, no longer wishing to merely be one of Taft’s “brown brothers”.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: Read other articles by Binoy.