Brown Man’s Burden: Breaking Away from American Dominion in the Philippines

Brown Man’s Burden: Breaking Away from American Dominion in the Philippines
Photo Credit: Bullit Marquez / AP Photo / 達志影像
What you need to know

Is the Philippines ready to separate from the U.S.? And how might Trump affect U.S.-Philippines relations?

The Philippines was an American colony from 1898 to 1946, while other colonizers include the Japanese during World War II and the Spanish who ruled for more than 300 years. Yet arguably it has been the Americans who have done the most to mold the economics, politics, culture and military of the Philippines to their image.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte recently engaged in tirades against the U.S. government concerning its enduring military exercises in the country. He went so far as to call them out on unrecognized historical crimes committed against Filipinos. Around one-sixth of the indigenous population was eradicated during the Filipino-American War which lasted from 1899 to 1902.

To the surprise of many, Duterte went on to state that Filipinos should not be the “lapdogs” of foreign superpowers. At a subsequent speech in China, he announced his “separation from the United States.” No other Philippine president has ever said anything even remotely untoward to the U.S.

Debates sparked all over the country on the validity and viability of an independent foreign policy. Can we stand on our own two feet? Were we ever really a sovereign democracy in the first place? Will Duterte’s rhetoric start to usher in a truly independent country? Can this help set a precedent for other developing countries? Moreover, how will this fare in light of Donald Trump winning the U.S. elections?

All of these questions require examination from those who have been shackled by various superpowers and are presumably in the sights of a new racist, war-mongering leader of the free world.

Still a colony

The single most consistent opponent to U.S. hegemony in the Philippines in the post-war period have been grassroots organizations and a few senators. Protests were seen as early as 1930, when more than 100,000 workers gathered on Labor Day to denounce U.S. imperialism. A major victory was dealt in 1991, when the senate was forced to cancel the agreement which allowed the establishment of U.S. military bases in the country.

Agreements between the two countries, such as the Visiting Forces Agreement (1998) and the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement or EDCA (2014), would later be passed, allowing the rotation of U.S. troops and the authority to establish military infrastructure.

Both sides maintain that these agreements are not a return to the old arrangement. However, these are visitors that never leave. The Supreme Court has also upheld the legality of the EDCA this year and it will be ready for implementation in 2017. The vagueness of the agreement is terrifying with any and all “agreed locations” permissible for U.S. military facilities. Deliberations in the Philippine congress over next year's budget allocation for U.S. military operations (joint exercises, supplies and structural requirements) is ongoing.

Talk of breaking away from the U.S. reached a boiling point in October, when protesters, mainly from national minority groups, descended upon the U.S. Embassy in Manila, calling for an end to U.S. bases in the country. Indigenous communities have also been violently displaced by American mining companies and soldiers with reports of human rights violations rampant in their communities.

Towards the end of the protest, a police officer rammed into the protesters with a vehicle, injuring more than 50 people. The scenes sent shockwaves throughout the nation and exemplified how the protection of U.S. offices and symbolism is well within strict orders of the armed forces.

Military occupation alone cannot illustrate the gravity of U.S. intervention in the country. The Philippine economy has remained subservient to the U.S. and other superpowers. Based on data released by local think-tank Ibon Foundation, the biggest source of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Philippines from 1999 to 2012 came from the U.S., accounting for 20 percent of the total during that time. FDI in the Philippines reached a record-high of US$6.2 billion in 2014, with the United States contrubiting the most FDI of any country that year, of US$1.2 billion, according to the U.S. State Department.

Giant profits have been derived from the now massive "business process outsourcing" industry. A variety of people flock to call centers for a quick fix to their unemployment woes despite knowingly receiving significantly less for the same work than counterparts in America, and this has made the Philippines a great spot for cheap labor.

The U.S. soldiers are here for a reason. For example, 97 percent of profits from mining in the country are made by foreign corporations. Where mining goes, armed protection usually follows.

American strategic economic interest in the Asia-Pacific region is no secret. Political, cultural and educational allegiance to the American dream follows as an imposition. Imagine growing up in a country flooded with the aspiration of an American dream. It is near sensory deprivation for the Filipino identity.

Much of the youth regularly swoon over the latest Nike shoes or Filipinos making even the smallest name for themselves in America, and so many whitening products are seen in the country. Parents would gladly give up their daughters to marry Caucasian men.

I also remember when local news did a “man on the street” segment about the rape of a Filipina by an American soldier. One woman could not understand what the victim was complaining about. She said the victim should be happy that a white American man with a job had taken interest in her.

This kind of culture can stem from the barrage of stylized influences assaulting one’s senses. Yet now there is a burgeoning sense of the prospects from truly separating from the U.S. Admittedly Duterte has helped to fan these flames.

As it stands, Duterte has only made pronouncements (albeit very strong ones) opposed to the prolonged military presence of the U.S. He has yet to make any sort of formal order or cancel of the existing unjust settlements on the matter. Furthermore, the administration has yet to express any inclination of veering away from the neo-liberal policies that fuel this predicament.

The Ibon Foundation also noted that Duterte’s 10-point economic program “is still geared to attracting foreign investors to set up their low value-added enclave firms or to subordinate Filipino small- and medium enterprises (SMEs) to their global value chains.” At the same time, the administration is negotiating unequal free trade arrangements that will open up the country’s resources to plunder and market saturation of foreign goods. One such deal is the European Union – Philippines Free Trade Agreement.

Two different interpretations of an independent foreign policy framework are permeating. Duterte’s strong statements have largely been confined to rhetoric and represent the limitations of the “change” he peddled during his campaign. His concerns seem to be mainly about security, though his general policy direction is muddled in neo-liberal mechanisms that actually favor Americans and big business. Despite his newfound friendship with China, question marks remain over his declarations. This means business as usual for the abusive U.S.-Philippines relationship.

Conversely, local organizations have clamored for independent foreign policy to be taken as economic sovereignty as well. They aim to take positives from the noise generated by this issue for a renewal of nationalist fervor, which extends to dealing with other countries on an equal footing. Without this, longstanding land reform and developing national industries will be pushed back by the onslaught of corporatization and neo-liberal attacks.

The Trump card

Before Barrack Obama’s win in the 2008 elections, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek suggested that “everybody in world, except U.S. citizens, should be allowed to elect the American government.” A lot of times, it feels like the lives of those outside the U.S. are more likely to be threatened by the world’s leading interventionist superpower.

Donald Trump’s win in the recently concluded elections has elicited outrage across the globe as he edges towards the most unpopular start to office. In his speeches, he has tagged the Philippines and eight other countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, Uzbekistan and Yemen) as havens for terrorist activity due to their large Islamic populations.

For many it seems, Trump will take the route similar to Ronald Reagan’s term and push for greater American involvement in conflict situations while staying true to his roots in big business. Although this raises questions on how Duterte and other world leaders will proceed with their relations. Much of the NATO bloc have whole-heartedly congratulated Trump in his ascension and look poised to follow suit.

Days after the election, Duterte appointed Trump’s Filipino business partner Jose Antonio as special envoy for trade, investment and economic affairs. At the moment it seems despite the Philippine government being vocal on independence from American soldiers, it is also intent to preserve the economic foundation of its relationship with the U.S. Ironically, this has served as an invitation for the military's presence in the country and the region; protecting their geopolitical and economic interests.

At the ASEAN Summit in September, Duterte’s shock and awe stunt was well received by his counterparts. In the company of Barrack Obama, he showed pictures of Filipinos massacred by Americans during the colonization. If these stances continue beyond sentiment, into programs and laws, maybe neighboring countries might be persuaded to do something similar. It is too early tell if Trump will receive the same treatment when the Philippines hosts the 2017 ASEAN Summit.

Nevertheless, a genuinely independent foreign policy will not unfold if these matters are left solely to heads of state. Positive premises may have been set, but none of these leaders seem to have all the right answers. Nationalism can still be interpreted in positive ways that tolerate other countries, races and cultures. Ordinary people stand to gain the most from paving the way for domestic development and, as such, it stands on their shoulders to affirm this.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: Edward White