The fiftieth anniversary of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was held in the Philippines with a four-day summit ending on the 14th. It also marked by the arrival of Donald Trump to cap off his Asian tour. One of the main thrusts of the event was tackling the various issues between member states and common concerns like migration, the regional rise of terrorism and global trade.

Hardly anything of note came out of it. There were no ground breaking agreements to fix the persistent problems in the region and barely a whimper about the human rights situation of the Philippines or the Rohingya people. Most of the attention was devoted to the first face-to-face meeting between Trump and Duterte and the preparations the Philippine government undertook to stage the ASEAN Summit.

Not unlike previous circumstances where dignitaries arrived in the country, the Philippines likes to lay out the red carpet in an effort to impress the international community. For someone who says he doesn’t care about international criticism, Duterte outdid himself by being an extravagant host, a stark contrast to the crippling poverty experienced throughout the country.

Lavishly unequal

A total of 15.5 billion Pesos (US$303 million) was allotted towards hosting the leaders from 12 states. Its budget was a 55 percent increase from the funds used to hold the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in 2015, which had 21 member states involved. Presidential spouse Honeylet Avancena also ordered the fanciest of Philippine chocolates from Davao (Duterte’s hometown) for the ASEAN leaders’ families. Each gift basket of the famed Malagos chocolates was worth P4,000 (US$80).

Why is this important? Shouldn’t the Philippines put its best foot forward in welcoming distinguished heads of states? To the 22 million Filipinos living on P60 a day, it is a slap in the face. The money spent on the summit could have gone to other basic social services, ones that are sorely underfunded. More than 30,000 new low-cost homes could have been constructed, or the college education of around 77,500 students could have been paid for. Amidst this, crucial service sectors of the 2018 General Appropriations Act have been downsized. Housing received an 84 percent decrease in subsidies, while public health and hospitals got a 1.5 billion peso cut.

A few weeks before the actual summit, the authorities decided to conduct clearing operations on some of the main roads in Metro Manila. Clearing the streets of "eyesores" has been a common occurrence since the 70s whenever someone important arrives. By eyesores they mean the poor and homeless, and by clearing they mean barring them from setting foot in certain areas. Those in charge of the preparations reasoned that street dwellers could be likely security threats. They argued that people living in wagons could easily hide their bombs in plain sight. Clearing was also done when the Pope was here a few years back and generally whenever the country’s dirty laundry might be brought to light.


While not as striking as the inequalities laid bare during the summit, the entire affair had its share of bloopers. First, the organizers of the event misspelled the country’s name on the welcome banner. One ‘I’ in Philippines was left out. Not to be outdone, Donald Trump was on his best game. Right after the welcome banner debacle, Trump misspelled the country’s name also in one of his tweets. Trump also failed to do the ceremonial ASEAN handshake in which all world leaders join hands with one crossed over the other in solidarity.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of the relationship between the Trump and Duterte was the latter serenading the former.

The great relationship Trump spoke of was fortified when Duterte’s murderous drug war was given the thumbs up by the American president. This was another sharp change of attitudes considering the U.S. had been a vocal critic of this program in the beginning.

The two also tackled the possibility of a new free trade deal as if the current ones weren’t enough. In 2006, the Philippines signed the Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) which, according to some, would oblige the Philippines to forsake control over the domestic economy while betraying the poor farmers, workers and small and medium businesses.”

Some might argue that the money spent on the ASEAN was a wise investment for the mutual development of economies and would garner a return for the people. Yet, fifty years on and the ASEAN has failed to be a platform for social justice. Nowhere in their talks, or even in the entire ASEAN Summit, were there significant measures brought up to combat poverty, bring about wage increases or bring more social services like education, public housing, health and transportation to the public sphere.

In its wake both the ASEAN talks and the U.S., now represented by Trump endeavour to facilitate globalization, interventionism into the Philippines with neoliberal and corporate interests. Did Duterte sell out the Philippine economy for Trump’s support in the drug war? It seems likely. Duterte, pushing his own agenda of finding an international ally to get behind his drug war, readily clung to Trump, offering economic concessions in exchange. The administration wants to validate its drug war amidst the criticisms and casualties; it sees continued subservience to American interests as the answer. Duterte is now even on board the anti-terror wagon, another excuse to further consolidate his regime’s violent militarism. He even thanked Trump for helping to bomb Marawi, a sharp turn from his anti-U.S. troops stance in Mindanao not so long ago.

Additionally, the ‘great relationship’ will add weight to the series of unfair treaties the Philippines has with the U.S. such as the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). These have trampled on the Philippines' sovereignty by allowing U.S. troops unbridled access to the country, paid for by Filipino taxes. The Philippines must be able to stand on its own two feet if there is any hope of lifting the underprivileged out of poverty.


This union of Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump is precisely what protesters slammed when they endured three days of scuffles with police, breaking through different barriers to get as near as possible to the Philippine International Convention Centre (PICC), where the summit was being held. Both ASEAN and Trump were hounded while the U.S. embassy was also a frequent target of rallies.

Nationwide demonstrations were held, yet the ones in Metro Manila had the most palpable of anti-imperialist sentiments. Renato Reyes Jr., secretary general of Bayan, an alliance of left-wing Philippine organizations said, “we don’t want the Philippines being dragged into the American military conflicts like in the past and now with North Korea. While we have been talking about our disputes with China and even Canada’s agreements with us, it’s important to single out Trump as the main representation of imperialist interests in the Philippines.”

Despite Trump having a high approval rating among Filipinos compared to other countries, the protests registered a distinctively dissenting voice. One that echoed the anti-colonial struggles of old, the Philippines having once been a colony of America and is arguably still one in many aspects. I’m now counting Duterte singing on Trump’s command as one of those aspects. Aside from confirming many of our fears like the drug war, increased military and economic interventionism, this recent meeting between the two has also sown greater doubt and opposition as to how the two president’s policies will unfold.