In the Philippines, a Youth Movement Stands Between Duterte and Dictatorship

In the Philippines, a Youth Movement Stands Between Duterte and Dictatorship

In the Philippines, a Youth Movement Stands Between Duterte and Dictatorship

Duterte will take control of Congress, but his quest for more power must be stopped.


Politicians aligned with President Rodrigo Duterte took all 12 of the Senate seats up for grabs in May’s midterm elections in the Philippines. Now the president known as “the Punisher” will have full control of Congress for the first time since he came to power in 2016.

Duterte’s violent, macho-fascist populism appears to have been consolidated and reaffirmed by the Philippine electorate. Not a single candidate running on the opposition slate made it into the “Magic 12.” With control of Congress, the road will be cleared for Duterte and his cronies to alter the Constitution to allow him to stay in office indefinitely and enact martial law across the nation.

To block that threat, a democratic mass movement, spearheaded by Filipino youths, is organizing. This campaign believes that it is the most powerful force left that stands between Duterte and a dictatorship.

When he ran for president, Duterte said his administration would be “bloody,” and he’s followed through with that grisly promise. As part of his war on drugs, police have gunned down thousands of Filipinos in the streets. Now in a bid to further institutionalize state violence, the administration pledges to reinstate the death penalty, as well as lower the age threshold for criminal prosecution.

In the months leading up to the elections, Duterte had some of his highest presidential approval ratings. Prominent figures like the journalist Maria Ressa, a founder of the news site Rappler, have voiced suspicions that these surveys are designed to reproduce the state’s political message. Others on the left argue that support for Duterte is real, but that it’s symptomatic not of enthusiasm for Duterte but of deeper indignation toward a political system perceived as corrupt.

“Back home, I remember always hearing my provincial relatives post-election…. ‘All of them are corrupt, let’s just choose the one that did the most with what he stole,’” Jhong Delacruz, the secretary general of Migrante Youth, wrote in the Manila Mail. “This is how rotten, moribund, and despicable the current system is, that corruption is considered commonplace, accepted as part and parcel, an unchangeable reality.”

In his 2016 presidential run, Duterte capitalized on Filipinos’ frustrations with the establishment regime for its decades-long failure to address corruption and crushing poverty. He promised not only to get tough on crime but also to purge the government of officials who were accused of embezzling public resources. By the end of 2018, he had sacked over 30 high-ranking appointees from the state’s interior departments. But he filled this power vacuum in the civilian bureaucracy by militarizing it, stacking his cabinet with former police and military officials. In May, Bato dela Rosa, a former chief of the national police and one of the main architects of the war on drugs, was elected to the Senate.

Just days after the elections, Vinz Simon, a 24-year-old youth organizer in Metro Manila, said the political crisis in the Philippines has reached a critical mass. “There’s no denying that Duterte and his government need to be kicked out of office,” Simon said. “They’ve done so much damage to the Philippines. The drug war alone has cost 30,000 innocent lives, and a lot of them are kids, students. We have drug-war victims as young as 4 years old.”

He is the education officer and international liaison for Anakbayan, a militant youth organization that draws its membership from across the class spectrum and has branches across the diaspora. Anakbayan, which means Sons and Daughters of the People, takes its name from an underground organization that led the rebellion against Spain in 1896. This reporter is a member of Anakbayan New York.

In gathering the force necessary to push out the Duterte regime, Anakbayan abides mainly by the principle of mass work—flying beneath the radar of institutional power and going directly into the communities most affected by Duterte’s policies to hold forums, alternative classes, and discussions about the causes of the crisis in the Philippines. It aims to recruit and mobilize the people toward collective mass action.

Anakbayan’s agenda extends far beyond a call for Duterte’s ouster. Ultimately, Anakbayan calls for national democracy, which “rests on the analysis that the Philippines is not completely free of foreign subjugation,” Simon said. “We see foreign powers such as the United States and its allies as imperialist powers that drive our politics, our economy, and our culture.”

Duterte’s dramatic call for the separation of the Philippines from its longtime military alliance with the United States was another hallmark of his 2016 campaign. For decades, the Philippines has functioned as a secondary theater of the US war on terrorism. In coordination with the Armed Forces of the Philippines, the United States has sought to clamp down on Muslim insurgency in Mindanao, the southernmost region of the Philippines and home to the majority of the nation’s Muslim population.

Despite Duterte’s calls for separation, US military assistance in the form of funding, training, and resources for Operation: Pacific Eagle—the official name for the war on terrorism in the Philippines—only increases every year.

Martial law has been in effect in Mindanao since 2017, and Duterte has extended the license for military control of Mindanao three times. Its most recent extension will last through the end of 2019. Anakbayan is harshly critical of this not only because Mindanaoans have been struggling for self-determination since the US military subjugated the resource-rich island after acquiring the Philippines from Spain in 1898 but also because of the dangerous precedent it sets.

For years, Duterte and his allies have been trying to consolidate military control of the entire country by amending the Constitution to remove term limits and make it easier to declare martial law. Until now, the Senate has been the only part of the government standing in the way.

Various past administrations attempted to pass versions of charter change. It has become such a common feature of Philippine politics that Filipinos have developed a nickname for it: Cha Cha. But importantly, mass resistance to Cha Cha is as common a feature as politicians’ calls for it. Faced with the threat of widespread civil unrest, politicians have never been able to follow through with it.

“Cha Cha has always been popular for government officials. It’s always the congressmen, the senators—they’ve always supported Cha Cha. However, it’s always stopped in its tracks,” said Neri Colmenares, an opposition Senate candidate. “The one to stop the Cha Cha is the voice of the Filipino people. With Cha Cha, we’ve always managed to organize. So it’s not really a hopeless situation. We’ve always defeated Cha Cha before.”

Youths have long functioned as an important check on the excesses of power in the Philippines. Student organizers were integral to the groundswell against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos that led to his ouster in 1986.

Anakbayan’s formation in 1998 was precipitated on college campuses by President Joseph Estrada’s extreme tuition hikes and cuts to education funding. It launched a wave of student strikes across the country. With time, the students’ discontent became articulated to a broader coalition of mass resistance that grew enough to effect Estrada’s ouster for rampant corruption in 2001.

Simon said that “a mass movement reminiscent of the ones which challenged and eventually toppled the Marcos and Estrada regimes” will be necessary to bring down the Duterte administration. But this will be no easy feat, given the culture of violence and punitiveness that the president has engendered against Filipino youths and youth activists.

One of Duterte’s major legislative priorities is lowering the age of criminal responsibility from its current minimum of 15. Multiple versions of the bill have been submitted to Congress since 2016. Its earliest iteration sought to legalize the criminal prosecution of children as young as 9 years old.

“Duterte and his government’s reason for wanting to lower the age of criminal responsibility is to supposedly discourage drug syndicates from using kids as drug mules, drug couriers, drug peddlers,” Simon said. “But the way we see it is simple: With the lowering of the age of criminal responsibility, it would be easier for [the state] to call a kid a drug addict or drug pusher and imprison him or her. And similarly, it would also be easier to label a kid as a rebel, as a terrorist, and put them away.”

After an uproar from opposition groups, the bill was amended, changing the proposed minimum age from 9 to 12. The bill passed in the House of Representatives in late January, but stalled in the Senate. Now that Duterte will have the majority of Senate seats in his corner, the law is expected to pass.

“The defenders of [this law] talk about kids not being sent into prison but instead being sent into rehabilitation centers. But we have taken a look at those rehabilitation centers, and they look like and function, in essence, like prisons. So basically, it legalizes state violence on kids,” Simon said.

This summer, the Philippines will have its annual State of the Nation addresses. There are always two: In late July, the president will stand at the Batasang Pambansa Complex to give his address, and at the same time the people will flood into the streets to give theirs. The president will testify that the republic is alive and well, and thousands of Filipinos will clog the main arteries of Metro Manila to show the true state of things.

This is known as the People’s State of the Nation Address, or PSONA, a mass demonstration designed to challenge the official state narrative about conditions in the Philippines. The crowds at PSONA have swelled to the tens of thousands since Duterte took office.

Simon will be there, and he said he suspects that the crowd will be the biggest yet. “A day or two after the elections, Anakbayan had a lot of recruits coming in. Joining up, signing up, a lot of folks showing up at protests. Young people, the youth especially, they’ve been really riled up, and they’ve been really disappointed with how the elections came out. There were a lot of promising candidates in the opposition slate. There were labor-union leaders, human-rights lawyers, but none of them made it. And that angers a lot of young folks in the Philippines—which has pushed them to see the reality: Unless we show up in full force, we don’t stand a chance,” he said.

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