By Adele Webb
09 September 2016
At a press conference at Davao
International Airport on Monday, on his way to meet US President Barack Obama
and other leaders attending the ASEAN summit, Mr Duterte muttered a few short
words in tagalog at the end of a lengthy and irritated reply to a local
journalist. With those words, he again made international headlines.
If that were all there was to it, we could
rightly roll our eyes and move on. After all, Mr Duterte's language is vulgar;
his slander of people and groups is liable to incite violence; and his
determination to kill drug pushers (to fight "crime with crime") an
abuse of power. He should not be defended for any of this.
But as someone who has spent a long time
studying US-Philippine relations, I think there's something more for us to see
And if we want to judge the Philippine
President (and, by default, the nation for electing him) from high moral
ground, I think we have a responsibility to pay attention to it.
PHOTO: School Begins: Uncle Sam lectures his class in Civilisation. The
pupils are labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Cuba. (Supplied: Puck
Restoring an Invisible History
Who is he to question me about human
rights and extrajudicial killings?
So asked Mr Duterte on Monday. It's
actually a very good question, and one long overdue from a Philippine
president. The extent to which the violence of US relations with the
Philippines has been made invisible by a history written predominantly by
Americans themselves cannot be overstated.
It began with a three-year war (1899-1902)
that most Americans have never heard of. The war overthrew a newly independent
Philippine republic and cost between 250,000 and a million Filipino lives —
only to be called "a great misunderstanding" by American colonial
After all, the US had chosen the
Philippines to be its great Asian "showcase of democracy". The
invasion was a benevolent act.
Hence the complete erasure of acts of
American violence from the Philippine national story.
You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist
to smell something rotten. Since the 1950s Philippine writers, academics,
journalists and so on have been trying to reframe the historical narrative to
point out this fact: to be invaded by a military power, told you don't possess
the character or capability for self-government, and then controlled by another
nation for four decades, to the occupier's lucrative commercial benefit, was
not to be the recipient of a benevolent act.
Even at the time the war was taking place,
one of America's best-loved authors was writing just as much. Mark Twain was
prolific in writing about the paradox of the "democratising mission"
to the Philippines.
Penned in 1901, but still stunningly
poignant, is this extract from his essay, To the Person Sitting in Darkness:
The Person Sitting in Darkness is almost
sure to say: 'There is something curious about this — curious and
unaccountable. 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.'
In America, these remain Mr Twain's
Before his (now regretted) distasteful
remark, Mr Duterte had much to say in response to the question about being
confronted over human rights in an upcoming meeting with Mr Obama.
He was responding to murmurs from critics
that, if he wouldn't listen to anyone else about the extrajudicial killings in
the Philippines, just wait until he meets the US President.
No-one seems to have listened to or cared
much about the other six minutes of Mr Duterte's reply. So let me tell you
something about it.
It was a reclaiming of the historical
narrative of Philippine-US relations, a holding up to the US of the hidden
"looking glass" Mark Twain had written about 100 years earlier.
An Assertion of Independence
Calling out the hidden insinuations, as Mr
Duterte did, that the US continues to have authority over the politics of the
Philippines, is bold and brazen, but reasonable. Consider his statement:
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
These words are less evidence of his
demagoguery or an intention to personally disparage Mr Obama than a reference
to history, and are more accurately read as such.
After World War II, colonies of any sort,
even the so-called "democratic" US one in the Philippines, were on
the nose. But this didn't stop Washington officialdom from continuing to claim
the right of access to the Philippines' political and economic realms.
When the US finally granted the Philippines
its (second) independence in 1946, it required the new republic to amend its
constitution so a bill could be passed that, as well as legislating
preferential trade conditions for the US, would grant American citizens equal
rights with Filipinos to Philippine natural resources. It was the beginning of
a new phase: neo-colonialism.
It was not just a matter of political
interference and the power to make or break Philippine presidents with
endorsement and strategic financial support. In a visceral sense, the nation
was always being watched and judged by its democratic "teacher".
Asked about being confronted with human
rights concerns by Mr Obama, Mr Duterte said:
You must be kidding. Who is he to confront
me? America has one too many to answer for the misdeeds in this 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 ... Can I
explain the extrajudicial killing? Can they explain the 600,000 Moro massacred
in this island [Mindanao]? Do you want to see the pictures? Maybe you ask him.
And make it public.
I'm reminded of a comment by Alicia Garza,
a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement ignited by police killings of
black Americans. Speaking in Sydney last weekend at the Festival of Dangerous
Ideas, she related how, when civil rights protests get uncomfortably heated,
she is often asked: "Why are they so angry?"
She paused. Then softly giggled, giving the
audience time for the ludicrousness of the question to sink in.
Duterte Shocks with Trash Talk
Rodrigo Duterte hypnotised his fans and
outraged critics throughout an explosive election campaign.
Why is the Philippine President so angry
about the prospect of the US President confronting him about human rights
As Mr Duterte said himself on Monday,
violent acts of the past don't stay in the past. They get passed on from
generation to generation, especially when the injustice goes unacknowledged and
It is difficult to stomach Mr Duterte's
style. It certainly is difficult to look past the serious issues raised by his
administration's "war on drugs". We should condemn his misuse of
But if we condemn the president for his
recent remarks because we claim to be concerned about the rights of Filipinos
while showing no interest in acknowledging the past crimes and injustices
against the Philippines, we fall into our own sort of hypocrisy.
Let's be honest, if Mr Duterte didn't curse
and swear and offend our sensibilities, would we be paying so much attention to
For once, I heard a Philippine president
holding the US to account for all its doublespeak and hypocrisy in
US-Philippine relations. And I couldn't help but appreciate that.
Adele Webb is a PhD researcher in the Department of Government and
International Relations, Sydney Democracy Network, at the University of Sydney.