“US is responsible for at least a quarter of a million conflict deaths in the Philippines while the PRC has accounted for ze…” “Hey, look at that ship over there!”
The U.S. government and the Manila elite are pretty interested in hyping the naval confrontation with the PRC, while going all “bygones” on the bloody, corrupting, ongoing, and (for some elite Filipinos empowering and enriching) U.S. deep penetration of the Philippines’ political and security regimes.
Duterte upsets this script, because his political career has been spent on Mindanao and he’s been exposed to the pointy, crappy end of the U.S. military spear for over a decade.
I wrote about Duterte’s direct, unhappy experience with U.S. milsec shenanigans in the matter of bomb-building US spook Michael Meiring at Asia Times.
I also put up a long piece on China Matters that discussed the fact that Meiring is just one of many old and current skeletons ready to come clattering out of the closet if Duterte diverts the political discourse away from “US and Philippines: Shoulder to Shoulder Against China in the SCS!” to an examination of serial U.S. meddling in the Philippines in the name of security, counterinsurgency, and anti-terror over the last 115 years.
Duterte’s an interesting cat. Nicknamed The Punisher, he’s a horndog, bully, a bruiser, and an enthusiastic vigilante.
The US media seems to have pigeonholed him as “The Philippines’ Donald Trump with Death Squads,” an indication of instinctive unease with a populist political force that doesn’t declare allegiance to the modern liberal playbook—and who condoned death squads in his city.
He’s also a lawyer, albeit one who shot a fellow student and was therefore not allowed to march at his graduation.
Duterte won the presidential election despite the open opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He alleges he was abused by a Jesuit priest at school and has a combative relationship with the Catholic Church, as in “f*ck the Pope” combative.
His local political base is on Mindanao, which is about 20% Muslim. He was mayor of Davao City, whose population of 1.4 million makes it the biggest city on Mindanao and the fourth-largest in the Philippines.
In many ways, Mindanao provides an alternate narrative to the largely Roman Catholic post-colonial Roman Catholic elite that dominates Philippines political discourse.
Spanish subjugation of the Philippines involved forced conversion to Catholicism in a chain of Muslim sultanates that once ran all the way up from the Straits of Malacca to modern Manila.
Mindanao, under the Sultan of Sulu, proved less tractable.
Much less tractable.
I think the struggle to reduce Mindanao, first by the Spanish, then by the Americans, and now by the central government in Manila must rate as the lengthiest insurrection in world history, spanning 400 years. Resistance often included a significant Chinese component. I highly recommend the encyclopedic Wikipedia entry on the Spanish-Moro conflict to interested readers.
With the American victory in 1898, the Philippines became America’s stepping stone to empire (and China; the U.S. presence in the Philippines was seen as a key leverage point for the pivot, excuse me, the “Open Door” policy that would properly integrate China into the family of nations).
And the footprint lay heaviest in Mindanao, which bitterly resisted the United States in the Moro War of 1898-1902 (officially; President Roosevelt declared “Mission Accomplished” in 1902 but unrest and massacre continued well beyond that punctuation point).
Subjugating the Moro was the brutal colonial-racist yin that came with the triumphant yang of superseding Spain as a burgeoning imperial power.
The turn of the 20th Century was the Golden Age of American political cartooning–blatantly racist political cartooning, I might add–and provides a multitude of instructive images of Uncle Sam in the Philippines…
1) as godlike imperator;
2) benevolent savior (here he is rescuing the Philippines from the twin threats of mangy Spanish imperialism and Aguinaldo’s revolution, rather unkindly representing the Europeanized Philippine nationalist as a ravening wolf):
3) benevolent colonial patron (in this picture he’s demonstrating to the rebels in the Philippines the advantages enjoyed by more tractable Cuba);
4) long-suffering colonial (school) master;
And 5) the cockeyed optimist who got more fight (and less gratitude) than he bargained for.
Sometimes, you get it all at once.
Here, Uncle Sam is presented as laboring under the heaviest white man’s burden, the “primitive races”, as Great Britain forges ahead on the path to universal human uplift with the lighter load of colonial subjects of the ancient civilizations. The “uncivilized” character of the Philippines was essential to the U.S. colonial narrative, by the way. It enabled the U.S. to brush aside nascent Philippine national organs and concrete national aspirations in order to justify the unilateral imposition of U.S. rule over a “multi-tribal”congeries of “primitive savages”.
Okay, that’s enough imperial/colonialist/racist bullsh*t.
This whole period of American history merits, I think, its own Foucault to document the queasy, improvised formation of the “modern” consciousness that emerged in the 1890s and 1900s, midwived by technology, mass media, and an effort to process and comfortably pigeonhole the immense horrors people could commit, document,and propagate in the industrial age.
I wrote about this phenomenon in a U.S. domestic context, that of the Guldensuppe case, a rather ordinary crime passionel of 1897 that William Randolph Hearst concocted into a modern sensation, “The Crime of the Century” with the help of steam-powered presses, the bicycle, the telegraph, and the electric chair–and an audience agog at the realization that updates on murder and massacre could be delivered nearly instantaneously into its hands wrapped in the daily paper.
As I wrote at the end of the piece:
Relishing his victory over The World and Joseph Pulitzer in New York City, Hearst quickly moved on to leverage his talents, ambitions, and media assets on a truly global stage.
His chosen sensation: the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898. The objective: war between Spain and the United States.
The outcome: well, the rest is history. Modern history.
And modern war, represented by the first U.S. overseas counterinsurgency operation, against the Moro on Mindanao and other islands of the Philippines’ Islamic South.
The US Army, initially at sea in an Asian land and facing an enemy quite different from the professional, surrender-friendly units it had encountered during the Mexican and Civil Wars, adapted by bringing in the genocidal, total-war tactics practiced against the Native Americans inside the continental U.S. and developing a new set of best practices.
New ways to kill were needed. Famously, tales of Moro warriors not going down even when shot multiple times by .38 rounds occasioned the adoption of heavier rounds (after a grisly episode of testing on human cadavers and in the Chicago stockyards to find what would stop and kill consistently even if the head or heart were not struck) and eventually, development of the Colt .45 semi-automatic as the standard military sidearm.
New ideas about killing also emerged.
The Moro rebellion exploded the traditional U.S. idea of warfare, the roles of soldiers and noncombatants, and what could and should not be done; and a racial/genocidal narrative arose to replace it with invincible and startling speed.
Over at Japan Focus, Paul Kramer has a great piece documenting the birth of what one might term homo Americanus imperialisimus, with flummoxed good ol’ boys evolving into professional genocidaires within weeks of their arrival in “the boondocks”. Kramer, by the way, identifies the evocative wildlands term “boondocks” as the one neologism coined by the war. I think one should also add “running amok” an individual ecumenical murder/suicide spree (which, along with the socially moderated and ritualized martyrdom operation against the U.S. infidels, known as juramentado, appalled and terrified American soldiers) to the list.
The U.S. war in the Philippines flirts with genocide, especially in the wholesale indiscriminant slaughter ordered or condoned by some military commanders.
Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos died during the thirty years it took the U.S. to crush the resistance. One figure goes as high as 1.4 million over the thirty-year duration of the conflict–more than Iraq and Syria combined, at least to date.
In the Philippines, the U.S. media was learning how to report a U.S. imperial action: what to report, how to report it, and what the reader was supposed to feel…
…even as the U.S. Army started to get a grip on the propaganda levers it needed to yank to sell or at least sustain a long, brutal, and not terribly popular overseas war of choice.
The press got involved in one of those new frontier challenges: how the military should go about extracting intelligence from uncooperative detainees.
It turns out that, based on claims of military necessity, by simultaneously stripping detainees of the protections afforded civilian prisoners and military detainees, and through a dose of callous racism, the answer was Torture!
Extracting information became a matter of considerable impatience and few scruples.
Interrogations employed various modes of physical abuse, including an early form of waterboarding called “the water cure”. I’m not up on the distinctions, but current waterboarding appears to be a refinement of the traditional technique. Today, the victim is placed on a slanted board and treated with a relatively limited amount of water to simulate drowning while introducing the same response of uncontrollable panic.
In the Philippines, it appears that the victims were simply laid flat and drowned for real by funneling large quantities of water down their throats. When their stomachs bloated from the water, I believe the boot was applied and the drowning sensation reproduced in reverse. Salt water was sometimes used. (There are even worse ways. The KMT secret police under Dai Li used liquefied feces instead of water).
Wikipedia states the U.S. adopted an ongoing Spanish practice in the Philippines, though it should be said that water torture was practiced inside the U.S earlier in the 19th century and is, apparently, one of those near-universal exercises in creating human misery.
The issue of waterboarding in the Philippines introduced a round of public debate, disquiet, and public wristlapping that will be familiar to students of the Guantanamo issue. An American officer was courtmartialed for waterboarding, given a one-month suspended sentence and a $50 fine.
Correspondents in the Philippines witnessed and reported these novel monstrosities.
Life Magazine depicted a session of the water cure applied to a stone-thrower on the cover of its May 22,1902 issue. Despite the realism of the scene, there seems to be some ethical commentary involved. The approving onlookers appear to be representatives of imperial/colonial militaries through history welcoming the U.S. into the fraternity of abusers.
The practice was also photographed:
I get a sense of undiluted reportage here, a relatively unmediated glimpse of America’s new imperial order, together with a certain voyeuristic bewilderment: are we supposed to show this behavior? condemn it? excuse it? is it good? is it bad? does it work? should I be doing this?
Eventually, of course, the decision was made to “just hide it” rather than give the American public the opportunity to examine and reflect upon the consequences of U.S. imperial adventures. Today, the CIA destroyed the tapes of waterboarding and interrogation at Guantanamo, “lost” the CIA Inspector General’s copy of the Senate torture report, and the US government has gone to court to block photos of ill treatment, abuse, and perhaps torture committed at the Abu Grahib detention facility in Iraq.
But back the 1900s, the Philippine “water cure” had entered the discourse to the extent that a left-wing cartoonist depicted the torture to mock Theodore Roosevelt for torturing the United States into a renunciation of the ideals of the Declaration of Independence in favor of imperialism (symbolized by the “Imps” assisting him. Identifying the imps would be an interesting parlor game. I think the imp in the lower left sitting on Uncle Sam’s arm is Chauncey Depew, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s attorney, president of the New York Central, and Senator from New York; Nelson Aldrich (Nelson Rockefeller’s grandpappy), sitting on the right leg; and maybe Henry Cabot Lodge leaning on the “Roosevelt Platform”.).
Note in the upper right corner the American flag has been replaced by a banner declaring “Slavery & Polygamy Protected by Sultan of Sulu Per Roosevelt”.
In 1898, the Sultan of Sulu had been commanded to support the U.S. takeover of the Philippines per the instruction of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul thanks to the diplomatic efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Hay, thereby making the U.S., in the eyes of the cartoonist, a partner in the sultan’s unchristian and undemocratic decadence.
Disquiet about the lengthy, brutal, and distant war entered into media and public attitudes.
One of the most infamous massacres was the so-called “First Battle of Bud Dajo” , better known as the “Moro Crater Massacre” in 1906. US forces pursuing Moro miscreants on Sulu Island cornered them in a community that had sheltered in the crater of the long-dormant Bud Dajo volcano, pulled Navy guns and a machine gun up to the lip of the crater, and blasted away, killing 800 to 1000 men, women, and children. Reportedly only six Moro survived. Fifteen American soldiers died.
The governor of the Moro Province, Major General Leonard Wood, tweeted the battle (actually, sent out a stream of cable dispatches celebrating the operation and the valor of his troops). However, the massacre was also extensively reported by a press corps that was insufficiently house-trained (“embedded” is the correct term, I guess) and excessively ambivalent about the war effort, especially since President Roosevelt had declared an end to the war four years earlier.
Despite excuses that will appear familiar to connoisseurs of military buckpassing today–Moro fighters were disguised as women, collateral damage resulted from men using women and children as human shields, and so on–the massacre was a public relations disaster for the Army.
Mark Twain was incensed at the massacre and wrote an interesting account of how the reports of the battle played out in the papers in the United States. Equally interestingly, he apparently shrank from publishing this account before his death (it was suppressed until it recently appeared in his posthumously published Autobiography), even though he had published a jeremiad against King Leopold’s crimes in the Congo the previous year.
Perhaps the one lasting consequence of the massacre in the U.S. was that it shadowed Wood’s subsequent career and is one reason why, despite the aggressive support of his patron, Theodore Roosevelt, we didn’t get President Leonard Wood.
Although the Moro Wars were considered over by 1913, continual unrest plagued the region through the US colonial period, the Japanese occupation, and independence.
Then, in 1969, dozens of Moro soldiers in the Armed Forces of the Philippines were killed at a base on Corregidor in the Jabidah Massacre, an incident that has been successfully hushed up to the point nobody knows what happened.
But the best guess is that problems arose with a group of ethnic-Moro soldiers organized by the Philippine government to try and detach Sabah Province in Malaysia (a part of the Sultan of Sulu’s domain that had ended up under Malaysian rule at decolonization) for incorporation in the Philippines.
If truth be told, Mindanao looks more like Malaysia than the Philippines, especially the Malaysian province of Sabah across the strait. “Bangsamoro”, the term used by Muslim autonomy/independence advocates, means “Moro people”. “Bangsa” is a Malay term.
In fact, there’s always a “Malaysia annex Mindanao” “Philippines annex Sabah” “Independence for Mindanao/Sabah” buzz going on, though the current Philippine government has apparently set its Sabah ambitions aside.
Even the Sultanate of Sulu is trying for a comeback:
Nobody was prosecuted, no explanations were made, and the Philippine/Christian brutality and impunity toward Moro Muslims exhibited by the Jabidah Massacre is acknowledged as a key factor in the emergence of the modern Moro insurgency.
Interestingly, “Moro” is a synthetic ethnicity of relatively recent vintage.
When the Spanish set up their colony in the Philippines, they gave the name Moor to their opponents who resisted conversion to Catholicism, not because they were dusky but because they were Muslim, like the North African Arabs the Spanish armies had just defeated on the Iberian peninsula.
Here’s a map showing the distribution of Muslim peoples in Mindanao about the time the U.S. took over in 1900.
“Moro” appears to be one of the modern ethnic identities that is evoked and strengthened by government oppression of stateless polities in a dynamic similar to that of the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Balochs, and the Kurds.
Another key factor, though one that doesn’t seem to get bruited about very much, was the support of Muammar Gaddafi for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
With that context, let’s take another look at Rodrigo Duterte.
Duterte is not native to Mindanao. His family comes from a central Philippine island group, the Visayan Islands. Christians from Visayan Islands and other regions were settled in Mindanao by the U.S. and Philippine governments as part of a strategy to demographically submerge the Moro, distribute prime land and resources to settlers and corporations, and economically and politically marginalize the Moro and criminalize their resistance in a manner that will be familiar to observers of tactics in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Palestine.
It appears to have been successful to the point that Moros are perhaps 17% of the population of Mindanao today, down from 90% in 1900.
A 2015 news article/puff piece provides a useful perspective on Dutarte and his attention to the Mindanao/security issue beyond the usual “murderous buffoon” framing. I’m quoting it at great length because I don’t think you’ll see a lot of this perspective in the Western press:
As the leader of a city which had its painful share of violence and terrorism believed perpetrated by Islamic extremists where 45 people were killed in three bombing incidents in 1993 and 2003, Davao City Mayor Rody Duterte still remains hopeful that a negotiated settlement would end the conflict in the Southern Philippines which has dragged on for generations.
“If there is anybody who wishes that this bloody problem would end soon, it is I because I am both Moro and Christian,” Duterte said.
“I feel the fear of the Christians and share the dreams of the Moro people who feel that they have been dispossessed of their land and identity,” the City Mayor said.
Duterte admits publicly for the first time that his maternal grandmother had a Moro lineage.
“There is a part of me which is Moro,” he said.
Duterte’s ties with the Muslims of the South were made even stronger because his eldest son, Paolo who is now Vice Mayor of the City, embraced Islam when he married a Muslim Tausug girl.
“I have grandchildren who are either Muslim or Christian. Would I want to see a situation in the future where even my own grandchildren would be dragged into this conflict?,” he asked.
Following the bombings, the national government approved the city’s recommendation to organize Task Force Davao, a military composite group which established check points all over the city to control the entry of bombs and guns.
When Duterte ordered that the City will no longer allow the entry of powerful firearms usually brought in by bodyguards of politicians mostly Muslims from the Cotabato and Maguindanao provinces, everybody followed.
“This city is open to everybody regardless of tribe or religion for as long as you abide by the law,” Duterte once declared when the issue of the presence in the city of members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was raised.
MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari has a wife who lives in Davao City.
Top ranking officials of the MILF are also believed to have homes in Davao City where their children live while studying in colleges and universities in the city.
Davao has thus become a model “peace city” today where members of warring groups – the Moro rebels, the New People’s Army (NPA), policemen and soldiers – live and abide by the strict rules of the city under the leadership of Rody Duterte.
It was also chosen as one of the Safest Cities in the World to Live In.
Muslim businessmen, mostly Maranaos, swear that they are never harassed in Davao City while selling their wares, unlike elsewhere in the country where they are the favorite prey of corrupt policemen who mulct them of their little earnings.
But Duterte’s dream of peace transcends the boundaries of his city.
“For as long as the misunderstanding between government and the Moro groups continue, we will always be unstable,” he said.
Duterte is aware that the problem is not simple.
He says the Moro people are largely misunderstood because they embrace a religion which is not known to many Filipinos in other parts of the country.
Feeling that they do not belong to the mainly Christian Filipino society and that they were never given much importance by the Central Government in its national policy formulation and decision making, the Muslims of the South have always struggled for independence and self determination.
“The danger here is that unless these legitimate issues are addressed, there is the grim scenario of the younger Moros gravitating towards radical Islamic organizations,” Duterte said.
“I will be the last person who will agree to the dismemberment of this nation,” he once declared.
Duterte maintains that while he understands the resentment of the Bangsamoro to being called Filipinos based on the belief that it is a Spanish imposed name, he believes that Christians and Muslims in this country belong to one race.
“We can call ourselves by any other name but the fact that we are brothers will always remain,” he said.
He said that while the Philippine peace negotiators have the noble intention of forging peace with the MILF in the Southern Philippines, they failed to consider some cultural realities involving the Moro tribes of the South.
“The Moros of the islands are distinct culturally from the Maguindanaos, Maranaos and Iranuns of mainland Mindanao. Offering a generic solution to their peculiar problems and concerns may not work at all,” Duterte explained.
The Tausugs will never be comfortable being under the leadership of the Maguindanaos or Maranaos, a situation which is also true inversely, Duterte explained adding that this could be the reason behind the failure of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) which was first headed by Misuari.
Duterte also said that while he hopes that the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) will pass Congress, his lawyer’s instincts tell him that the measure will be questioned before the Supreme Court because of some Constitutional infirmities.
It will be difficult to reconcile a parliamentary autonomous government with a Presidential central government, he said.
Duterte, a San Beda law graduate, said there must be a back up plan should the BBL fail to pass the Constitutionality test.
“We cannot afford to fail here,” adding that Federalism and a two Federal States set up for the South could prove to be the best solutions.
A Federal Parliamentary form of government in the Philippines would not only serve the interests of the neglected regions of the country but also accommodate the desires of the Bangsamoro of the South.
A Federal State for the Maguindanaos, Maranaos, Iranuns and other Moro tribes of the main island and another Federal State for the Tausugs, Sama, Yakan and other island tribes could address the cultural issues.
Duterte said that what happened in the past could not be undone but that there is a need for national reconciliation.
“All that we could do to our Muslim brothers and sisters now is to give them what is due them which includes respecting their unique identity and respecting their claim to what is rightfully theirs,’ he said.
Concerning the Moro disdain for the term “Filipino”, I have to say I did find it odd that an Asian nation decided to keep King Philip II of Spain as its namesake, but I guess naming America after some Italian sailor is just as weird.
All in all, a thoughtful perspective on coexistence and reconciliation in a difficult and complicated neighborhood–made more difficult and complicated by a century of massacre and meddling by the US and Manila– that Duterte has been governing for a couple decades with considerable success.
How ’bout that.
Having said that, I would not take that “Safest City in the World” designation to the bank. Apparently an on-line poll was successfully freep’d with 800 responses.
By now, it should be clear that there’s more to the Philippines than Manila, more to its politics and society than upper class Catholicism, and more to its security concerns than partnering with the United States to push back against the PRC in the South China Sea.
There’s Mindanao, there’s Moros, there’s separatism, there’s issues of justice that have been papered over by the Manila establishment to present a neat neo-liberal narrative that complements the US pivot to Asia.
And there’s Duterte.