Against all repression, Spring is coming

June 19, 2024

by Sonny Africa

Reflections for “Rising Reprisals, Raising Resistance,” a dialogue on the Philippines with the United Nations (UN) Independent Expert on the promotion of a democratic and equitable international order George Katrougalos organized by the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL) and Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP).

The undemocratic and inequitable world order cannot make the work of the UN independent expert on international order easy. But then it is immeasurably harder for the billions of people around the world who are on the receiving end of so much international, national and local disorder. Fortunately, there are many who do aspire for more – not just for themselves and their families, but also for their communities, their country and for all the peoples of the world.

The UN expert spoke about fundamental ideas that make the world order – the balance of forces in society, how systems of power set limits, and what it takes for progressive ideas to become a material force. The messenger strengthened the message. Mr. Katrougalos is a professor of public law, widely-published and with extensive practice in international tribunals and advising governments. He has spent time in hubs of power from serving as a member of the Greek and European parliaments and as a foreign minister of Greece aside from other ministerial positions.

Philippine power

The world is ordered and shaped according to systems of power, and hence, of control and domination. The most controlling and dominating thing today is capital and capitalism and their exploitative impulses.

In the Philippines, as in most of the rest of the world, the very few elites who have a grip on power invariably do very well for themselves.

The presidency is the property of the country’s most powerful political dynasties. Perhaps 300-400 political families dominate political life – 90% of our presidents have come from political clans. Today, 80% of governors, 60% of senators, and over half of representatives (51%) and mayors (53%) are from political clans. The spectacle of siblings and spouses or of parents and children simultaneously holding office has become normalized.

The 115-million population can produce better but are stopped from doing so by the strictures and structures of the prevailing electoral system.

Political elites are inextricable from the country’s oligarchs and billionaire elite. It’s no coincidence that the three richest Filipinos are behind and bankroll three of the country’s five biggest political parties. Their three parties control over one-third of the Senate (38% of members), House of Representatives (34% of members) and provinces (34% of governors).

The richest 2% (some 500,000 families) have accumulated Php25 trillion (US$450 billion) in wealth which is as much as the poorest 80% have combined (some 22 million families). There is inequality even among this super-rich – just 3,000 billionaires have Php8.2 trillion (US$147 billion) or one-third of that elite wealth.

These elites in power are particularly backward even by capitalist standards and they are a relentlessly pre-modern non-industrializing rent-seeking elite.

Which is why the majority are chronically left behind by so-called progress. Anywhere from 70-80% of Filipino families must be considered poor and vulnerable. Their numbers keep growing, even as official statistics are kept flawed and incomplete to try and hide this.

This undemocracy and inequality and its attendant oppression and exploitation is of course what spurs so much resistance.

People power

The people’s movement surged during the worst of times – during the brutal Marcos dictatorship in the 1970s and early 1980s which it eventually overthrew.

But it was not just anti-dictatorship. It was also pro-democracy, pro-equity and pro-development. The people’s movement also opposed International Monetary Fund (IMF) stabilization programs, World Bank structural adjustment, and their crushing debt and destructive conditionalities. The peasantry waged battles for land, workers for better wages and working conditions, urban poor for housing and social services, and so much more. The mass movement was at the forefront of articulating and giving real political expression to demands for agrarian reform, national industrialization and social services.

These battles continued in the changed conditions of the neoliberal world order, and continue in the shift from United States (US) imperial hegemony and unipolarity. We all know that it is movements most of all that resist elite power and domination.

The people’s movement built lasting people’s organizations which to this day are the only ones really able to extract any sort of grudging concession from the state, landlords and capitalists.

Even upon the return of elite democracy under the first Aquino government, the country’s mass movements kept growing because things were not getting much better. The battles against systems and structures continued.

Broader diverse social movements were spawned and took up every imaginable development issue – the environment being particularly popular as the existential threat of climate extinction became even more real. Civil society organizations flourished.

But then and now, it’s the radical mass movement which is keenest about the need for fundamental reforms and which is the most resolute, determined and consistent in advocating for real social, economic and political policy changes.

And because of this it’s the mass movement that is the most devoted to the painstaking education, organizing and mobilizing of basic sectors and grassroots communities about the issues that matter most to them. It not only reaches the most people about the possibility of alternatives and a better world, it also builds the real tangible political muscle to make these alternatives real against the resistance of those in power.

Keeping power

This threatens the undemocratic and inequitable national order. And it’s for this that the mass movement has most of all come under fire. Elites fear people’s organizations because they are the seeds and motive force of democratic power and genuinely democratic societies.

The attacks started as early as the restoration of elite democracy under Cory Aquino and has continued through every political permutation and administration since. New heights of political repression were reached under the populist demagoguery of the previous Duterte administration. Repressive laws and legal mechanisms were greatly expanded – such as the draconian Anti-Terrorism Act and the particularly notorious National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

Lawfare expanded many times over astride increased violent attacks on activists and community organizations, and while artillery, airstrikes and bombings razed the countryside. Financial repression and regulations on civil society organizations/non-government organizations (CSOs/NGOs) were a new and tightening noose.

All these continue under the current Marcos Jr administration which has the gall to promote itself as promoting and upholding human rights.

As in so much of the rest of the world where reaction and the Right are on the rise, the government arrogates to itself the prerogative to decide what kind of civil society is and is not acceptable. Those merely providing services quietly to fill up for government neglect, or those subcontracted by the government as it privatizes welfare and social well-being are okay.

But those who dare to question and act to improve democracy and equality are not acceptable – and neither are the services they give. This prejudice against development NGOs only leaves the communities they serve worse off.

There are around 380,000 registered CSOs in the country, of which some 3,000-5,000 are development-oriented NGOs. These are aside from thousands more people’s organizations.

What’s acceptable to the government? The stakeholder chamber of the government’s Sub-Committee on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a microcosm of what the government wants. This chamber has 42 members – 52% are conservative welfare or service-oriented NGOs , 43% are business-aligned NGOs (including those of oligarch corporations and foreign chambers of commerce), and just two (less than 5%) have any track record of advocating for income and asset reforms of any kind.

Because what the government wants is an echo chamber that will just reproduce what already exists in an infinite echo of itself – an undemocratic and inequitable but also oppressive and exploitative domestic order.

This includes resorting to violence. In just the first year-and-a-half of the current Marcos Jr administration, the human rights group Karapatan has already tallied 89 extrajudicial killings, 13 enforced disappearances, and 552 fake or forced surrenders. The number of political prisoners has risen to almost 800. There have also been 1.6 million victims of threats, harassment and intimidation. In the countryside, there are tens of thousands of victims of indiscriminate firing, bombings near communities, and forced evacuation.

The Marcos Jr government is notable for the heightened attention to choking civil society especially development NGOs daring to do more than provide welfare services to fill in vast government gaps.

The civil society network Council for People’s Development and Governance (CPDG) reports that at least 57 development workers and 22 NGOs or networks in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao are being harassed with spurious charges related to terrorism. Fifty-three (53) individuals from 20 organizations are baselessly accused of financing or otherwise supporting terrorism. Another four (4) NGO workers were absurdly charged with attempted murder. Most of these bogus complaints and cases have been during the current administration.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) reports continuing attacks against media practitioners with 109 documented incidents of attacks and threats against journalists since the start of the Marcos Jr administration, including four killings. NUJP also reports 36 incidents of harassment including surveillance, stalking and accosting of journalists.

Taking power

Some issues can be highlighted. Deliberate state or state-sponsored attacks on human rights defenders are growing with impunity – like recently on NGOs and development workers. With so much resources, the government is mobilizing higher technology in greatly asymmetric digital and information warfare.

The human rights abuses of the Marcos Jr administration are vast but covered up by systematic image-building so that the Philippines can perform its critical geostrategic role for the US in its superpower confrontation with China. The “international community” – giving the impression of a global consensus but really just skewed towards the viewpoints and interests of Western liberal democracies – is embracing the Marcos Jr government.  

The Philippines, and the West Philippine Sea in particular, is currently the only part of the world where the vast overseas bases of the US war machine and the fledgling foreign base expansion of China intersect. East Asia and the South China Sea are the literal frontlines of inter-imperialist conflict and the risk of a conflagration at some point in an increasingly volatile future just keeps growing.

Change isn’t easy – the geography of struggles is always uphill. Those struggling for change for the better are always attacked by those in power with age-old accusations of being enemies of the state, being terrorists, and being destabilizers.

The Philippines and Greece share trajectories of revolution, reprisal and resistance, which they also have in common with Chile, so it is fitting to close with something the leftist Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote: “You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming.”

We know this is true because change won’t be stopped, and the world is changing for the better.