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Trapped in the 17th century

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Luis V. Teodoro

Vantage Point

Trapped in the 17th century

It’s been two years and three months into the six-year term of the provincial despotism that became a national affliction in 2016 by promising to deliver the changes that have long eluded the Filipino people. It should be evident by now that it is at the very least underperforming — or at the worst, rapidly bringing the entire country to ruin.

The inflation rate was at a nine-year high of 6.4% last August, but is likely to go further up as fuel and food prices surge to unprecedentedly higher levels.

There’s also a rice crisis the Duterte regime has denied responsibility for, and blamed instead on its former National Food Authority (NFA) administrator.

The Philippine peso is declining in value and has become the weakest currency in Southeast Asia. Philippine unemployment is the worst in the region at 9.1%, or 4.1 million of the labor force, while the underemployed, according to Ibon Databank, is at 6.9 million, which add up to 11.1 million unemployed and underemployed.




“The economy,” notes Ibon, “is in a precarious situation of high inflation, high unemployment, slowing growth, rising interest rates, swelling trade deficits, a failing peso, and stagnation of agriculture and Filipino industry.”

But rather than address these and other problems, the regime has instead focused on silencing critics and encouraging a level of human rights violations unprecedented since the Marcos martial law regime, even as it manufactures various excuses for the nationwide imposition of martial law such as its “Red October” tale of a leftist-rightist conspiracy reminiscent of one of Marcos’s own deceptions in 1972.

Despite the continuing killing of suspected drug addicts and petty traders, the number of which human rights groups have pegged at over 20,000 so far, the campaign to rid the country of illegal drugs that was a major plank of the Duterte campaign platform in 2016 is foundering on the rocks of government corruption and selective application.

While small-time suspected drug pushers are summarily killed, the big- time drug lords and smugglers continue to dump their products into the Philippines. At least two huge drug shipments are unaccounted for, and their existence even dismissed by President Rodrigo Duterte as mere rumors. What amounts to a war against the poor has also left in its wake thousands of widows and orphans. As the murder of breadwinners continues, a humanitarian crisis is developing and adding to the poverty and desperate straits that already afflict millions.

Meanwhile, the promise to forge an independent foreign policy has resulted in imperialist China’s unchallenged dominance over the West Philippine Sea. China’s occupation of the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone is going on without the country being any less dependent on US economic and military aid, in the context of which the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) are still in force.

By all the rules of logic and common sense, the Duterte satisfaction rating should be plummeting. It did fall in the second quarter this year because of the surge in the prices of prime commodities. But it has recovered in the third, according to survey group Social Weather Stations (SWS).

Although his rating dropped from +65 last June to +41 among the well-off classes and from +52 to +45 among the poorest Filipinos, increases in his rating from, among other sources, the middle class and Luzon, have offset them. From the +45 “good” rating he received last June, Mr. Duterte received a +54 “very good” rating in the Sept. 15 to 23 SWS survey.

False and misleading reports rather than lack of information about what’s happening help explain this increase in his satisfaction rating despite his regime’s only too obvious failings. The orchestrated efforts of online trolls and the government propaganda machine’s liberties with the facts are reaping dividends for the regime in terms of continuing public approval.

But there are even more fundamental reasons, among them the regime’s success in controlling the public mind through the dominance in the public sphere where opinions are shaped of Mr. Duterte’s profanity-laced narratives on the drug problem, the terrorist threat, the supposed conspiracy to oust him from office, human rights, extrajudicial killings, and the International Criminal Court among others.

What this suggests is far from flattering to Filipino political culture. The country’s heroes — Dr. Jose Rizal, the lawyer Apolinario Mabini, the law student Emilio Jacinto, the worker Andres Bonifacio — were all children of the Enlightenment, and passionate in their commitment to liberty, equality, human rights and the rule of reason.

But most of those who pay lip service to these exemplars’ contributions to the Filipino nation eagerly approve of such false, simplistic solutions to complex problems as the execution, without due process and the presumption of innocence, of alleged wrongdoers. They buy into the absurdity that human rights don’t matter to human lives, and cheer regime attacks against critics, protesters and the free press despite Constitutional protection. They laugh at Mr. Duterte’s jokes about rape and extrajudicial killings; they applaud his religious bigotry and his disdain for criticism and dissent.

The rest of the planet is in the 21st century, but like their idol, they’re trapped in the 17th — in the pre-Enlightenment age when absolute rulers had the power of life or death and women were chattel. For them it’s as if the reform and revolutionary periods of Philippine history never happened.

Unlike the calculating and self-aggrandizing presidents the country has been plagued with, Mr. Duterte is in contrast also perceived by many as a straight-talking leader whose profanities are indicative of his earnestness rather than of a troubled mind. Other presidents at home in Filipino and with at least some familiarity with the English language are perceived as too cerebral and therefore unsympathetic to the many.

Mr. Duterte’s incoherence, bumbling ways and makeshift approach to governance feed into the anti-intellectual bent of those from whose lips so often fall what they think is the supreme insult: masyadong marunong (too intelligent), which they throw at protesting students and anyone else who dares criticize regime policies or who fact-check its claims. But there is also the culture of low expectations summed up in the expression puwede na (it will do), which is the very opposite of excellence as a political and governance value.

It is these characteristics of Filipino political culture that have been as instrumental as deceit in keeping in power the dynasties that have managed to make themselves look like true servants of the people rather than their masters. Mr. Duterte and his equally clueless bureaucrats are “satisfactory” because they are not “masyadong marunong” and what they’re doing is “puwede na.”

Rather than high expectations, logic or common sense, what fundamentally account for the regime’s satisfaction rating are most Filipinos’ limited demands on government and their supposed leaders, and the continuing reign of ignorance and unreason in this benighted land.

Rizal argued more than a century ago that against unreason only the power of education can prevail. Unfortunately, among those institutions that are charged with the responsibility of public enlightenment, both the educational system and much of the media are failing in that task, and as a consequence are once again putting this country of lost hopes in the same perils as those that almost destroyed it in 1972.

 

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro). The views expressed in Vantage Point are his own and do not represent the views of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.

www.luisteodoro.com