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He may have insulted Obama, but Duterte held up a long-hidden looking glass to the US
9 septembre 2016, 02:14 CEST

Adele Webb

Insulting Barack Obama made the headlines, but Rodrigo Dutertes remarks referred to a long and dark history of US interference in the Philippines. Narendra Shresthma, Mast Irham/EPA

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims
to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has taken his bad manners having gained global notoriety with his election
campaign insults earlier this year to a new level.
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, 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.

What did Rodrigo Duterte call Barack Obama?

If that were all there was to it, we could rightly roll our eyes and move on. After all, Dutertes 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 theres something more for us to
see here. 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.

Restoring an invisible history


Who is he to question me about human rights and extrajudicial killings?
So asked Duterte on Monday. Its 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 writers.
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.

The 20th Kansas Volunteers march through Caloocan after the battle of February 10, 1899, early in the war that toppled the first Philippine republic. G.W. Peters/Internet Archive

You dont 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 dont possess the character or capability for self-government, and then controlled by another
nation for four decades, to the occupiers lucrative commercial benefit, was not to be the recipient of a benevolent act.
Even at the time the war was taking place, one of Americas 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-captives 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 Twains least-known works.
Before his (now regretted) distasteful remark, Duterte had much to say in response to the question about being
confronted over human rights in an upcoming meeting with Obama. He was responding to murmurs from critics that,
if he wouldnt 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 ofDutertes 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.

The Macabebe Scouts were a native Filipino force of the US Army during the SpanishAmerican War. The Ardvaark/Wikipedia Commons

An assertion of independence
Calling out the hidden insinuations, as 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 people.
These words are less evidence of his demagoguery or an intention to personally disparage Obama than a reference to
history, and are more accurately read as such.
After the second world war, colonies of any sort, even the so-called democratic US one in the Philippines, were on
the nose. But this didnt 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:
neocolonialism.
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.

School Begins: Uncle Sam lectures his class in Civilisation (the pupils are labelled Philippines, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and Cuba). Puck Magazine 1899

Asked about being confronted with human rights concerns by Obama, 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.
Im reminded of a comment by Alicia Garza, a founder of theBlack 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.
Why is the Philippines president so angry about the prospect of the US president confronting him about human rights
abuses? History. As Duterte said himself on Monday, violent acts of the past dont stay in the past. They get passed on
from generation to generation, especially when the injustice goes unacknowledged and unaddressed.
It is difficult to stomach Dutertes style. It certainly is difficult to look past the serious issues raised by his
administrations war on drugs. We should condemn his misuse of power.
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.
Lets be honest, if Duterte didnt curse and swear and offend our sensibilities, would we be paying so much attention to
the Philippines? For once, I heard a Philippine president holding the US to account for all its doublespeak and
hypocrisy in US-Philippine relations. And I couldnt help but appreciate that.

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