Philippines: Alliance and Correctness

2001

Dr Reynaldo C. Ileto

The ‘special relationship’ between the United States and its former colony forms the backdrop of genuine Philippine empathy with the victims of the 11 September attack, some of whom were Filipinos employed at the World Trade Centre. Many middle-class families have established offshoots in the US, which is still the most desirable place to migrate despite progressive restrictions imposed since the 1970s. In this part of the world Filipinos and Australians stand out, perhaps, as having the most intense fraternal sentiments towards their American allies and perceived benefactors. And the governments of both nations have exploited this in aligning their interests with those of the US in the present war against terrorism.

The old, emotional tie with America is being resurrected as the government eyes its potential for resolving internal problems. An abstract war against terrorism is being localised as a war against separatism and criminality -- whether in the name of Islam or not -- in the southern Philippines. It is not only US military aid for this war that is expected to arrive, but other benefits as well, such as much-needed foreign investment and hard cash to shore up the crisis-ridden economy.

We should not arrive at the glib conclusion, however, that official pronouncements and sympathy for innocent victims amount to a deeply felt collaboration in the battle against an evil called ‘terrorism’ that can assume different, even contradictory, meanings. Like many other allies of the basically Anglo-American forces attacking Afghanistan, the Philippines is not blindly aligning itself on the ‘correct’ side of the global crusade.

The Philippines' history -- in contrast to, say, Australia's - places limits on how far Filipinos will go to support the new war. The present generation of leaders at the helm of politics, education, and business did not experience the common struggle against Japan that cemented earlier bonds between the Philippines and the United States. Some were even radical activists in the 1970s who opposed the Marcos regime and its American backers. These mostly middle class Filipinos are products of a nationalist history education that enables them to hook the present onto a deeper, more complex past. This is the backdrop to the unusual attention that local newspapers and internet discussion groups gave in September to an event that took place on the island of Samar almost exactly a hundred years ago.

A surprise attack on 28 September 1901 by nationalist guerrillas on a company of breakfasting American soldiers left 44 of them dead. The Filipino commander Lukban, hailed it ‘an act of God’. The press dubbed it the ‘Balangiga massacre’. The killings of unarmed soldiers so shocked the American public as well as government that their blessing was given, initially at least, to a massive retaliatory campaign conducted by the army not just in Samar but in Luzon as well. From October 1901 to February 1902, army battalions armed with the latest weaponry (including the Colt 45 and the Gatling gun) implemented scorched-earth tactics as they saw fit in their relentless search for the two main guerrilla leaders, Generals Lukban in Samar and Malvar in Batangas. Naming the enemy ‘bandits’ and ‘fanatics’ helped to justify the horrible retaliation for the Balangiga massacre. Filipino casualties amounted to the tens of thousands, mostly civilians.

This is not the place to narrate this history in full. The point is that Philippine alignment with the current Anglo-American war effort is modulated not just by political and economic expediencies, but also by ghosts of the past. The terrorist attack in New York may resonate well with Pearl Harbour and other icons of the American national imaginary. The counter-attack on Afghanistan may thus be a thoroughly appropriate response. But others with a different archive of memories will be bound to read the present in other terms, leading ultimately to partial alignments and even ironic outcomes.

WATCHPOINT: Look beneath surface appearances for broader Philippine reactions to the counter-attack on Afghanistan.

 

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