CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – Rodrigo Duterte ran for president in 2016 with a promise to correct what he called historical injustices, especially in Mindanao. But his six-year presidency ended up repeating and creating more than what he vowed to correct.
The closest to a correction would be the December 2018 repatriation of the three historic Balangiga bells taken by American troops in 1901 as war trophies from Eastern Samar in the Visayas.
The colonizers seized the church bells, rung to signal the Filipino offensive on US troops in Balangiga, on September 28, 1901, after reprisals that resulted in the most widespread killings of civilians during the Philippine-American War.
It is estimated that no less than 2,000 people or much more, including boys old enough to bear arms, were killed in the indiscriminate retaliatory attacks aimed at turning Samar into a “howling wilderness.”
The reprisals came on orders from Jacob H. Smith, a ruthless American general who gained notoriety because of what he had done. He was called “Howling Jake” for that.
Symbolic at most
In his 2017 State of the Nation Address (SONA), Duterte was greeted with cheers when he told the US government: “Give us back those Balangiga bells. They are ours. They belong to the Philippines. They are part of our national heritage. Isauli naman ninyo. Masakit ‘yan sa amin. (Please send it back. That pains us.)”
The US government did just that by the end of 2018, 117 years after these were taken as war trophies.
“Any stolen thing returned to the rightful owner is good for both parties – victim and thief. The act of the thief to return the goods, perhaps, is more significant, especially if voluntary,” said Dr. Anselmo Mercado, a former director of the Cagayan de Oro-based Southeast Asia Rural Social Leadership Institute (Searsolin).
But the value of the repatriated bells was symbolic at most, he said.
As for Duterte, “he has never done any significant and positive ‘historical change,’” Mercado opined.
Beyond the symbolism that the three Franciscan campanas colgantes carry with them, and what their return meant to national heritage and pride, there is hardly a list of historical injustices the Duterte administration single-handedly corrected.
More than a century later, US forces are still very much present and allowed to set up their facilities in certain areas under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) despite Duterte’s anti-American rhetoric.
Dr. Chona Echavez, director of the Research Institute for Mindanao Culture (Rimcu) at Xavier University-Ateneo de Cagayan, said the Balangiga bells have value to history, culture, heritage, and national pride, and their repatriation can be counted as Duterte’s contribution.
But, like Mercado, Echavez said the return of the bells was “purely symbolic.”
Other than that, Echavez said, “I cannot think of any [corrected historical injustice], but he created more.”
Duterte ends his term on June 30 as the most popular president in Philippine history. Results of a Pulse Asia survey in December 2021 showed a mind-boggling approval rating of 97% in Mindanao, with only 1% of respondents giving him a thumbs down. Nationwide, he got a 72% approval rating, with 11% of respondents as naysayers and 17% undecided.
“With his popularity, he could have done better than just the symbol,” Echavez told Rappler.
A work in progress
The Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL), which Duterte signed in 2018 to create an upgraded autonomous region for predominantly Muslim provinces, was meant to correct historical injustices toward marginalized and underrepresented Muslim Filipinos.
Yet he could not claim sole credit for it – the Bangsamoro law, after all, was the product of collective efforts, and most of the kinks were ironed out during the administration of the late former president Benigno Aquino III.
Besides, the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), a creation of that law, has remained “a project in progress,” Bayan Muna Representative Carlos Isagani Zarate, who is from Mindanao, pointed out.
Aquino would later appoint his peace panel chair in negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Marvic Leonen, to the Supreme Court, where he was the lone dissenter in the landmark ruling upholding the constitutionality of President Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao.
The Bangsamoro law and a shift to a federal system of government had been Duterte’s prescription for change during his presidential run in 2016. Whenever he spoke about historical injustices then, he punctuated his discourses with a promise to give the two proposals a push.
“We must correct the historical injustice,” Duterte said over and over again while asserting that nothing short of genuine autonomy for the Muslim region, and a federal structure of government would bring peace to Mindanao.
Halfway through his term, though, Duterte made a turnabout, announcing that he had given up on his federalism push – just like that.
And, in 2017, a year before he signed the BOL, he turned the predominantly Muslim city of Marawi into something far worse than what Howling Jake’s troops did in Samar 116 years earlier.
More than 1,000 people were killed in the five-month Marawi Siege that flattened and turned Maranao villages into virtual ghost towns.
The Task Force Bangon Marawi (TBFM) counted 49,785 displaced families due to the 2017 fighting, as of April 2022. In a May 2020 report, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said more than 120,000 people still lived in permanent and temporary shelters outside the devastated city.
Burning the house down
Social anthropologist and columnist Antonio Montalván II said: “If it’s historical injustice in Mindanao, I don’t think he was able to address that. The opposite happened – the Marawi Siege. His administration failed to rebuild the old city.”
Montalvan added, “Like the colonizers, he also attacked Marawi, but it was only he who burned the house down, then promised to rebuild it but reneged on the promise.”
In the end, it was all noise and fury. The things Duterte did, especially in Mindanao, were reminiscent of what the colonizers and the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos did in the 20th century.
Yet the promise was a good sound bite then, and captured the imagination of many Filipinos across the country and overseas who were fed up with the status quo, and who hungered for real and meaningful change.
The rhetoric played quite well on deep-seated sentiments of the probinsiyano, especially Mindanaoans who had long complained of being treated like second-class citizens by the Manila-centric government.
At the same time, it also reinforced Duterte’s image as a tough-talking and no-holds-barred mayor who could quickly get things done because, supposedly, he understood the marginalized and the root causes of the decades-old conflicts.
“Looking back, what does that statement [about correcting historical injustices] impact when placed side by side with the jet ski adventure? A big joke! The ‘historical injustice’ agenda could really be to distort and window-dress, or even totally revise, the negative historical imprints,” said Cagayan de Oro-based lawyer Jose Edgardo Uy, who writes a column for a local newspaper.
In 2016, Duterte said that, if he won, he would ride a jet ski to the Spratlys, where he would plant the Philippine flag as a statement against China’s encroachment. Five years later, he said the pronouncement should have not been taken as a vow to pressure Beijing to back off because he meant that purely as a campaign joke.
Outgoing representative Zarate, who is from Davao City, said hardly anything has changed and historical injustices remained uncorrected under Duterte.
In terms of government spending, Mindanao was still left wanting an equitable share of the national government’s annual budget despite the Mindanaoan president, he said.
Overall, Luzon and the National Capital Region (NCR) still cornered the biggest programs and projects of the national government, especially in terms of infrastructure.
The NCR alone accounted for 23.8% of the government’s annual budget in 2018, dwarfing Mindanao’s 12.4% share, according to Zarate.
“Mindanao, like the rest of the country, is still mired in so much poverty; her richness is controlled and plundered continuously by a few. The oligarchic and dynastic control of Mindanao’s economy and politics even worsened in the past six years. Human rights violations by state forces and agents are still rampant. As a result, armed rebellions are still a big part of Mindanao’s reality,” Zarate said. – Rappler.com