The Davao that made Digong

Patricio N. Abinales

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The Davao that made Digong
'The rise of Duterte cannot be understood without taking into consideration the impact of Davao City’s distinct political and economic history of as one of the country’s last frontier cities'

The rise of Duterte cannot be understood without taking into consideration the impact of Davao City’s distinct political and economic history of as one of the country’s last frontier cities.  When the United States took over the Philippines from the Spanish, Americans described Davao as the extension of Western frontier and the “fertile spot on which to locate the Garden of Eden.” During colonial rule, Davao became an export enclave dominated by non-Filipino settlers (Americans, Japanese and some Spanish) entering into a contractual agreement with indigenous communities (the Americans limited non-Filipino ownership of agricultural lands). Filipino presence was minimal resulting from the lingering suspicion that Davao – like the rest of Mindanao – was a frontier teeming with “uncivilized” Muslim tribes.

Initially it was demobilized American soldiers who opened up hemp farms to respond to the growing need by Western maritime interests and the U.S. Navy for this twine necessary for berthing and transport operations. They were however edged out of business by a better-organized Japanese settler community that monopolized the industry until the eve of World War II. During the hemp years, Davao would be transformed from an undeveloped territory into one of more dynamic regions, responsible for providing one of the top export revenues of the colony. This economic heft enabled the Japanese elites and their Filipino allies to keep Davao away from the naturally prying hands of the central colonial state. The “district” contributed to state coffers but the state was notably absent in local affairs.

The post-war altered the frontier as forests lands were cleared almost overnight to satiate the demands for timber by Japanese reconstruction, and thousands to Mindanao moved from the central and the northern Philippines to escape poverty and hunger.  The American decision to deport the 18,000 Japanese residents in Davao resulted in the transfer of control over the hemp lands to their partners, making them overnight owners of agricultural estates. Mosaic disease, however, destroyed the hemp industry and bankrupting its titleholders. What saved the plantations was the entry of fruit multinationals seeking prime agriculture land to plant export crops. These firms would partner with a new Davao economic elite consisting of settler families that took over the hemp farms. The rise in Japanese demand for fruits, especially bananas, then provided the impetus for the banana industry to expand.

The converging point of all these mobile social forces was Davao City. Settler communities overlapped with each other and competed with each other for ownership and control of newly opened homestead lands; they would also become involved in conflict with indigenous communities bent in protecting their ancestral domain. The rise of export agriculture attracted more Manila-based and foreign corporations to set up businesses in Davao and join in the effort to turn the region into the country’s top source of export crops.  All these were happening spontaneously and in the case of the settlers, in a disorderly fashion, a condition that was aggravated by the local state’s weak infrastructure. While Dabawenos showed a marked preference for voting as a form of mobilization, violence was not far behind involving top political leaders of the city and the province.

Strongmen who did not hesitate to use both legal and illicit means to ensure peace and order were in fact the norm of leadership in what a Manila newspaper called the “Las Vegas” of the South.  Davao Governor Ricardo Miranda, for example, admitted that he won in the 1950 provincial elections because he “use[d] force against force to preserve the sanctity of the ballot.” The “Father of Davao,” Alejandro Almendras “challenged by fist or pistol” those who impugned his character. Luis Santos, the city’s chief of police who became mayor in 1969, was a former communist cadre who was part of an expansion team sent to Mindanao. He became an ally of Almendras and used the police force to harass the latter’s rivals. He later on abandoned his patron and ran for mayor, promising to rid Davao City of its “moral ills.”

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte addressing a crowd at the Davao City Hall, June 16, 2015. Rappler file photo

The expected “normalization” of political life once the frontier filled up and the increasing presence of the “modern” national state never happened because of martial law. The Marcos dictatorship may have ended to the local “anarchy of families,” but its aggressive promotion of the export crops sector displaced settlements, turning their inhabitants into potential recruits of a “re-established” Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP)  then engaged in building its initial guerilla zones. By the 1980s, communists were already successfully mobilizing peasants and farm workers to protests against poor working conditions and low wages in the plantations and city industries.  

The dictatorship’s response was to send in more soldiers, but militarization only fostered more resistance and increased communist social capital. The CPP’s Mindanao regional committee eventually became the strongest and most daring its local organizations, and one of its projects was to expand the revolutionary war to the cities by defending the mini-mass uprising from the police and military. Davao City became a battleground between the army and the CPP’s armed city partisans. The fiercest of these confrontations happened in Agdao district, prompting locals to rename the area “Nicarag-dao, after a similar battle in Nicaragua that ended the Somoza dictatorship.

The hostilities that scarred the countryside and the cities allowed frontier-like conditions to survive and even made them more violent. The CPP, however, made a tactical mistake in 1986 when it opted not to get involved in the end game that ousted Marcos and restored constitutional democracy. One of the consequences was a growing factionalism inside the organization that then took a turn for the worse when party began a bloody internal to ferret alleged military spies among their ranks. The killings decimated the CPP, worsened the factional splits, and among a disgruntled of ex-cadres and guerrillas disgruntled and feeling dismayed by the Party turned against their vanguard. Alsa Masa joined in the war in Davao, turning into the most vicious of all the anti-communist militias Davao had ever spawned.

The Davao CPP collapsed in 1990 and Alsa Masa transformed itself from a vigilante group into a gang that harassed human rights groups, journalists, and other civil society advocates. Davao City’s volatility thus persisted convincing Dabawenos, who initially thought the return of democracy would bring peace to the city, that only another strongman could stop the deterioration. It was in the midst this instability that Rodrigo Duterte stepped in. He first weakened Alsa Masa, saving the remnants of the CPP, then went after the peddlers of immorality in the city – particularly the drug lords and criminal syndicates, which earned him the respect of the rest of the community. It was during this period that reports of extra-judicial killings began to come out of Davao. These worried human rights groups in Manila and elsewhere, but had little impact on Duterte’s constituents. Dabawenos expressed their gratitude by repeatedly voting him to office.  He remains, to this day, the most popular leader of the city and the region.

This was the setting in which Duterte was born into – a frontier setting that was constantly in a state of flux, where civility, respectability and a sense of community were either non-existent or still in their early form. His language and actions are simply reflections of this social mutability where a certain macho toughness that circumvents the law with ease “to get things done” is customary.  National politics, however, is an entirely different animal, and it will take a considerable amount of time and effort for the new President to learn the new rules of the game. Whether he will be successful or not will be determined in the months ahead. –

Patricio N. Abinales wrote Making Mindanao: Cotabato and Davao in the Formation of the Philippine Nation-State (Ateneo, 2000). This essay is based on the Davao chapters of the book.

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