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Philippines: The revolution that never was

Every year, nations throughout the world celebrate momentous, glorious events in their history that define them and make them proud. National holidays, colorful parades, and well-publicized ritual visits to shrines and monuments of revered heroes, not to mention an abundance of patriotic speeches usually mark those occasions.   

Most of those epochal events were revolutions, like the French, Russian, and Chinese upheavals that leveled  their societies to the ground, like a giant tornado, and dramatically transformed their nation’s destiny.

Those 3 great revolutions were bloody and terror-filled times that toppled corrupt, unjust regimes and elites. The animating force of those revolutions was the overwhelming desire of their leaders and followers for radical change and a better future. Violence and carnage were no hindrance – in fact they were deemed necessary – to their goal of drastic institutional change.

Although it was largely a territorial-independence dispute which in the end left American institutions virtually intact, the American revolution against English rule in 1775 may also be considered as a true revolution. That’s because of the sheer power and majesty of one idea and value, enshrined in the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution that endures to this day and age: the primacy of liberty and individual rights in society.

Because of it, the founders of that constitution who feared a tyrannical president, deliberately weakened that office by diluting power among 3 co-equal constitutional branches – and current US domestic and foreign policy continues to espouse and fight for this uniquely American creed that has inspired a large portion of mankind.

Putting aside the well-known sins and ills of American and Western civilization, and they are many (from gross materialism and economic exploitation, to regime change policies) this is the real, unstated reason why President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war is at odds with American and most Western (and liberal-oriented) governments. And that is the only plausible reason why Mr Duterte continues to enjoy remarkable popularity despite the thousands of lives killed extrajudicially (many innocent), in the pursuit of his centerpiece anti-drug crusade: Westerners think of justice in terms of individual freedoms and individual rights while Filipinos and non-Westerners tend to view it in terms of a collective rendering  and social justice. Evidently, as the recent polls show, many Filipinos have turned deaf and blind to Duterte’s ruthless ways and even to his appeasement policy towards China because they think Duterte’s administration is delivering better services to the public than the previous government (which underscored the rule of law and dynamic economic growth but was largely seen as uncaring and dysfunctional).

Barely a month after Duterte’s inauguration, some people, like national artist F. Sionil Jose, hailed the Duterte phenomenon as the long-awaited “Duterte revolution.” Some even called Digong, the “Leviathan” who would effectively resolve all the ills of Philippine society.

Now, a year later, with all the blood spilled in the streets and poor neighborhoods of suspected drug pushers and addicts, and lately, the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, it is fitting to ask if indeed our beloved country is in the throes of a revolution.

Despite his tough guy, nationalist-socialist image, and the reign of terror Duterte has unleashed, it is increasingly evident that the big targets of the terror are few and tend to be selective: at the start of his presidency, Duterte himself admitted that it was difficult to catch the real drug lords “because their lair is in China.” Nevertheless, extrajudicial violence against lesser, easier targets (pushers and addicts) had to continue, critics say, because it is  “a vital instrument to stifle dissent, consolidate power and project strength.” 

Analysts like Walden Bello think the Philippine elite is now openly collaborating with Duterte and it is unlikely he will move against their interests by engaging in significant wealth redistribution. He believes “Duterte is setting up a fascist  dictatorship,” a view shared by legislators such as Representative Teddy Baguilat who declared that “we are already under a de facto military junta;” former president Fidel Ramos bewails Duterte’s foul language, flip-flopping, unfocused governance and predicted “no real reforms under the present administration”; and, archenemy Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, and congressman Gary Alejano (who filed an ill-fated impeachment motion in the House) characterize Duterte as a dangerous, “false messiah” and a man of great hidden wealth.   

So far, Duterte’s moves against the oligarchs have been mild, with only a Chinese cigarette magnate and billionaire businessman, Roberto Ongpin, singled out for purported illegal activities. More recently, Mr Duterte threatened oligarchs in the mass media (read ABS-CBN and the Philippine Daily Inquirer), with legal action for alleged unlawful financial deeds. But those executive actions and threats can hardly be termed revolutionary. Likewise, the appointment of a few leftists at the weaker Cabinet departments like social welfare and agrarian reform while leaving the much more powerful posts of finance, trade, planning, and budget portfolios safely in the hands of status quo-oriented technocrats.

The  appointments of high-ranking retired military officials to the important  posts of defense, environment, and national security, presents the stern, no-nonsense face of Duterte’s non-civilian Cabinet whom he fondly calls his “junta.”   

Undoubtedly, the single, most important reason that disqualifies Digong as a revolutionary is his puzzling determination to rehabilitate the Marcoses and pave the way for Bongbong Marcos to ascend to the highest office in the land. Duterte’s approval of the burial of the deposed dictator at the Libingan ng mga Bayani last November is a prologue to that scenario. 

Why the President would unnecessarily expend tremendous political capital on a discredited plutocratic family which has never even apologized for the massive and systematic plunder of the Philippine economy during the Marcos rule (with most of the estimated $10-billion loot still unrecovered), and the tens of thousands of ruined lives in that tragic era is difficult to understand, much less, justify. Unless the raging political battles between the Marcoses and powerful Duterte allies in the North, like House Majority Leader Rodolfo Fariñas changes the President’s mind, he is expected to maintain his strong bonds with the Marcoses. 

Duterte’s bloody reign may yet be glossed over by the emerging “golden age in Philippine infrastructure” but his embrace of the Marcoses will forever stain his legacy. Thus, his is a revolution much-awaited but never was. –

Narciso M. Reyes Jr is a former diplomat and journalist. He is the author of The God in Einstein and Zen (2011).