The year 2017 isn’t exactly auld lang syne, or good old times, and 2018 is not only likely to be a repeat of it. It could even be worse.
As 2016 ended a year ago, the new year of 2017 was welcomed with optimism by most Filipinos, in the probable belief that thinking so will make it so. The feng shui and other creatures spawned by the Philippine culture of confusion, who claim to have the power to foretell the future, weren’t helping any. Neither were the survey firms, which as usual regaled the citizenry with their cheery polls on the average man-on-the-street’s fact-defying optimism.
Those who make predicting what will happen in the coming year their business proclaim every New Year that things will be better despite their and the rest of the country’s experience, which for decades has argued against such upbeat expectations. But whether it’s employment opportunities or the prospects for peace, development and an end to corruption, their predictions have been, and are still likely to be, uniformly the same.
Their optimism is curious, considering how often the rest of us have been disappointed with the way things turn out every year. Philippine society has after all been in crisis for centuries due to the rapaciousness and incompetence of a political class nurtured by colonial rule and sustained by imperialist intervention. Unless the power structure is democratized, things will remain the same, and any change that does happen is likely to be for the worse.
But why the belief persists that things will always be better as the old year passes into history is understandable. So used have Filipinos been to political instability, violence, impunity, uncertainty, and fear that they think these anomalies to be normal. Any change no matter how small is thus regarded as significant. Change being the one certainty in existence, it’s easy enough to predict, and even believe, that every change is for the better.
Political upheavals, foreign invasion, wars and the social unrest driven by poverty, hunger and injustice have at various times sharpened the seething contradictions in Philippine society. These have led to attempts to understand how the divisions rooted in the political, economic and social disempowerment of vast numbers of Filipinos on the one hand, and the monopoly over wealth and power of a handful of families and political dynasties on the other, sustain a society of vast inequality.
The reality is that 2017 is ending with the most telling indications yet that 2018 may be another acute stage in the Philippine crisis of political, economic, and social underdevelopment. Eighteen months after Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency, the Philippines is even more acutely in the grip of that crisis because of the distinct possibility that the reforms the country has long needed for its survival will never take place. Instead there is the continuing threat of a return to dictatorship as the same means of preventing change that Ferdinand Marcos used in 1972.
It’s not only the “war” on drugs, which has so far cost the lives of an estimated 14,000 men, women and children, that’s being readied to justify authoritarian rule. Terrorism and insurgency have also emerged as convenient excuses for a nationwide declaration of martial law, or even the imposition of a grievously misnamed “revolutionary government” that will be anything but revolutionary.
The next few months of 2018 will tell if, in an attempt to resolve a crisis that it has pushed to an acute stage, the Duterte regime, which clearly demonstrated in 2017 its commitment to keeping things the way they have always been, will bring it to even more dangerous levels through open authoritarian rule. If it does, it will plunge the country into a maelstrom of violence and uncertainty only a radical shift in political power from its monopoly by the few to its democratization in the hands of the many can remedy.
Mr. Duterte’s pre- election promises of change on a wide range of issues from corruption and the drug problem to foreign relations and peace talks with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) resonated among a people desperate for change. But most of these promises have remained unfulfilled, and Mr. Duterte has terminated the peace talks, the success of which was predicated on the adoption of basic reforms.
Mr. Duterte’s preferred approach to the drug problem, which has led to an unprecedented number of killings, mostly by a police force he has empowered as judge, jury and executioner, is still in place. Not only is this policy undermining the Bill of Rights; it is also promoting the use of unaccountable State violence against the poor as the only means of addressing the country’s problems. But as the year is ending, the killings hitherto associated only with the drug “war” are spreading to include political activists, farmer and worker militants, human rights defenders and Lumad leaders.
The year is also ending with an impending economic catastrophe in the lives of those with fixed incomes, primarily the poor. The much touted and as misnamed as many other laws passed by the dynastic stronghold known as Congress Tax Reform Acceleration and Inclusion Act (Republic Act 10963) will mean higher consumption taxes for the poorest sectors of the population, who currently pay no income tax.
They will end up shouldering the shortfall in government revenues that higher tax exemptions for the wealthier classes will bring about. They will pay higher prices for basic and other commodities as well as transportation as fuel prices, driven by higher excise taxes, rise. Rather than an inclusionary act, RA 10963 is actually exclusionary. It singles out the already burdened poor for indirect taxation, while enabling those who already have much to have even more.
The imposition of nationwide martial rule becomes even more likely in this added context, given the probability of a surge in social and political unrest. But there is opportunity as well as challenge in the reemergence of the threat of the despotism that has always been the ruling elite’s favored response to the demand for change.
It can enable the sectoral and mass organizations to become even more relevant than they already are to the lives of the majority. Through the enhancement of their role as instruments for the enlightenment and organizing of the people on and for the need to broaden their awareness and commitment to the imperative of democratizing political power as the only true path to authentic development, they can help put an end to the bad times that for decades have been the condition of life for the majority in these isles of fear and uncertainty.
Meanwhile, the unlawful arrests and spurious charges against political activists, community leaders and human rights defenders, and specially the killings that are occurring with increasing frequency in Mindanao and other areas, will very likely drive more and more young men and women into defending themselves, their families and their communities with whatever means necessary.
The fundamental lesson the history and experience of this and other countries teaches is that repression and authoritarian rule have never succeeded in stopping dissent, protest, and organized resistance anywhere. They have instead accelerated the coming of the very changes they’re meant to prevent. Bad times have in many instances indeed led to better times: the optimists may have a point.
First published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.