Commentary: Rewriting the Story of U.S.-Philippines Relations

Commentary: Rewriting the Story of U.S.-Philippines Relations

November 30, 2017

Written by Derek Duncan
Global Ministries Area Executive for East Asia and the Pacific

The last stop on President Trump’s recent Asia tour was the Philippines, where he participated in an important summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and then engaged in a friendly meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte. In the streets of Manila, throngs of protestors were far less welcoming, burning effigies and holding signs that decried Trump as an imperialist and Duterte as a fascist.

Many criticized President Trump for, as Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) described it, “cozying up” to “dictator” Duterte during their bilateral meeting. President Trump’s willingness to overlook Duterte’s human rights abuses for the sake of U.S. national interest is a step in the wrong direction, and one that reinforces Filipinos’ suspicions of their former colonial ruler.

The history of U.S.-Philippines relations is close but troubled. When the U.S. tried to make the country a colony in 1898 after the Spanish-American War, the Philippines went to war with their erstwhile ally for independence. And while the U.S. helped end Japanese occupation of the archipelago in World War II, it has since treated the Philippines like a client state. The U.S. has a history of supporting dictators like Ferdinand Marcos who use violence and abuse human rights to exert the rights of economic stakeholders over those of the Philippine people.

Today the U.S. regards the Philippines as a strategic ally in an important region of the world; using the Philippines to position naval and ground forces around the Pacific Rim to counter China’s expanding economic and military presence. In particular, the U.S. wants to keep China from controlling the South China Sea shipping channel between Vietnam and the Philippines. Roughly one-third of the world’s maritime trade, over $5 trillion in goods, passes through this sea route every year, and China’s strengthening ties with the Philippines has worried Washington—and perhaps has been used by Duterte to gain U.S. favor.

Human rights were not high on the agenda during November’s bilateral meeting. While the White House said the issue of human rights was “briefly” discussed, Duterte’s people insist it “did not arise.” Instead, Trump affirmed his “great relationship” with Duterte, and assured him of U.S. support, including financial and military, for the Philippine government’s counter-insurgency and anti-terror programs. But the U.S. should not condone Duterte’s human rights abuses. Since he was elected in 2016, Duterte has been criticized for his aggressive war on drugs, in which he said he would “be happy to slaughter” as many drug addicts as Hitler did Jews. Many thousands of suspected drug users and traffickers have been summarily executed in extra-judicial killings, a crime under international law.

The need to speak out has increased in recent months. Duterte’s war on drug users has expanded to include other peaceful groups aligned with students, labor organizers, defenders of indigenous and land rights, and opposition politicians. Since Trump assured him of U.S. support in November, Duterte has increasingly used “anti-terror” laws to legitimize repression and violation of rights of ordinary citizens. Duterte has labeled the National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) as a terrorist organization and called off the government’s decade-long Peace Talks with them. Duterte recently declared, “I will follow America, since they say that I am an American boy. OK, granted, I will admit that I am a fascist. I will categorize you already as a terrorist.”

The more Duterte abuses human rights, the more the U.S. must refuse to use him cynically for our national and economic interests. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is considering and should advance S1055, The Philippine Human Rights Accountability and Counter-Narcotics Act, to clearly repudiate Duterte’s human rights violations. December 10 is International Human Rights Day. Rather than follow the familiar script of colonial patron, this should be an occasion for the U.S. to support legislation like this, and begin to rewrite the story of U.S.-Philippines relations, and insist that as partners we must expect and foster mutual respect for human rights of all people.

[Download this resource as a bulletin insert. This commentary is adapted from one originally appearing as part of the United Church of Christ’s Witness for Justice series.]