This article is the reportage of Jerome Small of Socialist Alternative (Australia) on his participation to the 3rd Asian Global Justice School in Manila.
Commonwealth Avenue is usually 18 lanes of pounding Manila traffic, but this afternoon it is quieter. For days, the media has been advising motorists to avoid the area near the Congress building, the target of the big protest today.
It’s the morning of 25 July, 2011, and we’re standing in the humidity, waiting for the contingent of the Philippines Labor Party to come past. An open drain runs on one side of Commonwealth Avenue here and the homes of the urban poor, all rusting corrugated iron and scraps of thin ply, crowd back from the drain. We’re in Quezon City, a mainly middle class area, home to universities and government institutions, but poverty is never far away. A toddler, barely old enough to stand, is shouting excitedly, pointing at my shoes – obviously not many good black shoes in this part of town. Her family, and my companions, think it’s hilarious.
I am one of a collection 20 or so socialists and activists, guests at a Global Justice School being held in Manila. Today our hosts are taking us to observe the rally, one of the set pieces of the Philippines political calendar.
The occasion is SONA, the State of the Nation Address being delivered by President Benigno Aquino III. The President was elected in June last year, with a decisive majority based on a record turnout of voters, attracted to his promise of “transformational change” to the poverty, violence and corruption that have been the bequests of US imperialism and generations of landowner-politicians to the ninety million people of the Philippines.
Every year there is a SONA, every year there is a protest. For days in advance, there is a build up in the press. There is a photo of riot police pushing back a crowd of “protestors” – in fact other police – in a training exercise for SONA. The police say they will block anyone from getting anywhere near the Congress. The protest organisers are quoted, saying that regardless of what the police say, they will get as close as possible to the Congress. The next day the chief of police is quoted, saying that the police will have no guns at the rally, and any policeman who brings a gun will face disciplinary action. Journalists estimate the likely size of the rally – maybe it will be 8,000, maybe 20,000. Diagrams show the traffic arrangements; maybe schools will be closed because of the traffic chaos as the protests snake across Manila towards the Congress.
On the day of the rally, one of the newspapers delivered to our hostel has a large photo of an effigy of President Aquino. Last year the protestors carried a giant effigy of Aquino, but held off from burning it. This year, the press reports, they have a massive 14 foot effigy of Aquino hatching out of an egg. The egg symbolises the number zero, the score out of ten the protestors are giving for the President’s record so far. The effigy will be carried on a giant mock up of a US military jeep. And this year, it will be burned.
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In some ways, the buildup in the press makes the event feel like an elaborate piece of theatre. But there is a deadly seriousness underlying it.
Partly, the seriousness comes from history. In January 1970, President Marcos delivered his SONA and 50,000 students protested for better conditions on campus and against the war in Vietnam. The protest was brutally attacked by thousands of police. Four days later the students returned – now armed with molotovs and other improvised weapons. This time, the police shot four students dead. These murders touched off the “First Quarter Storm”, one of the key events in modern Philippines history, a colossal uprising that spread from campuses and high schools into communities and workplaces, and was only decisively stopped by the declaration of martial law in 1972.
People know this history. They know whose footsteps we march in today, and they talk about it.
But the other reason for the seriousness is the stark social reality facing ordinary people in the Philippines. The causes of the anger are all connected, but our hosts find it easier to explain if we break it down into sectors: workers, the countryside, the urban poor, the overseas workers, and Mindanao.
According to our hosts, centres of union strength in the Philippines have been systematically shut down over the last two decades. Several of our hosts at the school are from the southern island of Mindanao and they tell me about the National Steel Corporation (NSC), formerly based there. A centre of union strength, it was privatised in the wake of the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. It was bought up by a rival, overseas, steel company – and then totally shut down. While some of its plants have been opened and shut since, most of its factories have lain idle. This picture, we are told, is typical across the Philippines.
There are new industries, but the bosses and their courts make them very, very difficult to unionise. Two of our hosts, also part of the school, are activists with the SDK, the Democratic Youth Association, and with the Labor Party of the Philippines. They show us their website, which features a caravan in support of the Hanjin workers held on July 5 this year. 21,000 workers are employed at the giant shipyard on the site of the former Subic Bay naval base, owned by the Korean Hanjin conglomerate. They face a rate of injury that is five times the national average: 31 workers have died on the site since May 2006. The workers have been legally denied the right to form a union because they are employed by an ever-changing array of “subcontractors” – one of the most common legal devices to prevent unions being registered in the Philippines. Undeterred, they have formed a workers’ association: this body has no legal rights under the Labor Code, but it continues agitation for a union and for safety and conditions.
The difficulties facing union organisers at Hanjin are typical throughout the export processing zones, where some 600,000 workers are employed. The school is addressed by a labour organiser from the Labor Party, who explains that at the start of July they had succeeded in winning a ballot to establish a union at Blaze, a company in an export processing zone in Cebu that exports construction materials to Japan. Blaze employs its workers through a labour hire agency rather than directly. The organiser tells us that from 30 years of attempts, this is the very first time that a union had been won at such a company in the whole of the Philippines.
The response of the company? On the very day the union ballot was successful, the company shut down its operations. Now the case is in the courts again, as the company is trying to restart operations with a new workforce. Despite the setback, our friend sees the ballot as a historic breakthrough.
While companies and the Government are fighting with all their might against unionisation, they are also mounting serious attacks on the few remaining areas of union strength. We are told of the struggle of the Philippines Airlines workers, who have had some impressive protests against outsourcing and subcontracting – which has obvious similarities with the current battle between Qantas and its unions. The major shareholder in Philippine Airlines, Lucio Tan, is one of the richest men in the Philippines. He is outsourcing functions like aircraft maintenance, catering, and baggage check-in to a company headed by his son. Some 2600 workers stand to lose their jobs, and will have to reapply for those same jobs, with inferior pay and conditions, at the “new” company. Because they won’t be employed by Philippine Airlines, they won’t be covered by their union PALEA, the Philippine Airlines Employees Association. At the time of SONA, President Aquino has legally taken control of the dispute to head off the threat of strikes: no one is predicting a Presidential decision in favour of the workers.
I ask the Labor Party organiser, what is the percentage of workers in a union in the Philippines? He tells me that on the official figures, around 1.5 to 2 million workers – around 8 to ten per cent of the wage and salary earners in the formal sector – are members of unions. But the bureau that keeps these statistics doesn’t maintain its records well, he tells me. Many companies that no longer exist are registered as recognising a union, for instance, or unions that have no power whatsoever are included. So a better question is: how many workers are covered by a current, enforceable, Collective Bargaining Agreement? These records are current, and obviously do not include the unions that are not strong enough to win a CBA. According to our friend, the shocking truth is that in the whole of the Philippines, a country of ninety million people, only about 250,000 workers are covered by a CBA – and this includes the public sector, which should be easier to organise. This figure has halved over the last ten years, as unions have been taken on and smashed, or unionised companies shut down.
Many contingents of workers, including PALEA and the Hanjin workers, are on the march today.
If the situation in the factories is dire, the situation in the countryside sounds catastrophic. Land is a key issue in a society where a third of the workforce still works the land. Land reform has been promised and legislated for by every Filipino government for the last sixty years. And every Filipino government has failed to deliver land to the people who work it.
The most high profile case at the moment involves the Hacienda Luisita, a 6,400 hectare sugar plantation owned by the family of President Aquino. The hacienda was given a loan in 1958 on the condition that it be handed to the tenant farmers who worked it by 1968. Of course, by 1968 the tenant farmers had become wage labourers, so there was no one to hand it to. The struggle has continued down the generations. In 2004 farmers on strike for higher wages and land reform at Hacienda Luisita were joined by their families and neighbours, forming a picket of some 15,000 people. The army, police, and security fired into the crowd: 12 workers and 2 children were killed, and hundreds injured. Seven years later, no-one has been brought to justice.
One of our teachers at the school is a former peasant organiser for the Communist Party of the Philippines. He explains to us that the smartest thing the Americans did when they took over from the Spanish colonisers in 1898 was to rapidly organise local elections. Of course the elections were won by the most organised force, the local landowners. These land-owner politicians and their descendants form the core of both mainstream political parties today – as exemplified by President Aquino’s family. They are not about to let the land that forms the basis of their wealth slip from their grasp.
Now the whole Hacienda Luisita case is before the courts again. The Supreme Court has just ordered a ballot on whether to give the workers land or simply a share of the company. Everyone knows full well that the new ballot will be rigged by violence, corruption, and legal technicalities to keep the landholding intact. The workers might get a handful of worthless shares, but no control over the land they have worked for generations.
Workers from the Hacienda Luisita are on the SONA march today.
Many people can no longer survive in the countryside and move to the city, but can get no regular work. Many of them work in the “informal sector”, which includes the large number of street vendors selling the ice creams, bottled water and coconut milk that keep people comfortable in the humidity of Manila. Any major rally is a bonanza for these street traders; no-one has to move out of their contingent to buy some small item.
A very large and overlapping group of people end up among the urban poor, the destitute masses that scratch a living any way they can.
The night before the rally, an activist who organises among the urban poor visits our school. She is a third generation activist: her parents and her grandparents were part of the struggle. The poverty is getting worse, she says. Previously you could rely on getting by as an activist because people would share the little they had with you. Nowadays, though, people literally have nothing to share. She describes one group that she regularly visits: “Come visit after lunch”, they say, always, “visit after the lunch time”. One day she gets curious, and visits just before the lunch period – maybe they are meeting up with someone else? She is shocked to find a group of people sharing one tiny roll between them for lunch. They have to get credit at the small local store in order to provide her with a coffee. Now our friend brings her own coffee, or comes after lunch.
“So how do people survive?” I ask, feeling foolish. To the extent that they do, my hosts reply, it is often because of the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW). Out of 90 million Filipino people, some ten million are working overseas, sending money home – and there are maybe another ten million who have permanently moved abroad. Many OFWs are subject to extreme exploitation, as maids, nurses, or industrial workers. But the remittances they send home – officially valued at at least ten per cent of Philippines GDP – are the difference between life and death for many people. The hollowing out of industry in the Metro Manila area over the last couple of decades has meant that more and more, there are people, there are shopping malls, but there is no work. Our friend explains that it used to be common enough to meet people whose only income was the remittances sent by a brother or sister or parent or child – now that same money has to stretch to support whole extended families and distant cousins. As one of our teachers explained, overseas workers are the safety valve that stop the social volcano that is the Philippines from exploding. What happens as the world economy cools and demand for “guest labour” reduces, is one of the big unknowns.
For those with nothing, the politics of patronage dominates. The urban poor are often organised – sometimes into the assertively titled “home-owners associations” – and can be an explosive force when their communities are threatened with demolition. But outside of those times, they very often rely on the machine politicians who dominate local and national politics. So ongoing, militant political organisation among the urban poor seems to be the exception rather than the norm. Nonetheless, urban poor organisations are also part of the SONA mobilisation.
There are other pressing issues. Mindanao, the large southern island of the Philippines, is home for twenty million people and the site of a long-running insurgency among the indigenous Bangsa Moro people. Many of our hosts in Manila are from Mindanao, and explain the complex impact of colonisation and invasion. The indigenous people of Mindanao had contact with the nearby Muslim trading nations more than a thousand years ago. Many of those near the coast converted to Islam, and became known as the Moro. Those in the highlands generally stayed with their indigenous customs and became known as the Bangsa. The Spanish colonisers had little impact on the area, deterred by the now powerful Moro sultanates on the coast. But when the Americans took over in 1900, a genocide began. Land was grabbed for timber, and massacres were frequent. Moro people were displaced from the coast, leading to conflict inland with the Bangsa. And through this period, the central government shipped large numbers of settlers from other islands onto the indigenous people’s lands, leading to further conflict. The armed conflict in Mindanao was particularly bloody. Several of the comrades I met from Mindanao are involved in aspects of the peace process, in reaching an accommodation between the three distinct peoples in Mindanao; in restoring indigenous people’s rights to their ancestral domains; and in trying to open up the electoral process to free it from the traditional political machines.
They have a long struggle ahead of them: machine politics is well entrenched in Mindanao as elsewhere in the Philippines, and has a particularly bloody recent past. Members of one of the traditional political families in Mindanao are currently in jail awaiting trial for a massacre in the province of Maguindanao in November 2009. 58 people were butchered, members of a rival political family and some 34 journalists, making this the bloodiest mass murder of journalists in history. The slow pace of this legal process, and of prosecutions connected with other extrajudicial killings, is another issue highlighted the by the protestors at the SONA rally.
While tens of millions of people are affected by this stark social reality, it doesn’t follow that millions mobilise every day. As well as the vicious repression directed at organisers, there can be a fatigue among ordinary people. When just getting by is such a struggle, it can take a lot to get people mobilised politically. Both a long-running armed insurgency and a series of “people power” uprisings have left the structures of capitalism intact, and failed to make much material difference to the lives of ordinary people. In this circumstance, political disengagement can be widespread. Discussing these various problems, one of our teachers at the school quipped that in all the world, surely the Philippines must be the most frustrating place to be a political activist! I reply that this is probably what people in Cairo were saying just a year ago – but the frustration is real.
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Standing on Commonwealth Avenue, on the march itself, and watching the coverage afterwards, the polarised social and political atmosphere of the Philippines is impossible to avoid. Equally striking is the very strict organisation of everyone on the rally. In such a serious environment, politics is not just about having a few left wing ideas: politics means organisation. Everyone marches under the banner of an organisation: either a non government organisation, or more likely a political party, or one of the workers’ unions or groups (for women, youth, urban poor etc) that are affiliated with that party.
To understand the procession of parties and organisations along Commonwealth Avenue, we have to start with the Maoists. In the early 1980s the Communist Party of the Philippines was a mighty force which, on some accounts, was on the verge of contending for power. With its associated unions, sectoral groups, campaign groups and unions, it is still by far the largest force on the Philippines left, as their impressive contingent at the SONA protest demonstrates. Most of the other socialist groups are largely the product of splits from the CPP.
As an introduction to this history, I am recommended to read Full Quarter Storms, by Cesar “Sonny” Melencio. Sonny was a leading member of the CPP in Manila from the early 1970s onwards. He is now a leader of the PLM, the Party of the Labouring Masses, which has a substantial contingent on the SONA protest.
Reading Sonny’s book, I am immediately struck by the heroism of thousands of party activists over decades, and of those involved in the mass movements in which they played a leading role. Sonny recounts the widening insurrection of the First Quarter Storm, and Marcos’ imposition of martial law in September 1972. He tells of the desperate struggle just to avoid being picked up in the military’s sweeps, and to reassemble the basics of party organisation.
He talks of the revival of the urban struggle after a couple of years: the 800 workers of the La Tondena distillery who struck and barricaded themselves in with the machines in October 1975, in total defiance of the martial law ban on strikes. Though the strikers were hauled out of the factory and arrested by the military, they “broke the repressive spell of martial law”. Over the next year 73,000 workers in 200 factories struck. When Marcos renewed the strike ban, CPP members and activists in the Catholic Church knocked on factory gates, organising workers to come on protest “prayer rallies”. In the political space opened up by these activities, the Party was soon organising open rallies. An intensification of repression, and a wave of arrests without warrant, then put the workers’ movement on the back foot. But it was then the turn of the urban poor to demonstrate against demolitions, arguing “they were people, not garbage, and should be treated as such”. A revival in the student movement in 1977 in protest against an increase in fees produced a new crop of CPP party members who threw themselves into the struggle.
In 1978 there was a brief opening for legal activity. Under US pressure, Marcos held an election for an interim parliament. While the election would no doubt be fraudulent, it gave an opportunity for mass campaign rallies against the Marcos dictatorship. CPP forces were involved in the Laban coalition with ruling class opposition forces, whose acknowledged leader, Senator Benigno Aquino (the father of the current President), had been in jail since 1972. Aquino’s seven year old daughter represented her father at the campaign rallies, while the CPP-aligned candidates included a union delegate, an urban poor organiser, and a former First Quarter Storm student leader. The night before the election, a colossal opposition noise barrage enveloped Manila to show support for Laban. Marcos stole the election and immediately cracked down on opposition figures. Elections are never easy or straightforward terrain for socialists to intervene around; doubly so when dealing with outright ruling class figures such as the Aquinos. But on Sonny’s account the 1978 campaign was successful in enabling mass opposition to the dictatorship to take to the streets for a time.
The repression through this period was ferocious. Sonny writes of some of the many Party members and other activists who were abducted, tortured, killed and dumped – or simply “disappeared” – over the years. Labour lawyer Hermon Lagman was, in the early 1970s, the first lawyer to present legal arguments in Tagalog rather than English – to the delight of his poor clients and howls of outrage from the legal establishment. Hermon Lagman was abducted and “disappeared” in 1977. Sonny dedicates chapters to activists such as Hermon’s younger brother Filemon Lagman, “Comrade Popoy”. Ka Popoy was an “outspoken, emphatic and irreverent activist” of the CPP who loved reading the Marxist classics, and was often in trouble with the leadership for reading Lenin more than Mao. An unknown assassin at the University of the Philippines gunned him down in February 2001.
The heroism of those countless thousands of activists who kept organising and fighting through this period is striking. But Sonny’s book also records how the struggle would, time and again, be cut short or derailed by the political framework of the leadership of the CPP. Central to this, according to Sonny, was how a rapidly developing radicalisation in the urban working class was, in the early 1970s, diverted into a “protracted people’s war” in the countryside, based on the model developed by Mao Zedong in China.
I questioned one of the former leaders of the CPP about this strategy. Surely, I asked, alongside the war in the countryside there was significant organisation and protest in urban areas? “Yes,” came the reply, “but the aim of these protests was not to win – in fact it was very important that they not win: the aim was to mobilise people, but because they didn’t win they would get so pissed off they would leave the city and join ‘the highest form of struggle’ – the armed struggle in the countryside.”
Sonny Melencio points out that the context for Mao’s strategy for “protracted people’s war” was a China being ravaged by a vicious war conducted by various warlords and the Japanese military in the 1930s and 1940s. Since no war existed in the Philippines of 1970, the Party had to create one to make the Maoist strategy fit. This was done not just by the opening of military fronts in the countryside, but also, according to Sonny, by a series of bombings designed to polarise the political situation.
Sonny makes the point that Marcos’ imposition of martial law was more effective than it needed to be in smashing the mass movement in 1972 because activists were focused on heading to the countryside rather than building the struggle in the cities.
Coming from Manila, where the struggles of the working class and the urban poor are central, Sonny observed that Mao’s writings on “people’s war” provided no decent guidance for the urban revolutionary. The Manila section of the party, led by figures such as Sonny and Popoy, was repeatedly disciplined for their “insurrectionist” deviations from the Maoist line, including participating in the 1978 elections. Many leading members, including Sonny, were sent to the CPP’s New People’s Army for “re-education” by being reassigned to “the highest form of struggle” in the rural areas.
Despite these limitations, the struggle continued to build. Progressive union leaders, many associated with the CPP, launched the Kilusang Mayo Uno – the May First Movement, or KMU – in 1981. And in 1983, Benigno Aquino II (the current President’s father) returned from medical treatment in the US. Everyone expected him to be arrested upon his return: in fact he was shot dead when he landed in Manila, before he even set foot on the tarmac. Some two million people lined the streets of Manila for the funeral, and spontaneous street protests and noise barrages erupted in the days and months that followed.
But the CPP let the opportunity pass. At this time the party leaders, writes Sonny,
…were too preoccupied with the state of protracted people’s war. All party discussions centred on whether the armed struggle had already graduated from the ‘early substage’ into the ‘advanced substage’ of the ‘strategic defensive stage’ and what that meant for the revolution. While the party probed the finer points of protracted people’s war, it dismissed what was happening in Metro Manila as the ‘hot air’ of bourgeois liberals.
…despite the widespread mobilisation of students calling for justice for Ninoy Aquino, the youth and students bureau of the party was specifically notified to concentrate solely on the anti-US bases campaign. The national trade union bureau focused on its campaign for higher wages and trade union rights.
Though the CPP later worked with Aquino’s widow Cory to set up the “Justice for All, Justice for Aquino” movement, the Party did no work in the movement, which became an avenue for the ruling class and petty-bourgeois forces to consolidate their organisation.
It was a similar story in 1986, when the regime called a snap election. The CPP leadership again refused to be part of the election campaign, meaning the newly-consolidated bourgeois forces had a clear run. When Marcos again fraudulently stole the election from the ticket headed by Cory Aquino, sections of the military refused to be party to the repression that was meant to follow. When Marcos moved other units to put down the rebels, the Catholic Church called on people to turn out to protect the military rebels. Over a million people responded to the call in the streets of Manila, with tens of thousands confronting and disarming soldiers in tanks. Still, the CPP refused to be part of the movement until the struggle had been all but won, with Marcos fleeing to exile in Hawaii and Cory Aquino being installed as President.
The CPP’s abstention from the last stages of the mass movement against the dictatorship had handed leadership, pretty well uncontested, to the bourgeois leadership that they were so critical of. This in itself would be sufficient to cause a crisis in any living breathing revolutionary party. But another crisis, similarly fed by Stalinist politics, was also developing through this period.
In the early 1980s, some fighters from the New People’s Army were found dead, apparently shot in the back by their own comrades. A fighter was accused of being a government agent. They made no admissions, and were tortured. Under torture they gave up names of other CPP comrades who were supposedly “deep penetration” government agents. These comrades were subsequently arrested by the Party and tortured in turn, giving up an ever-widening series of names. The accounts in Sonny’s book and elsewhere give a horrific picture: comrades tied, hanging by their feet or their wrists for hours or even days; rooms with comrades blindfolded, chained to a stake and tortured; comrades begging their executioners to tell their families that they died, not an accused traitor, but fighting the dictatorship.
According to various accounts, out of a party of 30,000, there were somewhere between 1,000 and 3,000 victims of these Stalinist purges before a halt was finally called in 1988.
There were difficulties on the international front as well. When Mao shook hands with US President Nixon in 1972, thousands around the world started a long slide into disillusion. Mao welcomed President Marcos’ wife Imelda to China in 1974 and established cordial relations with the Marcos regime the year after, even while Marcos’ military was smashing strikes and murdering radicals – including many Maoists. It is a mark of the level of social crisis in the Philippines through these years that the Philippine Maoists were able to keep growing and fighting.
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The crunch came in the early 1990s. The continued tensions over the Party’s abstention from the events of 1986, the purges, and finally the collapse of the USSR, gave rise to a crisis in the CPP. A series of splits followed in the early 1990s.
Though leading cadre of the party dedicated to grappling with many of the problems, the process of breaking from the legacy of Maoism was always going to be a lengthy and complicated one, involving all manner of regroupments, reassessments, and further splits. Australian socialist David Glanz writes on the CPP and the Philippines left from the same anti-Stalinist tradition of Marxism that I have been schooled in. As he points out, Stalinism was “much more than the dictatorial style of a single historical figure”. The regime built by Stalin on the wreckage of the defeated Russian Revolution during the 1920s was dedicated to the idea of “socialism in one country”, a sharp break from the ideas of international revolution propagated by Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky. Following from this political position flowed a number of similarly anti-Marxist positions including “class collaboration under the banner of the popular front, nationalism, and the stages theory of revolution”.
So is one thing to turn away from Maoism or any other variety of Stalinism: but without a thorough reassessment, and a commitment to revolutionary working class politics, it is all too easy to slide into some version of left nationalism. This seems to be the fate of Walden Bello, the well known activist and theoretician of the global justice movement and now a member of Congress. His organisation, Akbayan, we are told, will be at the SONA rally today but not with their party flags: Walden Bello is part of the Government so perhaps it would be an embarrassing contradiction.
At the time of SONA, Walden Bello himself is on a “fact finding” trip to the Spratly Islands, some lumps of rock sitting on top of a lot of oil, in disputed ocean territory west of the Philippines. The rest of the world calls this area the South China Sea: Walden Bello recently pushed a law through Congress to refer to it as the West Philippines Sea. On his mission to the Spratly’s he declared: “Filipinos are willing to die for their soil.”
Others who have left the CPP have avoided such sabre-rattling, while still staying close to their Maoist origins. A large contingent from the KPD comes past. My hosts tell me they split from the CPP over the opportunism of the CPP’s electoral strategies. After years of sectarian abstention, the CPP now does seemingly unprincipled electoral deals with the likes of billionaire property developer Manny Villar. Though the KPD have split from the CPP over this, a look at the KPD’s website shows they have not by any stretch abandoned the “national democratic” framework that justifies such alliances. That is, the claim that a socialist revolution is put off until some indefinite future time; the immediate task is to establish a properly “independent” path of capitalist development, brought about by a movement that includes “nationalist business people” as well as workers, peasants, and other sectors.
One of the most significant splits from the Maoists in the early 1990s was the entire leadership of the Manila region CPP. Today some of these figures, including Sonny Melencio, can be found in the PLM, the Partido Lakas ng Masa (Party of the Laboring Masses). Sonny since the split has been influenced by the Socialist Alliance in Australia as well as by the example of Chavez in Venezuela: the concluding chapters of his book discuss in some detail the various military intrigues that the PLM and other forces have tried to relate to in recent years, looking for a Philippine Chavez.
Other figures from this same Manila leadership can be found in the PM, the Partido ng Manggagawa (the Workers’ Party or Labor Party). The PM has just come out of a brief and unhappy marriage with the PLM. As a brief, first time visitor to the Philippines I find it impossible to make very sophisticated assessments of the different forces: but the Workers Party comrades I find myself with are certainly impressive; and they are very much in the thick of some of the key organising efforts and labour battles in the Philippines today.
Another significant split from the CPP was the Central Mindanao Region section of the party, which today is the Revolutionary Workers Party of Mindanao (the RPM-M). Committed to socialism and internationalism but all of a sudden without international links, and looking to reassess the tragic legacy of Maoism, the RPM-M is now the Philippines section of the Fourth International. As the name implies, they are very much a party of Mindanao. Though they no longer have the “protracted people’s war” strategy, they do still have a substantial armed wing – a necessity for self defence in the highly militarised environment of Mindanao.
A few years ago forces associated with the Fourth International helped to establish the International Institute for Research and Education in Manila to facilitate socialist education and to help make links with left activists from the Philippines and around the region. It is the IIRE’s 3rd Asian Global Justice School that I have been invited to: and it is the other participants in the school who are my companions as we wait by Commonwealth Avenue.
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While we wait for the Workers’ Party contingent, others come past. By far the largest contingents, and from what I can gather the most working class, are up the road ahead of us, associated with the “national democratic” or Maoist camp: the KMU labour federation, Bayan, Gabriella, and various other groups. They are headed by a contingent of Hacienda Luisita workers and their families, who we see later that night shaking their fists in the face of the riot police. The line of the CPP can be shown to be tragically mistaken in all sorts of ways, but in the stark social reality of the Philippines that doesn’t reduce its significance as a pole of attraction. A group of more correct but smaller and less ideologically coherent organisations will have a hard time pitted against a large, coherent and battle-hardened organisation such as the CPP.
The PM, the PLM and the KPD, along with various other organisations, are collaborating on this SONA rally. We have been past the youth contingents of the three organisations, further up Commonwealth Avenue. Perhaps they are a couple of hundred combined. But they are outnumbered two or three to one by an impressive Maoist contingent of students which marches past, holding placards demanding 6% of GDP go to education as well as others denouncing US imperialism.
The KPD contingent is large as well, though it is explained to me that they have mobilised nationally for this rally in Manila, while other groups have rallied in regional cities around the Philippines.
Now the PM contingent comes up. We have a small contingent of health workers, a public sector reform group, some urban poor, a youth contingent, an anti monopoly group called SLAM. Maybe we are a few hundred, maybe more: I find it hard to tell which of the various groups are associated with the PM.
We march slowly, pausing every so often to let some other group catch up. Street traders move around the contingent, one cigarette seller sporting a PM banner on his tray.
Soon we come up to the Philippine Airlines Employees Association (PALEA), whose President, Gerry Rivera, is the vice president of the PM. It is easily the most serious contingent of workers marching with the PM. Maybe twenty PALEA members on motorbikes are out the front of our contingent, motors revving. Over the din I get chatting to a couple of PALEA members, who are extremely well informed about the dispute at Qantas about outsourcing. I express my slight surprise and embarrassment that Philippines workers know so much more about Australia than Australian workers (myself included) know about the Philippines. “We see Australia as a place where unions are strong”, comes the reply – and besides, an Australian is the head of the International Transport Federation, which has pledged solidarity with PALEA. I get to tell stories about the MUA dispute of 1998, how yes the unions are still strong in Australia but how even the strongest union muscles, if not used, will atrophy.
But now we are moving again. The PM/PALEA contingent now is behind the KPD contingent, ahead of the PLM contingent, and everyone seems to have grown. A group of workers in heavy overalls is carrying a large cardboard ship with a slogan written along the side: Hanjin Workers: We Work to Live, Not to Die. We march past an urban poor community where neatly lettered banners hang off every building, protesting a planned demolition. We pass another where dozens of kids are standing in a bus stop shelter, chanting slogans in Tagalog. I ask my friends what the chants are: for free education, I’m told. At another point we pass a large group of women doing elaborate sing song chants, wearing T-shirts promoting women’s reproductive rights.
At one point we shuffle across the median strip to the other side of the road. I don’t really grasp the significance of this at the time, but by crossing the road we are on the non barricaded side of the street, and stand a chance of getting a little closer to the Congress than the blockade line the police have set up, and the sound stage that the Maoists have set up next to the police line.
The police are not happy. About a kilometre down the street they seize on a slight gap between the PM contingent and the one in front to direct three typically fast-moving lanes of Manila traffic right through the march. I have never seen traffic used as a weapon before: suddenly everyone is shouting. The cops are red in the face, screaming and pointing for the cars to keep coming to break up the march. The PALEA members jump in front of the cars and are screaming at them to stop. Passengers are shouting at drivers, drivers at the cops and at us. For a second it feels like its going to turn ugly, then a truck lurches to a stop, the rest of the traffic stops, we get on our way and the demonstrators are laughing and slapping each other on the back.
We pass the point, where, on the other side of the road, the Maoists are burning their effigy. Soon enough we reach a point where a wall of riot police are blocking our way. A massive truck is somehow manoeuvred through the crowd and a program of speakers follows from the PM, PLM, and various other groups. Not having any Tagalog I can’t follow the speeches but chat with some more people from PALEA and PM, who are interested to hear that a group with a different tradition from Socialist Alliance exists in Australia, and that Socialist Alternative, while tiny, is now the largest far left group in the country.
Despite the humidity, and hours of marching, I’m still buzzing as eventually my friends escort me away from the thinning crowd as the cops, lane by lane, return Commonwealth Avenue back to the traffic.
_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _
It’s more than a month now since I came back from Manila. I’ve moved house, started back at work, resumed normal life. But I find it hard to get the Philippines out of my head. Part of this is following events over there. To no-one’s surprise, President Aquino has ruled against the workers in the Philippine Airlines dispute. Management is preparing to sack thousands of workers, while the workers are escalating their resistance.
Another part of my preoccupation comes from the difference between knowing something intellectually and actually seeing or experiencing just a fraction of it. There’s the obscenity of a society where tens of millions of people are simply surplus to the needs of capitalist production, and therefore left literally on the scrapheap. And there’s the dedication, humour and seriousness of the activists I met, organising for socialism in a society where it can earn you a bullet, and where so many have seen so much horror. People ask me about my trip to the Philippines and I don’t even know where to start.
Sometimes the Philippines can seem a long way away: sometimes it can seem no distance at all. At the end of August I’m working at a construction site in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, building a car park at a Broadmeadows shopping centre. I look up and see a truck clattering up Pascoe Vale Road, hauling a shipping container with HANJIN painted in huge white letters on the side. I blurt out to one of my workmates that I shook hands with an organiser at the Hanjin ship yards. I explain the 31 deaths in five years, the legal devices to stop a union getting in. My friend listens politely, swears in sympathy, shakes his head. It’s a terrible story, but it’s hardly even news. Bosses cutting corners on safety to maximise profit, and keeping the union weak or non existent, is something any construction worker can relate to.
At smoko my workmates discuss the sackings at OneSteel and the outsourcing at Qantas, how the executives get their bonuses while the workers get the chop. I get to throw in about the Philippine Airlines dispute, how the workers there are facing an identical threat as we are all pitted by our rulers in a race to the bottom. When we discuss our common problems, it’s obvious: we are in different countries, with very different histories, but we are the same class. We face the same enemy, and share a common struggle.
Building the organisations, and finding the political clarity, that we need to fight and to win this struggle: this is no easy or straightforward task. But if the history of the Philippines teaches us anything, surely it teaches us that it is as necessary as it is difficult.
Around twenty people attended the Global Justice School over the ten days I spent there.
About half a dozen comrades from the Philippines were there full time, from the RPM-M, the IIRE, and the PM. Each of these organisations is mentioned above, with links.
We had a comrade from the New Socialist Party in Sri Lanka, who have been very active in union struggles against neoliberalism, and against the genocidal war against the Tamil minority. They are the Sri Lankan section of the Fourth International.
There was one comrade from Bangladesh: when someone casually mentions he is in a Marxist-Leninst party of 25,000 and is an organiser for a mass organisation that organises 1.5 million farmers, you take a bit of notice! The Communist Party of Bangladesh were a pro-Moscow party: the history on their website mentions the “disaster” of the collapse of the East European regimes. They obviously take international links very seriously, and seem quite eclectic in this.
Four comrades from Indonesia attended the school. One was a student from Yogyakarta involved in the collective study club (SEKBER), a mainly student group involved in solidarity with the mass struggle of local farmers resisting their land being grabbed for an Australian-owned iron ore mine. The other three were impressive comrades (one student, one labour organiser, and a national leader) from the KPRM-PRD, one of the offshoots of the PRD as it moved to the right under Dita Sari. They have longstanding links with the RSP here in Australia.
The Labour Party of Pakistan sent their Punjab woman’s organiser to the school. They are an organisation of some thousands, heavily involved in both workers and peasants struggles – there are many impressive stories on their website. They have origins in the CWI (the international organisation associated with the Socialist Party here in Australia), but have longstanding international links with a range of groups including the US ISO, the Socialist Alliance here in Australia, and have observer status with the Fourth International.
One comrade from the Japan Revolutionary Communist League in Japan was at the school for four days. I only had brief discussions with him, about the JRCL’s involvement in the anti-nuclear demonstrations in the wake of the Fukushima disaster.
There were also two comrades from Amsterdam, both very well versed in the history and world view of classical Marxism. Both are involved in the 4th International group in the Netherlands, Socialist Alternative Politics. They have obviously been involved for some time in working with the IIRE in Manila.
There were several other participants arriving after I left, half way through the three week conference. These included Pierre Rousset from the New Anticapitalist Party in France.
The format for the school was one topic a day: basically a talk in the morning, reports or comments from different country delegates in the afternoon, followed by general discussion. Topics included “Imperialism and Globablisation: Its Impact Past and Present”, “Sexual and Gender Identities”, “Class Composition in Asia” and “the Rural Question and the Role of the Peasantry”.
The most challenging discussions for me were those that touched on aspects of the role of the working class in winning democratic and national demands – obviously a huge question in the world but not one that is my bread and butter in Australia. Just getting to know something about the history and political culture of half a dozen unfamiliar countries was also a huge challenge.
In both of these respects – general Marxist education and meeting people from diverse political environments and tendencies – the school was a terrific experience. I would thoroughly recommend that we take up any future invitations to be part of such a valuable project.
Oh and speaking of challenges, did I mention the karaoke?