Duterte’s colonized mind
On the surface, Rodrigo Duterte may seem to be the ultimate anticolonial president: a Third World leader lashing out at his former colonial masters, and the West at large. In the 2016 Asean Summit, he brought up the Bud Dajo massacre, and one year later, he would call on America to “give us back those Balangiga bells.” He has called out European nations for their hypocrisy, and he recently called Canadians “stupid,” accusing them of treating Filipinos “like garbage.”
Some might call him brave to speak to Western countries in such strong terms. But at his core, Mr. Duterte reveals himself to be a fully colonized subject.
In the first place, his anti-Americanism is not ideological, but personal. He was very offensive to Barack Obama, but deferential toward Donald Trump, even singing a song “upon the orders of the commander in chief of the United States.” On multiple occasions in the past, he brought up the denial of his application for a US visa, adding a personal bitterness insofar as the United States is concerned. His opposition to America, it seems, is not based on Uncle Sam’s historic wrongs, but based on his own experiences—and who is criticizing his war on drugs.
What makes his attitude worse, however, is that he borrows the same racist mindset that’s also part of the colonial legacy. He has, for instance, insulted blacks — i.e., describing Obama as “so very black and arrogant,” ridiculing the blackness of an American immigration officer, and even referring to a prosecutor of the International Criminal Court as “that black woman.” Instead of showing solidarity with other peoples of color, he seems to have acquired what Frantz Fanon calls “borrowed colonialism.”
Another evidence of Mr. Duterte’s colonized mind is the selectiveness of his posturing: While he talks tough against Western “imperialists,” he seems to have no problem with the imperialism affecting our very shores. “Realistically, we are no match against China,” he says — a statement that, regardless of its veracity, no thinking president of a proud nation would say. “I need China more than anybody else… I just simply love Jinping,” he said shortly before leaving for the Boao Forum.
In addition to his fanboy diplomacy, he hits the European Union for having human rights preconditions attached to its aid (an understandable requisite because you don’t want to fund tyrants). Yet he welcomes Chinese loans: Note the big difference between aid which is free and a loan that the Filipino people must pay back — and with relatively high interest.
Based on his actions and words, his world view is that the world is made up of powerful and weak nations—and for the latter, geopolitics is about taking sides. This Cold-War-era thinking is reflected in his bizarre remarks about forming an Axis with China and Russia; it comes as no surprise that he once referred to Vladimir Putin as the “president of the Soviet Union.”
The President’s world view, no matter how flawed or erratic, holds opportunities. It is true, for instance, that as part of a multipolar world, the Philippines should pursue what he calls an “independent foreign policy.” United, Asean can be a significant economic and political force that can probably push our security interests more than a Trumpian, inward-looking America—or a Xi-Jinping-helmed, expansionist China.
But to seek new friendships does not mean ending old ones; contrary to how the President seems to view it, diplomacy is not a zero-sum game. In fact, given our shared experiences, we can use our colonial past to build ties with other formerly colonized nations. When Mr. Duterte went to Peru for the Apec Summit, I hoped that he would say something about our brotherhood with Latin America (we were once governed from Mexico and have so much in common with the Latinos); had he criticized American imperialism a la Eduardo Galeano, he may even have received warm applause. Instead, he met with Putin.
I guess it is asking for too much to expect an incoherent leader to have a coherent ideology. But the least he can do is to speak with dignity, as befitting the head of a sovereign, postcolonial nation.
Alas, the more he speaks, the more he reveals his colonized mind.
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