National independence: Rizal vs Duterte
“The earliest form of nationalism … arose out of the vast expansion of some of [Western] empires overseas,” observed the late Benedict Anderson.
Nationalism, he wrote, “was pioneered by settler populations from the Old Country, who shared religion, language and customs with the metropole but increasingly felt oppressed by and alienated from it.”
In particular, he focused on the role of creoles, namely the alienated mestizos, who were more bound to the soil and blood of their birthplace than the continent of their ancestors.
Think of the great Latin American hero Simón Bolívar (El Libertador), an aristocratic criollo (creole) who led the early 19th-century revolutionary wars of independence across a large swath of lands, encompassing today’s Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama.
His enemy was no less than the birthplace of his ancestors, namely the Spanish Empire.
Dr. Jose Rizal, in many ways, was an heir to Bolivar’s revolutionary spirit, which combined the European Enlightenment values of democratic freedom and individual rights with patriotic solidarity and national dignity.
As Anderson noted, Rizal and his Katipuneros were the “visionary forerunners of all the other anticolonial movements in the [Asian] region.” If “[s]een from Latin America,” however, our anticolonial revolution was, along with Cuba’s, “the last of the Spanish imperial possessions to have thrown off the yoke, 75 years after the rest.”
In short, we were the latecomers in the broader revolutionary awakening across the Spanish imperium. But in Asia, as Pankaj Mishra’s “From the Ruins of Empire” eloquently put it, we were the forerunners of modern nationalism. Rizal was a hero of the Malayan race and broader Indo-Pacific realm, thus the many Malaysians and Indonesians bearing his name.
Rizal’s notion of “independence,” however, was highly nuanced, unlike the black and white versions that were adopted by some of his disciples and future admirers. For Rizal, independence never meant complete rejection of our European heritage, particularly the values of freedom and democracy, and enmeshment in an international society that had its own age-old norms of behavior.
A sovereign nation is not foolishly autarkic, or an isolated island sans obligations to the broader family of nations. Sovereignty also means responsibility, both to your own citizens as well as to the international society.
This is why, for instance, a regime can’t just massacre its own citizens with complete disregard for international treaties and, most fundamentally, the “universal” declaration of human rights, which our own diplomats like Salvador Lopez helped craft in the mid-20th century. As President Fidel Ramos, arguably among our best leaders in living memory, put it, independence should be anchored by recognition of our “interdependence” with the broader outside world and, correspondingly, the obligations, rights and privileges that come with it.
Rizal also rejected the mindless embrace of violence and chutzpah as a liberating catharsis. A man of the world, with unparalleled wisdom, our national hero knew the consequences of atavistic nationalism.
He was even prophetic. Decades after his death, many Afro-Asian anticolonial revolutions, led by the likes of Gadhafi and Mugabe, quickly descended into reigns of terror with even more oppressive forms of indigenous dictatorship.
As Rizal warned in “El Filibusterismo,” “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?” One must secure independence, he also wrote in “Noli Me Tangere,” “by making ourselves worthy of it” first.
President Duterte claims to be a nationalist and often invokes anticolonial rhetoric to justify his policies. Most recently, he even called Rizal “my hero.” Yet it’s hard to see the similarities.
Arguably, it’s the Malaysian leader Mahathir Mohamad, especially in his latest version, who seems to be the true heir of Rizal. While resisting Western neocolonialism, Mahathir has also stood up to the “new colonialism” of China, the Asian juggernaut that Mr. Duterte has overzealously courted.
While pushing back against Western criticisms of his politics, Mahathir is overseeing the liberal democratization of Malaysia by drawing on the best elements of the Enlightenment Values, including press freedom.
This is the true independence that Rizal had in mind for the Malayan peoples, one that transcends violence, chutzpah and delusions of autarky, while resisting both Western and Eastern imperialism.