Aquino, Duterte, and the folly of defeatism
The Philippines’ founding fathers were a group of extraordinary men. Lest we forget, they were also, in the halcyon of youth, profoundly oppressed colonial subjects who had to grapple with the crushing prejudice and immense power of Western empires.
Yet, even under the most impossible conditions, they refused to cower in the face of unspeakable coercion. Neither did they forego the dignity of their human agency in fighting for the inalienable rights of ordinary Filipinos.
So one wonders, more than a century since the times of Rizal et al.: How did we end up with a leader who not only rejects the Enlightenment values, but also enthusiastically grovels before Eastern empires? Why is President Duterte, the penultimate macho politico, so unabashedly deferential to Beijing despite its creeping invasion of our waters?
To gain some perspective, let’s briefly review the courageous sacrifices of our forefathers and, more recently, how far the Benigno Aquino III administration went to assert the Philippines’ sovereign rights and core interests in the face of Chinese intimidation.
During his first personal encounter with continental Europe, Rizal was at once astonished and horrified by the anonymity of his people, with Europeans “call[ing] me Chinese, Japanese, American [i.e., Latin American], etc., but no one Filipino!”
“Unfortunate country — no one knows a thing about you!” Rizal bemoaned. Back then, the Philippines was, according to Isabelo de los Reyes, a “remote Spanish colony on which the light of civilization shines only tenuously.”
And yet, our founding fathers refused to be intimidated, and summoned the courage to build a brave new Philippines. In time, Rizal’s martyrdom would turn him into the lightning rod of a pan-Asian anti-colonial revolution, from China to Indonesia and India.
Emilio Aguinaldo ably commanded a patriotic army that drew on the engineering talents of the ilustrado class, from Edilberto Evangelista to José Alejandrino and later Antonio Luna, who clearly gave seemingly invincible imperial armies a run for their money.
In his classic “A Question of Heroes,” Nick Joaquin brilliantly described how Aguinaldo’s forces were largely responsible for the defeat of the Spanish empire — and how close he came to becoming the master of Manila, the “Pearl of the Orient,” had he not been so naïve about the imperial designs of supposed American allies.
And if only Heneral Luna were not betrayed and, instead, allowed to carry on with his scorched-earth guerrilla warfare strategy against the Americans, the country would have had a decent shot at preserving Asia’s first post-colonial republic.
Far from hapless romantics, Rizal and his followers were a league of extraordinarily courageous and talented men who selflessly battled multiple empires in the name of the Filipino people. And, not to forget, brave and patriotic women like Gabriela Silang and Melchora “Tandang Sora” Aquino were integral to the formation of the Filipino nation.
A century later, the once mighty West is in relative decline, and the primary imperial threat is from the East. As early as the 1990s, the Philippines had faced growing Chinese incursions into Philippine waters, which culminated in the coercive occupation of Mischief Reef. Two decades later, China upped the ante by preventing us from developing precious energy resources in Reed Bank and, in clear violation of a mutual disengagement agreement, effectively occupied Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012.
How did the Aquino administration respond? It took China to international court, allocated billions of dollars to the modernization of our air force and navy, fortified alliances with the United States and Japan, and pushed for greater unity among Asean nations in the South China Sea.
Aquino’s brave response led to neither war, nor the sinking of our fishing boats by Chinese militia vessels. Nor did bilateral economic relations suffer, as bilateral trade with China remained robust.
Surely, successive Filipino administrations can be blamed for not anticipating and, accordingly, properly fortifying our position in the West Philippine Sea. But why does President Duterte claim he is “inutile” vis-à-vis China’s incursions? History shows that we can stand up to empires and, often, even prevail. The least we owe Rizal and our forefathers who sacrificed everything for the Philippines is not to condone mindless defeatism and, instead, preserve our national dignity in the face of ravenous empires.
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