Is Duterte’s presidency a continuation of the revolution?

Seems the 1896 Revolution never truly ended.


( The Filipino nation was born of resistance, revolt, and revolution. Since 1872, we have been defining what the nation was, is, and should be. If we stick by the official version, the revolution took up arms on August 29, 1896 in Balintawak, possibly somewhere within that barrio marked by a raptor’s nest. Every Filipino knows what happened afterwards: the proclamation of Independence on June 12, 1898; a constitution for the republic with a government on the run; the American invasion and the Filipino factionalism that doomed Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, and Antonio Luna and with them, the republic itself. Aguinaldo had the misfortune of living to see a compromised independence since he lived too long—by then, Luna and Mabini were long dead; and so, they live on as revolutionary heroes.


How their revolution would have gone is anybody’s guess. But I do believe that Mabini and Luna were headed in a more radical direction if cholera and the bolo didn’t do their work; had Luna achieved the Premiership of the Republic, he would have forced the Americans to negotiate.



While some would disagree, I will say that the revolution never ended. But we don’t know how it never ended. Cultural historians and writers, the National Artists Nick Joaquin and F. Sionil Jose for example, would agree that it didn’t end: but we have to ask Joaquin’s question, “Whose revolution?” Since the revolution didn’t end and its victory is still partial, every Filipino living then and now can claim it as theirs. They aren’t just heirs to it, like the French and the Americans or even the Cubans, but are, instead, continuing combatants—metaphorically or literally—for the revolution.


The revolution took on different directions. Those who continued armed struggle after 1902 were considered  “tulisanes” and  Macario Sakay went to the gallows as one. The struggle went through a parliamentary phase with Quezon, Osmeña, and Luna’s laboratory partner Francisco Tongio Liongson, demanding immediate independence by negotiation. They got it under America’s “benevolent” terms not immediately, but remarkably without much bloodshed unlike in India, despite the nonviolence of Gandhi. But that was the struggle of whatever remained of the Ilustrados. As for the masses, they combined folk religion or an inculturated Catholicism, sometimes taking up arms in their struggle for immediate independence. Thus the masses pay tribute to the Philippine Independent Church (which is often left out in ecumenical prayers in State occasions since it is not rent seeking and demands the redistribution of land as it did in 1902). The masses wanted the redistribution of land which the Republic’s winning factions denied. It thus continued to be a thorn in the side of the elite, which believed that independence should be from the United States.

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Independence from the United States in 1946 was the culmination of the liberal aspirations of the elite and the hoped-for changes by the masses. In that moment they were one amidst the ruins of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, but not for long. The Huk Rebellion flared right after. The same problems the Filipino Republic of 1898 faced, were the same that the 1946 Republic faced: the bedevilling question of the redistribution of land. The presidential politics of post-independence Philippines continually dealt with this by paying lip service to redistribution, or with a watered-down agrarian reform. Marcos would create another class of oligarchs to plunder the people. Corazon Aquino’s reestablishment of liberal democracy with Marcos’ ouster in 1986, did the same but also reestablished the oligarchy and installed new ones with an even greater tendency towards rent-seeking.

This reestablished oligarchy privatized the Philippine state, thus accelerating the marginalization of the people. The evidence is the fact that the poverty rate declined slowly, which is evidence that programs to bring the poor out of poverty were ineffective. A foreign visitor cannot fail to notice the increasing gap between rich and poor, the contrast between the glittering malls, town centers, and the slums. Unlike in Vietnam, where the poverty rate was more than halved over the last 20 years, from almost 30% to 12%, in the Philippines, it was 33% 20 years ago and in 2016, at the end of Benigno S. Aquino III’s presidency it was only down to 26%. This, despite the vaunted Aquino claim of 7% economic growth built upon Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s neoliberal macroeconomics. To whom did the growth go?



These inequities, past and present, link the revolution with the living memory of the people. In the 21st Century, with a more globalized Filipino society that has more than 10 million citizens working overseas, we see a new political dynamic with new means of communication and expression in social media. The experiences of Filipinos abroad, with their families in the Philippines, have empowered them to see the reality of continuing marginalization which politicians in the past obscured with their promises. The promises no longer hold water and with the incompetence of the national leadership, this has been made abundantly clear. I was in a foreign country when they elected Rodrigo Duterte. I can relate to the rage of the overseas Filipinos. Their rage is mine as well.


Is Duterte’s election a revolution? It is not a one-man show as portrayed by some critics (read: “dictatorship”), but was supported by at least 40% of votes in a plurality election. I would say it is a revolution, because the direction of his leadership appears to point to radical initiatives within a pragmatic framework; but 45 days is too short to say with certainty what the results will be. There appears to be a direction towards an independent foreign policy less beholden to Washington, with a pragmatism that demands détente with Beijing on the West Philippine Sea. Together with this, there is a commitment to building up a credible defense anchored on a more professional and better trained regular army and a revived citizen army.



Some things are beyond dispute. Duterte’s government hails from the resource-rich but marginalized island of Mindanao. Duterte comes from the provincial principalia and is hardly someone from the masses. However, being part of the marginalized provincial elite, he has a better understanding of what marginalization is, and the displacement of the indigenous people. Anyone who has traveled in Mindanao will see what marginalization is all about, the real nature of which is often beyond the imagination of the more affluent in Manila. Here is where we find Duterte’s position on mining and other environmentally extractive industries, meaningful, for these industries, if they do not adhere to standards, contributes to this marginalization.  


The affluent in Manila will have to confront what this marginalization really is, for it really explains Duterte’s rise. Mindanao and the Visayas also tell Manila what an empowered and more responsive local government can do to make lives better for citizens. These are better seen in Mindanao than in any region of the Philippines.


Duterte’s actions within 30 days of his inauguration are not typical of what previous elected presidents did. Duterte has taken a more populist and radical direction and has explicitly recognized that the ills of this country is due to its irresponsible oligarchy: something unthinkable, or at least unmentionable, to previous presidents who had to repay their political debts to the oligarchy that backed them. This is not to say that Duterte will not favor oligarchs. He likely will, for pragmatic political reasons. But they will have to toe his ideological line and it will be interesting to see if they will be forced to invest in regional development, something that is key to Duterte’s federalist ideology. These oligarchs will have to prove their stake in the nation or else be removed.



The long-term goals of Duterte’s government appear to head towards a fundamental change in our system of government. But that is within the ambit of any revolution. However, this alone is not enough to secure it. For example, the EDSA 1986 Revolution changed the system but failed to secure the needed gains.


The war against drug abuse and criminality is a low-hanging fruit that resonates with the masses whose daily lives are confronted by it. The war, if successful, will show that corruption here goes beyond local interests but is driven by foreign interests, too. Thus, to destroy this problem is necessary for the stability of the nation.


Duterte’s revolution requires that insurgents accept a political settlement only for patriotic reasons and nothing else. Duterte showed good faith in releasing Communist negotiators but his strategic masterstroke is to declare a unilateral ceasefire which he expected to be immediately reciprocated. This brought to the attention of the Left, Center, and Right the need for a quick resolution to the insurgency which the people desperately want. How the Communists will respond will have to be seen, but their initial reaction has exposed them to the people; the factionalism and the inflexible ideologies within the Left that has so far doomed its revolution to being an interminably postponed one. The last election shows how clear this is. A significant part of the Left supported Grace Poe and another supported Duterte, based more on political expediency than ideological principle. The Left, though powerful enough to elect a “Makabayan” block in Congress, is divided, so that it cannot demand power on its own terms or even elect a single senator from a national constituency. Forty-five years of revolutionary action should have allowed them to do that and even more.  



We cannot, as a nation, afford factionalism that doomed previous installments of the revolution. If we are to prove worthy of the task, then that the stranglehold of Filipinos who colonize the nation must be removed—only then will we finally be free. But this will not be an easy walk to freedom.


For a revolution always involves the transfer of power from the powerful to the marginalized and oppressed. This may take several generations. It may be violent—but it need not be so, as we have seen in South Africa.


The painful process includes confronting the contradictions within the people and there will be losers and winners. Like anyone who comes from the principalia, Duterte has his own contradictions and his critics don’t tire of pointing these out. One of these is politically accommodating Marcos’s burial, a potentially divisive decision.


In all of these, we have to realize the sensibility and wisdom of the people. Since the birth of the Filipino republic, the people have repeatedly insisted that change takes place within the processes of representative and constitutional democracy, with all its guarantees of civil liberties: and that any other way will be extremely unacceptable, including Martial Law. This adherence to democratic processes we can be sure of, and serves as a blunt warning to those who would think otherwise.


Change, though always fragile, is only possible with years of stability and this should involve the consent of the people through their representatives in parliament, something that Antonio Luna, the revolutionary democrat, knew so well, provided that the people have the means to take back their consent, by means of the ballot and if that is no longer possible, by revolution.



And when this change has been wrought, we need people to build the nation, the young people who need not be offered as Padre Florentino’s holocaust, but who will be good administrators and technically competent, thereby equipped to meet the challenges that await in a nation at peace.


Or else we will continue to dream of writing a history of a future that will never come.


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