A Changeless Land by David Timberman
“Looking fretfully at the land around him, he realized that in all the years he had been in Manila nothing in the countryside had changed, not the thatched houses, not the ragged vegetation, not the stolid people.
Changeless land, burning sun – the words turned in his mind and he decided that they would someday make the opening lines for a poem.
My Brother, My Executioner
This book examines the elements of continuity and change in Philippine politics and government over the last quarter century. The period covered, from the early 1960s through 1988, encompasses three distinct phases: the decline of “traditional” elite democracy, the imposition of martial law and “constitutional authoritarianism” under Ferdinand Marcos, and most recently, the restoration of democracy under Corazon Aquino. By examining the elements of continuity and change during this period, this study attempts to provide a context for understanding current and future political developments in the Philippines.
Is the Philippines, to borrow Philippine novelist F. Sionil Jose’s phrase, a “changeless land”? Looked at one way, the events of the last twenty-five ears suggest that there have been important changes in Philippine politics and society. The declaration of martial law by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 was a dramatic break with the post-war democratic tradition. Moreover, Marcos claimed his authoritarian regime was carrying out a “revolution from the center” in order to create a “new society”. The toppling of Marcos in February 1986 has come to be known as a “people power revolution”. The resulting restoration of democracy by Corazon Aquino, though not revolutionary, was a significant (and welcomed) change after almost fourteen years of dictatorship. More recently, the nearly successful military coup attempts in August 1987 and December 1989 were the bloody indicators of another important change, namely, the increased role of the military in politics.
Accompanying and perhaps underlying these changes, however, is considerable “changelessness”. There is a sad constancy to the poverty, inequity, and injustice that characterize Philippine society, particularly in the countryside. There is a long history of society, politics and economic affairs being dominated by relatively small and surprising durable group of conservative families. Consequently, there is also a history of successive governments – both democratic and authoritarian – being unwilling or unable to enact much needed socio-economic reforms such as land reform. There is a timeless-ness to the highly personalistic nature of politics as well as to poilitics as well as to the rituals and rhetoric of political discourse. There is a predictable repetitiveness to the charges of election fraud, corruption, nepotism, and incompetence. And there are recurring debates over what it means to be a Filipino, the appropriate role of the government in the economy, and the Philippines’ complex “love-hate” relationship with the United States.
This mixture of continuity and change raises several important questions. First, how could a nation that has gone through many changes actually have changed a little? Second, why has the long-standing poverty and injustice of Philippine society not caused more change, and more radical or violent change? Third, is the Philippines’ apparent resistance to change a source of political stability or instability? And finally, does a mechanism exist to enable peaceful and positive change in the future?
These question are of more than just intellectual interest for at least two reasons. First, the issue of change in Philippine society is an important, enduring, and very real concern to many Filipinos. For many members of the traditional elite, change is viewed as inherently threatening and therefore it is something to be minimized and controlled. But for many other Filipinos, the promise of sweeping – and perhaps violent – change has considerable appeal, as demonstrate by their willingness to follow leaders who have called for such change – leaders as diverse as Ferdinand Marcos, Jose Maria Sison, founder of the Communist Party, and Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan, the leader of several military coup attempts.
For still other Filipinos, however, the effects of change, and their attitudes about it, have been more mixed. Consider the peasants of Central Luzon, for example. A particular socio-economic change – the break-down of traditional patron-client relations under the pressure of increasing commercialization of agriculture – prompted many peasants to join the Hukbalahap revolt in the late 1940s and early 1950s in an effort to restore the status quo. Twenty years later, however, some of these same peasants were transformed into staunch supporters of the Marcos government because of its land reform programme. As these examples show, Filipinos continue to debate how much change there has been, how much change is desirable, and how it should occur.
Second, the exploration of continuity and change in the Philippines is also of interest as a case study of the transition from an authoritarian government to a democratic one. The transition from authoritarianism to democracy was a dominant global trend during the later half of the 1980s, and was one that Filipinos can take in contributing to. The case of the Philippines, however, is different from many others because it is that of society attempting to return to democracy. The Aquino government’s programme of political and economic reform implicitly assumed that the restoration of the main features of pre-martial law democracy was both desirable and possible. A closer look at democracy as it was practised before martial law, however, raises worrisome questions about the effectiveness and equity of traditional elite democracy. And if traditional democracy was seriously flawed in 1970, then it is reasonable to question if its restoration in the latter half of the 1980s is in the best interest of the country as it faces the even larger challenges of the 1990s.
By examining the elements of continuity and change in the Philippines, this book seeks to do four things that, to the best of my knowledge, have not been done elsewhere. First, it seeks to place both the Marcos era and the Aquino government in a broader cultural and historical context. Secondly, it attempts to present a comprehensive account of the Philippine government and politics during the critical first years of the Aquino government. Thirdly, it offers an explanation of why the restoration of democracy under Aquino, with all its attendant shortcomings, occurred as it did. And finally, it attempts to go beyond the personality-oriented approach most journalists have used when describing contemporary Philippines politics and instead looks at the policies and institutions.
I attempt to show that after almost fourteen years of authoritarianism, a predominantly “traditional” style of democratic government and politics has re-emerged since 1986. At the same time, however, no society is static, and there have been a number of significant changes in the traditional pattern of government and politics. The re-emergence of traditional government and politics raises two important questions about the future. First, can traditional democracy successful cope with the political, social, and economic challenges that the Philippines faces in the 1990s? And secondly, is this type of democracy enduring or is it so flawed that it cannot survive? The future is, of course, impossible to predict, but the evidence gives little cause for optimism.
My assessment of democracy under Aquino focuses on the first two and a half crisis-filled years of the Aquino government (February 1986-July 1988). Only passing reference is given to subsequent developments, such as the December 1989 coup attempt. This may seem too limited or dated to some reader. However, I believe that is was precisely during this earlier period that the major contours and dynamics of Philippine politics in the post-Marcos era emerged and solidified. The Aquino government made fundamental choices about its ideology, politics, and policies. A new pattern of civilian-military relations was established. A new constitution was promulgated and congressional and local elections were held. The national legislature and local governments become operative, and political parties began to realign. The economy began to recover from the worst abuses of the Marcos era and important economic policy decisions were made. What has happened since mid-1988 is largely just a continuation of these earlier developments.
It will quickly become obvious to the reader that this book is a highly synthetic work. I sift through and borrow from the observations and analysis of many people. The cement that holds it together and gives it value, I hope, is my effort to trace the elements of continuity and change from the pre-Marcos period to the present. I make no pretenses of offering a new, tidy, or all-encompassing model of Philippine politics. Instead, I have tried to identify important influences and recurring patterns of behaviour, as well as present and weigh the varied interpretations of Philippine affairs that I find most plausible. The result is, I hope, a composite framework that can serve as a helpful guide to understanding contemporary Philippine affairs.
In Part I of this book (Chapter 1-3) I sketch the key characteristic of traditional pre-martial law government and politics and identify the political and socio-economic changes that were under way prior to the imposition of martial law in 1972. I conclude that traditional elite democracy was seriously, but not necessarily fatally, flawed. Its failure, I believe, was due primarily to Marcos’s personal political ambition, but also to the absence of a strong commitment to democracy within the traditional politic and economic leadership.
In Part II (Chapters 4 and 5) I trace the initial successes and subsequent failure of the Marcos dictatorship. I show that while Marcos was responsible for many significant changes in nature of government and politics, he also succumbed or chose to reinforce a number of “traditional” patterns of government and politics. I discuss the sad legacy of the Marcos era in considerable detail because of its important influence on politics and the economy during the first years of the Aquino government.
In Part III (Chapter 6-11), the major part of the book, I describe the return to democratic government and politics under President Corazon Aquino. I show how a combination of factors caused Aquino to restore a political system similar in many respects to pre-martial law elite democracy. At the same time, I identify the ways in which the post-Marcos political landscape is different from the pre-martial law period, including the increased influence of the military and entrenchment of the communist movement. I also examine the Aquino government’s major economic policy decisions with a view towards determining the government’s commitment to improving the distribution of economic opportunities and benefits. Particular attention is paid to the process resulting the passage of the 1988 Comprehensive Agrarian Reform Law (CARL), which, I believe, reveals an extremely limited commitment to genuine socio-economic change on the part of the political leadership. Finally, I conclude by suggesting a number of major challenges that the democratic system will face in the 1990s, and identifying some of the factors likely to determine the system’s success in meeting these challenges.
The division of this book into three parts reflects the three major periods of Philippine politics since the 1960’s: elite democracy, authoritarianism, and restored democracy. The divisions however, also serve a second purpose, relating to the reader’s level of expertise. The first part is intended to provide the non-specialist reader with the historical and cultural context I believe is necessary to understand contemporary Philippine politics. It is a distillation and interpretation of many earlier works familiar to specialist on the Philippines. The second part is a review and assessment of Marcos’s authoritarianism, considerably more detailed than Part I. Its value to the specialist reader, I hope, will be in its fairly comprehensive analysis of the effects of Marcos’s policies on government, politics and the economy. Part III, which covers the restoration of democracy under Aquino, will be of interest to the specialist and non-specialist alike.
There is at least one important topic not covered in great depth in this book: the role the United States plays in Philippine politics. An extended treatment of this complex and controversial topic is omitted in part because of the limitations of time and space, and in part because I believe that the U.S. role in domestic Philippine affairs is often over-stated. This is not to say that the role of the United States in Philippines affairs is insignificant. American popular culture continues to pervade the Philippines. The United States still has a significant, though much reduced influence on the Philippine economy. The Philippine-U.S. relationship, and particularly the presence of the U.S. Military Bases, continues to be an important issue in domestic Philippine politics. Moreover, the United States has played a very important role at certain critical points in Philippine history, such as when the U.S. Government quietly accepted Marcos’ imposition of Martial law in 1972; when the United States pressured Marcos to hold a free and fair election in 1986; or most recently, when the U.S. air force intervened to help quell the December 1989 coup attempt. On the whole, however, I do not believe that the U.S. Government has a sustained or decisive influence on most of the political and governmental process described in this book. Put another way, I believe Filipinos – and not Americans – are the ultimate determiners of the nation’s political destiny.
Finally, this book is a personal effort to understand and explain a sometimes frustrating, often paradoxical, and always fascinating country. Like many other foreigners who have lived there, I have been simultaneously impressed and distressed by Philippine society. I have been impressed by the hospitality and generosity, the patience and perseverance, and the intelligence and humour of Filipinos. But at the same time, I have been distressed by the predominance of self-interest, the inequity and injustice, and the lack of unity and consensus in Philippine society. This book, therefore, is my own effort to understand and where possible reconcile, some of the apparent contradictions.
Over the years, more than a few American observers of Philippine affairs have been guilty of judging the Philippines by American standard. I have tried to avoid perpetuating this tradition by drawing extensively on Filipino commentary and analysis. Moreover, when criticizing certain shortcoming and failures of Philippines politics, I have tried to use the standard and criteria I have heard Filipinos use. And when assessing the challenges facing the Philippines. I have tried to view these in the context of the national goals and aspirations articulated by many Filipinos. But in the final analysis, I am what I am – an American commenting on another culture and society. I hope the Filipinos who read this will accept that my observation are based on a genuine interest in and concern for their country.