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Is the Philippines Really Ready To Break From Colonialism?

Politics is often likened to child-play and it's an accurate allegory, to say the least. Stanley Kubrick's Cold War classic, Dr. Strangelove, gives an absurd yet prime example of this. There is a scene where the American president, played by Peter Sellers, speaks to his Soviet counterpart about the possibility of "the bomb". In fact, it's such a silly scene that it reminded me of the recent exchanges between US President Obama and the Philippines' very own President Duterte:

"I'm sorry too, Dimitri, I'm very sorry ... Alright, you're sorrier than I am but I'm sorry as well ... I am as sorry as you are, Dimitri. Don't say that you're more sorry because I'm just as capable of being as sorry as you are."

It's only been less than 100 days since Duterte assumed office, yet the country is already hard hit by the recent changes. From killing sprees to geopolitical disputes, everyday Filipinos are faced with new conundrums. What better way to start your Monday morning than with Obama cancelling his meeting with Duterte after publicly calling him "a son of a bitch". This comes after criticisms from the United States on the Philippines' use of extrajudicial killings. Duterte retaliated by asking Obama to answer for his mistakes first, namely the war in Syria and police brutality back home.

But what was more important were the bits largely missed by international headlines, particularly Duterte's comments on the Philippines ceasing to be an American colony.

"I am a president of a sovereign state and we have long ceased to be a colony," Duterte raged, "I am only answerable to the Filipino people who elected me as president."

The unfolding of these events left many on social media disapproved, with others praising the president for his "righteous words" against the "ills of American imperialism".

"President Rodrigo Duterte's strong statement against United States President Barack Obama is courageous [...] especially considering the long history of unequal and oppressive PH-US colonial relations", said in a statement by the social democratic youth organization, Anakbayan, "It is time we end the unequal, lopsided, oppressive US-PH relationship and stand up for our sovereignty."

The Philippines has been an independent state since 1946, yet the effects of colonialism are still felt up to this day. I have heard many Filipinos try to reason out the country's underdevelopment because "the Philippines is still a young country". Perhaps this is true, but whether or not the country is really ready to break from the chains of colonialism is something to be questioned. Yes, we have "long ceased to be a colony" of the United States. But I doubt we have come far enough to consider ourselves removed from this.

Let's take Duterte as Exhibit A. His fight against drugs have been the driving force of his campaign, arguably borrowed from the former US president Richard Nixon. Nixon's declaration for a war on drugs came as a knee-jerk reaction from the civil rights movements that were gaining momentum in the United States, particularly from the black and hippie communities who heavily opposed the Vietnam War. The war on drugs not only targeted the Mexican and Columbian drug cartels but also drug users in America, whose protests during the 1970's were overshadowed by Nixon's commitment to counter the communists.

In order to maintain political influence in Southeast Asia, the Philippines happily accepted the United States' request for more support in the region. This is evidenced by the "Dangerous Drugs Act" of 1972 - just a year after Nixon declared his war on drugs - which seeks to deter the proliferation of psychoactive substances in the country. Today, Duterte remains keen on this agenda. Indeed, it was Philippine police chief Ronald Dela Rosa who told media persons about his prospective visit to Colombia, boasting how the country had won the war against drugs. This was despite numerous accounts reporting that the war in Colombia has, in fact, failed.

Healthcare faces similar problems. For decades, those campaigning for the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill have been grappling to give Filipinos equal access to reproductive healthcare. The government's perseverance to make family planning methods an option for all has been driven by economics. The latest statistics by the Philippine Statistics Authority reveals that three babies were born every minute in 2009, in which four in every ten were considered "illegitimate". By 2045, the total population may hit 145 million, nearly double of what it is now. Because of this, the Philippines is falling into a poverty trap where parents can no longer sustain themselves or their many children. Even after the RH Bill was passed in 2013, the allocation of government-sponsored contraceptives was scrapped from this year's health budget as it raised hairs in the Catholic Church. A reflection of Spanish canon laws? Undoubtedly. Post-colonialism at its finest? Absolutely. If you disagree, just lament on the fact that the Philippines is the only country in the world where divorce is still illegal.

Is this the result of imperialism in the Philippines, namely the inability of Filipinos to think for themselves, the need to follow the steps that our colonialists sorely mistook? Clearly, colonialism hasn't gone away, nor will it be going away anytime soon. The sole fact that Duterte stands amongst us reflects the need for Filipinos to have a "strong man" distinguishing to them from what is right and wrong. Colonialism goes beyond the unequal economic relations between the core and the periphery. It is characterised by certain surface values so deeply embedded in day-to-day Filipino life: the compadre relations in the family, patron-clientelism in politics, the feeling of indebtedness by those who do you favours, the mañana habit of leaving tasks to be done by others. These attitudes permeate into the country's political structures, creating the ideal breeding grounds for corruption. This, in turn, further exacerbates the single most important problem that politicians are yet to tackle: poverty.

In many ways, colonialism lives on amongst us, amongst the Filipinos that have committed to traditions, that have been easily swooned by strong men who appear to have the answers. But this brings us back to an essential question: what does it mean to be Filipino? Can we imagine a Filipino removed from the amalgam of Spanish, Chinese, Muslim and American influence? Isn't this what makes us characteristically Filipino? Such entrenched colonial mentalities, however, should be used by Filipinos instead of consumed by them. Prioritising human capital - labour, education, social welfare, creativity - has been a pattern seen across the East Asian world, and one that has not been evident in the Philippines just yet. By empowering the Filipino people with the resources to participate in the political sphere, they attain the means to become their own strong men.

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