Asia Art Tours Interviews Bandilang Itim: Philippines & Anarchism

Asia Art Tours interviews Bandilang Itim.
Taken from: Part 1, Part 2.

To better understand the history of Anarchism in the Philippines and the state terror unleashed by Rodrigo Duterte, we were thrilled to speak with the Bandilang Itim collective. 

Submitted by Bandilang Itim on April 2, 2021

Asia Art Tours: From this summer of global uprisings, one of the main lessons I took away was the importance of translation. When it comes to Bandilang Itim (a Tagalog translation of ‘Black Flag’) could you let us know (and take as much time as you’d like), historically what are some of the most important abolitionist/anarchist/communist terms that define the leftism of the Philippines?

Butingtaon: With the recent laws passed to supposedly mitigate the effects of the pandemic, I think one term we should be keeping an eye on is “Solidarity,” which we at Bandilang Itim translate as “Bayanihan.” As opposed to the “Patriotism” and “Nationalism” that is constantly being invoked by those in power and those with harmful motives (very often, the same people) to maintain unity with those who continue to exploit the inhabitants of this archipelago we’ve come to call the Philippines; We offer in its place Solidarity, caring for and supporting your fellow human being, recognizing that overcoming your shared weaknesses is how we build our shared strength.

We have more in common with the Black communities in the American Empire, living in fear for their lives every time a cop car comes blaring down their neighborhoods, than with the billionaires and landowners in our own country. We have more in common with Syrian refugees than we do with the career politicians running this country nor with the political dynasties they hail from. We should not allow the State to co-opt the term Bayanihan! And we do that by actually engaging in acts of Bayanihan!

Ponkan: If I had to pick a word to describe the Philippine left today, it’s “trapo.” The biggest folly of local activism has been how much the National Democratic (Nat-Dem) Movement has tried to co-opt and bottleneck all of them towards their singular purpose. Which is ironic; a lot of what we could call social revolutions and other sorts of upheaval in these islands have been brought by the masses who aren’t that invested in the Nat-Dem programme. That monopolistic attitude has stifled any meaningful spontaneous mass movement that could be compared to the global uprisings that we’ve witnessed since 2019!

The Philippine Left is mired in its own tendency to shut its radicalism up to participate in what they denounce as liberal democracy, and they don’t seem eager to shed that radical image as they keep on shooting their movement and every potential activism in the foot in their quest to become the establishment party of the “left.” It’s been said that “you cannot perform activism outside the movement” in a display of ugly vanguardism. Especially in the time where the State is using the pandemic to further their agenda and expand their coffers at everyone’s expense. When a broad call for social resistance gains steam, the “Movement” will undercut it to further their own decaying programme. Fuck that. We need spontaneity. We need decentralized resistance. We need kids acting out their desire towards social change on their own. Not “comprehensive” ideologues inspiring kids towards 10% social work and 90% performative politics.

Asia Art Tours: In contemporary times, what were some of the most important concepts/slang to come out of Filipinx movements that define the struggles of the Philippines?

Lahumbuwan: This is a pretty good opportunity to build upon the previous answers, I think. As Butingtaon points out, you hear words like “Bayanihan” everywhere, but it’s co-opted by the State. Meanwhile, as Ponkan mentions, the Nat-Dems have developled their monopoly on resistance. With that comes their development of their own lexicon, which helps them cement their claims to the legitimacy of their monopoly—but also makes them easily identifiable by State forces.

Questions like this are harder to answer than they appear because the language of struggles in the Philippines is subject to the same challenges mentioned above. There are familiar words that need to be reclaimed—like “Bayanihan”—but there is also a challenge to develop vocabulary outside of the Nat-Dem lexicon. The avenues of resistance in the archipelago must be widened by way of critique, sure. But in the Philippines, it also demands that we (re)imaginine the language we use to refuse domination and the language with which we build alternative methods of organization.

Asia Art Tours: This summer saw (perhaps) the largest uprising in US history against police violence and Donald Trump. I know that similar discontent has been happening in the Philippines against Rodrigo Duterte and his empowerment of police violence.
Could you tell us from the Philippines, was their significant solidarity or interest in the George Floyd Uprising among Left Filipinx? And if so, how did they try to build or express solidarity?

Lahumbuwan: There was definitely interest in the summer uprisings amongst young people, but not much done to generate a significant sense of solidarity. There were connections made about how the US and the Philippines have police brutality in common, but while we saw abolitionism gain traction in the United States, that call wasn’t heeded by a massive amount of people over here. So again, interest, but not much solidarity.

In fact, one of the more viral infographics that was being circulated at the time was one that trivialized the violence of cops in the US by saying that Philippine cops kill way more people in a year. And while that might be a fact, it was unnecessary to make that specific comparison at that time. This is not to say that such facts should not be brought to light, but rather that we need to do better when showing solidarity with the struggles of those living outside the archipelago.

Magsalin: We are probably experiencing the largest wave of protest against policing globally and here in the Philippines distrust against policing and incarceration is at an all-time high. Indeed as Lahumbuwan said, Filipinos are well aware that Filipino cops are deadlier than the racist American cops just from measuring Duterte’s war on drugs alone.

Generally Filipinos from across the left political spectrum can connect police violence in so-called USA to police violence in the archipelago by comparing criminalization of Black and Indigenous communities there to the criminalization of communities here such as peasant, Indigenous, and urban poor communities. However there is a lack of specifically abolitionist conciousness that questions not merely police conduct but policing itself. Despite the leathality of policing and incarceration in the Philippines there is not yet a demand to abolish policing altogether. There are some Nat-Dems who might say “abolish the Philippine National Police (PNP)” yet still suggest alternatives that keep policing in place in a different form of institution. However the problem is not merely the conduct of police officers; the problem is not merely the institution of the Philippine National Police; the problem is the very notion of policing itself as a social relationship based on control and predicated on violence.

Just in December 2020 yet another high-profile police killing occured where an off-duty cop fatally shot two of his neighbors, a mother and her son. It was revealed that this cop was part of multiple police killing incidents but had all charges of misconduct dismissed. It is clear: this cop killed before. Had not this gruesome murder been videotaped and gone viral, I do not doubt that this cop would have gotten away with these murders too. Like in prior high-profile police killings, there was popular outrage, there was outrage. This time calls to defund or abolish the PNP grew, yet as I mentioned before these models of abolition did not question the very notion of policing and the bolder proposals merely called for a change of guard.

National Democrats, social democrats, and socialists have all failed to articulate a critique of policing itself. I think it is the task of anarchists in the archipelago known as the Philippines to forward a truly emancipatory vision of abolition.

Asia Art Tours:  For the Philippines, does the cult around figures like Marcos or Duterte, mirror or resemble the fascism/white supremacy of a figure like Donald Trump? What does the Far-Right look like in the context of the Philippines?

Malaginoo: There is a real similarity between the tactics and demagoguery of Trump and of Duterte, especially with regard to just how much they rely on social media engagement to mobilize their supporters to harassing opposition members and figures.

Strictly speaking, Duterte is not a fascist in the strictest sense of the word, i.e. nationalism towards the total renewal of society. He is however, a populist that will use repression in all its different forms to prop up political and corporate interests to perpetuate the order of things in the archipelago.

The difference with Duterte is the impunity he and his administration have operated in the past five years, hidden behind populist messaging and propaganda, similar to the Far Right in other countries. It is neoliberalism in wolf’s clothing.

Magsalin: Fascism does exist in this country and Duterte and his brand of populism does enable them. However we have to acknowledge that support for Duterte was pluralistic. Yes there was far-right support for Duterte in his campaign for president, but there was also support from Moro (Muslim indigenous people) and Lumad (non-Muslim indigenous people from Mindanao) support because Duterte ran on a campaign of peace-building. Duterte’s program for peacebuilding even won the support of Nat-Dem Makabayan Bloc who, despite already pledging support to Grace Poe, campaigned for Duterte anyway. Duterte even swayed Joma Sison, the foremost theoretician of National Democracy and the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Yet all his promises to indigenous peoples and Nat-Dems alike were all broken and in time it became clear that all his promises were mere opportunist slogans to win votes. (To this day, Nat-Dems both communist and Makabayan refuse to account for their opportunism in support for Duterte, but that is a topic for another time.) Opportunist progressive support for Duterte has mostly faded though some “Tankie DDS” holdouts do still exist. DDS, by the way, means Duterte Diehard Supporters, itself a reference to Davao Death Squad and many of the still-existing DDS are indeed conservative or far right.

So how does fascism manifest itself in the Philippines? The groups I do consider unambigously fascist are right-wing militias like the old Ilaga, Tad-tad, and Alsa Masa. There has yet to be a comprehensive study of these militias using a framework that sees these groups as specifically fascist, but I can make a few observations. Groups like the Ilaga during the Marcos dictatorship were composed from settlers to agricultural colonies in Mindanao whose interior is the equivalent of a colonial frontier in the Philippines. They were Christian-supremacist and aggressively anti-communist. Later groups like the Alsa Masa during the Cory Aquino administration were not specifically Christian-supremacist but retained anti-communism as a guiding ideology. Whether under Marcos or Aquino, these groups were used by the state to terrorize criminalized communities whether they were Moro in Marcos’ case or sympathethic to communism in Aquino’s case. Such militias still exist today, some part of the CAFGU, the state’s official paramilitary program, others as the private armies of local warlords or capitalists, and others as independent anti-Moro or anti-communist militias. How these fascist groups relate to Duterte has yet to be investigated. Perhaps they were uncomfortable bedfellows with their hated rivals the Nat-Dems or perhaps they only supported Duterte after Duterte broke with National Democracy. These deserve further investigation.

Asia Art Tours:  Regarding the current police violence in the Philippines or fascist supporters of past or present Filipinx politicians, what has anti-police and/or anti-fascist resistance consisted of? What can global movements or ‘leftists’ learn from this resistance against the police in the Philippines?

Ponkan: The National Democratic Movement remains the largest, but only by decades of co-optation and monopolization (see my answer in q1). There are legitimate feelings against police, and there are people actually organizing against the State fucking us over. One Big Strike, a student movement calling for the end of the semester because of the inanity that online classes is being forced into the youth in the middle of a pandemic.

Guess what the National Democrats did: the absolute contrary. “Advance safe return to classes!” is their new slogan. Because something something “Oust Duterte” or some dumb shit. (It could be any other president, really.) One Big Strike doesn’t have as much traction as it did since it started. I’m still severely livid about how much the Establishment Left has tried to undercut everyone.

So to paraphrase my answer: no. Nothing. Zero. Not until the establishment left dissolves itself.

Magsalin: There is not yet a coherent movement against policing and incarceration in the Philippines. Though I think this is an arena that anarchists can excel as abolitionists.

As to opposition to fascist militias, the New Peoples Army (NPA: the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines) certainly see themselves as the anti-pasistang (anti-fascist) heroes of the people. They do indeed fight against anti-communist militias, but they also were staunch supporters and apologists for Duterte in his presidential campaign and early presidency. The NPA has also proved that they reproduce the logic of policing like in their own anti-drug war when they were wooing Duterte. Even if the NPA does fight literal fascists I do not think we can rely on them. Their program of National Democracy has time and time again sided with sections of the so-called National Bourgeoisie. Now they are trying to ally with Leni Robledo, the sidelined Vice President of the Philippines and yet another liberal whose wealth only grew during the pandemic. If there’s anything global radical movements can learn from this comedy of errors is that opportunism does not work. Working with populists and liberals will not give us liberation.

Asia Art Tours: Much of the criticism I’ve read from Anarchists in the Philippines, is that movements like Communism either became co-opted by the state, or calcified into brittle, dogmatic institutions.
Could you walk us through how other leftist tendencies (such as social democracy or communism) have historically fared in the Philippines and how (if I am reading this criticism correctly) they have either become co-opted BY or become parodies OF the State?

Malaginoo: Most non-National Democratic tendencies have went to three paths: armed struggle, trade unionism and electoral politics. They’re doing somewhat fine, but the shadow of Establishment Leftism looms over them. Which is funny; we don’t need the state to co-opt radicalism—the Nat-Dems do that for us!

Magsalin: I agree with Malaginoo’s assessment. National Democracy has become a tendency to co-opt and constrain radicalism rather than intensifying it. The historian Joseph Scalice has shown that the program and practice of Stalinism in the old Partido Komunista ng Pilipinas (PKP-1930; old communist party) and the National Democracy of the newer Communist Party of the Philippines has always been to subordinate the working class movement to the interests of a faction of the so-called “National Bourgeoisie.” The old PKP-1930 allied with President Macapagal and then the dictator Marcos but this opportunism failed to manifest into real gains. This happened again with National Demcoratic forces in the Makabayan Bloc constantly allying with bourgeoisie populists and liberals first with presidential candidates Manny Villar in 2010, then Grace Poe in 2015. Then Rodrigo Duterte came into the scene and party ideologues like Joma Sison came out into full support for Duterte and curiously the Makabayan Bloc likewise followed and came to support Duterte through their actions and ground campaigning while Makabayan Bloc leadership still paid lip service to their alliance with Grace Poe. So Duterte won the presidency with the help of both the underground and legal Nat-Dem organizations.

The Nat-Dems then laundered the Duterte administration. They claim they were in a “critical alliance” with Duterte and they did make a little noise with regards to the practically genocidal war on drugs, but they continued to still support the president and his policies until it was clear their opportunism was winning them no gains and Duterte had no intention of really solving their issues. The Nat-Dems were used and up to this day they refuse to acknowledge their role in laundering Duterte and in allowing him to implement his murderous policies. I would think that this consistent opportunism has disillusioned some in the National Democratic ranks, though not enough to make a visible impact.

The social democrats have not fared much better. Akbayan is the largest social democratic grouping in the country and they delegated to essentially become the social democratic wing of the Liberal Party during the presidency of Noynoy Aquino. They were part-and-parcel to laundering the Aquino administration to the point that the major Akbayan ideologue Walden Bello resigned in disgust. Now Akbayan and their youth wing are galvanized by the success of democratic socialism in the United States so now they organize under that banner. Commendably, they refused to support Duterte’s candidacy and presidency, but alas are still collaborating with liberal oppositionists. Time will tell on whether they will strike a principled position or if their opportunism will cause them to stumble yet again.

On a final note, you asked about these tendencies as parodies of the state. Well ultimately all parties whether social democratic, National Democratic, or communist are all states-in-waiting as if little parodies of the states themselves. In a party apparatus we see the concentration of power in a circle of a few personalities or a committee. We see a division of labor between those that decide and those that carry out. This replicates the social relationship of the state where there are some who have agency and power and others that do not. Indeed this power and agency can even be the power over life and death where ardent communists were murdered by the their fellow cadre during the purges inside the CPP several decades ago. These murders did not stop inside the party, the CPP also ordered the assassination of rival socialists and social democrats. No one should ever have the power to murder their comrades. No revolutionary group should use assassination as a means of dealing with rivals; it is clear that their ideas could not stand. National Democracy is not only a history of defeats, but also a history of betrayals.

Asia Art Tours:  Are there any points of solidarity or strategic alliances that anarchists have or make with Communists/social democrats or liberals in the Philippines?

Magsalin: I recognize that there are still tasks we can cooperate on with the social democrats and socialists. One of these are opposition to the Anti-Terror Law that practically classifies anti-oppression organizing as terrorism. However while cooperating with socdems and socialists, we do not forget our principles. We will not stop our red friends from pursuing legal and other mediated remedies but we firmly remind them that we cannot trust that such mediated remedies can assure us victory. After all, the petitions against the Anti-Terror Law in the Supreme Court will be heard by judges appointed by Duterte. These mediated institutions are not ours; these belong to the state. Liberal democracy is stacked against by design. We cannot rely on these institutions to defend our interests.

Asia Art Tours: Then to center Anarchism, could you discuss for us one historic example that you find meaningful to explain the Anarchism that exists in the Philippines today (For example the Diliman Commune)?

Magsalin: Like many (but not all) other colonized countries, we must remember that statelessness was the primary mode of life for many people. Sure proto-state factions have existed such as monarchial chiefdoms, but what also existed and still do exist are indigenous peoples like the Ifugao who have carved entire mountains and established essentially rapeless societies all without the use of states, slavery, or police.

Not only do these indigenous forms of freedom still exist and persist, but even urban forms such as the barangay (a sub-municipal unit of government) have at times proven to have some potential for liberatory projects. The libertarian theorist Murray Bookchin noted that municipal politics has historically been pushed to liberatory political projects where people meet another as equal citizens and deliberate in a free manner. However we must also realzie that while there is a liberatory potential, the actuality can be that the barangay is also a site of capture by political dynasties and can be treated as feudal fiefs.

Aside from organizational forms, there have also been a history of mutual aid and direct action in the archipelago. The anarchist scientist Peter Kropotkin noted that mutual aid exists in every society and tradition in the world in some form. In the Philippines this is bayanihan whose image conjures up a village (or bayan) carrying a house to help their neighbors move.

In another example of direct action, farmers in the countryside practice bungkalan or farming land that they do not own in order to expropriate it in fact and strike at absentee holdings. Urban groups like the Nat-Dem group Kadamay also practiced direct action when they expropriated empty homes in 2017; they were even called anarchists for it, much to their dismay!

As for the Diliman Commune where radical students staged an insurrection, we have seen in that episode how students and faculty could organize in a free and egalitarian way spontaneously. While cadres were involved in the Diliman Commune, the way the insurrection was staged was notably non-hierarchical. Such are the nature of revolutionary situations like the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, and France 1968. In all these situations including the Diliman Commune, spontaneous forms of organizations tended towards non-hierarchical forms. It could assume so again in the future.

Asia Art Tours:  Within Covid-19 in the Philippines, where have you seen capitalism and the state fail to provide for the safety and health of citizens? And have you see the emergence or anarchist principles or initiatives (such as mutual aid) to fill these gaps?

Lahumbuwan: Magsalin has actually written a great article about how the militarization of our lockdowns signify the failure of the state & capitalism over here. Police in military uniforms, checkpoints—we’ve definitely been giving a bit more breathing room since we first went into “community quarantine,” as it’s called here, but we’re also about to hit 365 days of lockdown in March. So yeah, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the state has just totally failed to keep people safe and healthy. We still don’t have access to testing, students all over the archipelago being forced to do school remotely, and there is still cash aid that has gone undistributed. And this is on top of everything else that this specific administration is trying to do to tamp down on all forms of resistance.

As for anarchist initiatives popping up to fill in these gaps, a couple good examples are aid initiatives for the Typhoons Rolly and Ulysses. The typhoons came around November last year, so they were hitting us right in the middle of the pandemic. Where the state had slacked when it came to rescue & relief operations, other people had stepped in. You could see people organizing themselves online to help coordinate rescues, combing social media for information about people stranded on the roofs of their homes. Of course, this information still had to be sent to local governments to be acted upon, but you got the sense that if these people just had the means to rescue, that they would have done it themselves.

Post-typhoon donation drives for relief goods were not definitive examples of mutual aid (though there are mutual aid efforts every now and then over here) but they were instances of self-organization. In my experience, people usually depend on NGOs, National Democratic orgs, and schools orgs to organize these drives. But this time we saw friend groups, fanbases, and affinity groups blasting calls for donations. They got goods together, packaged, and sent into the provinces that needed it on their own. Again, despite not being explicitly or definitely mutual aid initiatives, this is a promising example of the potential of anarchism in the Philippines. It’s already here, growing from within the husk of these dead things (as it always does).

Asia Art Tours:  And finally what are real, tangible ways to build solidarity internationally with the Phillipines and the struggles it (and so many other places) are enduring?

Magsalin: I get messages sometimes about people who say they don’t know which Filipino/a/xs to support if National Democratic groups dominate the radicalism in the Filipino/a/x diaspora. Internationally, the diaspora National Democratic organizations—the so-called the “kasama” tendency from the Tagalog word for “comrade”—are one of the few groups to denounce both American and PRC imperialism. (Though I might add, they don’t do it out of principle; they do it out of nationalist interests.) These kasamas do find natural affinity with the Hong Konger diaspora who similarly struggles against PRC imperialism, and these Hong Kongers find few allies among the far left because of the tankie phenomenon.

What I tell these groups like the Hong Kong diasporans is that ultimately the harmful elements are the cadres within the Nat-Dem organizations, not the rank-and-file specifically. So perhaps don’t give them money, but if they do mutual aid activities you can help out. Though from Filipino/a/x comrades in Turtle Island I am told that kasamas mine new recruits until they’re burned out; I suppose judge for yourself given the circumstances. As always, be wary of leadership.

As for other tangible ways, a recommendation of education and self-study is always good. There are some among the international libertarian and anarchist tendencies that think the CPP and the NPA are the “good communists” simply because they fight against the Duterte administration. This critical support comes from an ignorance of the Party’s opportunist politics and Stalinist praxis. Should people know that the Party consistently collaborates with bourgeoisie factions or that they murdered their own rank-and-file and assassinated socialists and social democrats, this support ought wither away.

I would think one can be in solidarity with National Democratic activists targeted and killed while maintaining our critique of their party lines and collaborationist strategy. This amounts to a tactical unity against state repression while maintaining an independent politics.