Who Will Burn Duterte’s Effigy?

Who Will Burn Duterte’s Effigy?

“Who Will Burn Duterte’s Effigy?” documents the collaboration between National Democracy and Rodrigo Duterte, the populist president of the Philippines. While National Democracy was critical of the regime despite collaboration, National Democracy betrayed its principles by allying with a self-declared fascist in Duterte.

Written by Emerson M. Sanchez.

Every year, the Philippines bears witness to two versions of the State of the Nation Address (SONA). There is the official version, one where the president of the republic delivers a speech addressed to the joint session of Congress to outline the administration’s agenda and report its accomplishments. Then there is the street version—The People’s SONA—where a contingent of peasants, workers, disaster survivors, indigenous peoples, urban poor, and students march to the Batasang Pambansa (National Legislature) Complex to provide a counter-narrative to the president’s rosy claims. SONA is a prime occasion for progressive movements to register their dissent against incumbent regimes’ policies, whether it is on the issue of land reform, transportation, privatization, wages, or foreign relations. Effigy burning is a staple of this protest, symbolizing the progressive movement and their mass supporters’ utter discontent with government failures.

Year 2016, however, was a different time. As far as the official SONA is concerned, President Rodrigo Duterte, perhaps unexpectedly, deviated from reading his prepared speech, and went on his usual off-the-cuff remarks. This promise of a simple SONA materialized as well. There was no “fashion show” of flashy Filipiniana outfits among female politicians and congressional spouses on the red carpet. Only four lawmakers welcomed the president, a departure from the image of an entourage of lawmakers hustling to escort the president. The menu was also a point of interest among observers: the merienda featured simple local fares meant to reflect the president’s humble approach to traditionally ostentatious events.

Outside the halls of Congress, the SONA in the streets was equally historic. Unlike the previous SONAs marked by blockades and skirmishes between protesters and the police, Duterte’s first SONA was defined by the state’s hospitality to activists. Police Chief Ronald Dela Rosa went on stage and assured the protesters that the police are there to protect, not to hurt them. I was present at this rally. I personally witnessed a police officer instructing motorists at an intersection to give way to protesters. In terms of headcount, the 2016 rally was considered to have one of the largest contingents, including a delegation from Mindanao, Duterte’s regional turf. There were the usual placards and chants, but the mood was peaceful, if not jubilant. Protesters were able to get as close as 500 meters from the Batasan—an unprecedented proximity.

Conspicuously absent in this SONA rally was the burning of the president’s effigy. In fact, there was no effigy of the president—a first in sixteen years. Instead, the rally featured a six-piece mural called Portraits of Peace. The mural featured six themes: national industrialization, land reform and agricultural development, progressive social policy, sovereignty, human rights and peace, and people’s governance. The mural is the creation of artists associated with the progressive alliance Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan), or New Patriotic Alliance. Portraits of Peace aims to convey “a positive message” by visualizing “the people’s aspiration for a better society’” (Bayan 2016b).

Indeed, the mass mobilization during Duterte’s first SONA was not a protest, but a “show of support” to the newly elected president. The “sharp line” came in the form of a challenge, where activists asked Duterte to address poverty, unemployment, landlessness, and lack of social justice. The President reciprocated the protesters’ support by doing what is perhaps the warmest reception any head of state has extended to progressive movements. He invited their representatives inside the House of Representatives’ lounge for a conversation about peace, indigenous peoples, and social services. This unique moment of people meeting power will be perhaps a point of discussion in years to come, for it is a rare episode in the history of SONAs where the president himself reaches out to oppositional publics.

The Militant Left-Dutertc Alliance

The cordial turn of a militant organization is not surprising considering Duterte’s (1) policy pronouncements; (2) gestures toward the left; and (3) historical relationship with the movement.

As far as policy pronouncements go, Duterte has made clear that his positions are consistent with Bayan’s agenda. In his campaign speeches, Duterte did not hesitate to call himself a socialist. He has been critical of contractual labor and irresponsible mining. His anti-American rhetoric and pursuit of an “independent foreign policy” also sat well with nationalistic activists. Duterte declared that he would pursue the country’s industrialization starting with the revival of the steel industry. He reasoned that industrialization is the key to economic growth, particularly in generating jobs. This is consistent with Bayan’s proposal for prioritizing national industrialization as a key driver of development. “We support Duterte’s pro-people pronouncements and programs, even as we offer alternatives Lo many of the government’s program,” said Bayan secretary general Renalo M. Reyes Jr. (Bayan 2016c).

Duterte’s gestures also provided indications of the president’s seriousness in building an alliance with the militant left, even though they officially supported another candidate during the campaign. Just days after Dulerte won the presidency, he offered cabinet positions to nominees of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). The CPP, through its armed group, the New Peoples’ Army (NPA), has been waging one of the world’s longest Maoist insurgencies since 1968 (So 2016; Viray 2016). CPP’s founding chairman Jose Maria Sison describes Duterte’s gesture as a “magnanimous offer.” Rafael Mariano, the chairman of the farmers’ group Kilusang Mambubukid ng Pilipinas, was appointed Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform. Judy Taguiwalo, a social worker and feminist professor from the University of the Philippines, became the Secretary of the Department of Social Work and Development. Former Gabriela Party List Representative Liza Vlaza was appointed Lead Convener of the National Anti-Poverty Commission. Joel Maglungsod, former labor partylist solon, became Undersecretary of the Department of Labor and Employment. Former youth leader Terry Ridon was appointed Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Urban Poor. Personalities known to be allies of the mass movement were also appointed in key government posts. Silvestre Bello III became Secretary of the Department of Labor and Employment—a key position to push the agenda against unfair labor practices. Leonor Briones, the former national treasurer who took an active role in monitoring pork barrel allocations in the national budget, was given the role of Secretary of the Department of Education. These appointments support Duterte’s pro-people, socialist image. These cabinet appointees, as his alter-ego, are expected to pursue the agenda of progressive governance.

Aside from appointing progressive allies in key cabinet posts, Duterte also announced the beginning of peace talks, a fundamental agenda for the militant left since the downfall of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship. The peace talks aim to end the nearly five- decade struggle between government troops and communist rebels that is affecting the countryside. The substantive peace agenda includes social, political, and economic reforms, which the National Democratic Front (NDF) of the Philippines, the CPP’s political wing at the frontline of the talks with the government, maintains are essential to achieving lasting and just peace.

Part of the president’s confidence-building measures for the peace talks are the release of political prisoners. According to human rights group Karapatan, there are at least 543 political prisoners as of May 2016. A number of these prisoners are sick and aging. A few weeks into Duterte’s term, CPP leaders Benito and Wilma Tiamzon, among others, were released on bail. This gesture is significant because the release of political prisoners has been an important demand by the NDF. In the previous Aquino administration, the NDF’s demand for the release of political prisoners resulted in the peace talks’ deadlock.

One may ask why Duterte is in a unique position to engage with the militant left. Is there not a disconnect between the tough- talking leader’s heavy-handed approach to politics and the progressive left’s people-centered agenda?

Part of the reason, as some observers suggest, has to do with Duterte’s long history with the movement and their members. On the level of personal relationships, Duterte is known to be a close political ally of Leoncio “Jun” Evasco Jr., a priest turned NPA rebel in the 1970s. Upon his release from captivity, Evasco served as Duterte’s staff in the city hall. Today, Evasco is in charge of Kilusang Pagbabago (KP), a nationwide mass movement of Duterte supporters. Evasco intends to create a KP unit in each village, reminiscent of the CPP’s grassroots organizing. Duterte’s links to the mass movement also go back to his student days, as Sison was his teacher in Lyceum in the 1960s. Sison claims that Duterte was once a member of Kabalaang Makabayan, a youth group allied with the NDF, and Bayan, and vouched for his “track record and good qualities.” For Sison, Duterte has been “very cooperative with the revolutionary movement in ways beneficial to the people” (Alberto- Masakayan 2016). Duterte’s “cooperation” with the movement took many forms while he was still Davao City mayor. In 2015, he allowed a hero’s burial for NPA leader Leoncio Pilao (aka Commander Parago) in Davao City. Over 10,000 NPA supporters clad in red marched in the streets of Davao City, waving communist banners, parading the coffin of the slain commander with a hammer and sickle Hag. Duterte received criticism for this decision, which he defended as his way of preserving lines of communication with the movement. Duterte was also able to openly talk about the payment of revolutionary taxes lo the NPA, even though this has been condemned by the national government.

Duterte has been consistent in defending his sympathies with the left. “I am not against you. I will not fight against you. We have the same view of the government and politics.” he said in one interview (Santos 2015). Where Duterte drew the line was the movement’s belief in armed struggle.

The Struggle Amidst the Unity

The engagement between militant groups and the Duterte administration holds the promise of delivering lasting peace in a protracted war. This, however, may come at a high cost for the country’s oppositional public sphere. Such close ties between the state and militant left may create a void in critical discourse formation and cripple a militant vocabulary necessary in a controversial regime. Critics have already raised concerns over the left’s muffled voice on controversial issues, like the war on drugs, where they may have been expected to be utterly critical.

One way of examining the relationship of the militant left and the Duterte regime is to evaluate how the former engages the latter when it comes to the most controversial positions of the regime to date: the bloody war on drugs, economic policies, and the Marcos burial. A careful review of their statements, interviews, and press coverage suggests that critique is very much present in their discourse. These movements, 1 argue, have not abandoned their oppositional role in the public sphere, although the intensity of critique and the adversarial character of their repertoire have changed.

Human rights and war on drugs

There is high expectation of Bayan and its allies to take action against human rights violations in Duterte’s drug war. After all, it is these groups that have the experience of defending, investigating, and demanding justice for human rights victims from their ranks since the rule of Ferdinand Marcos. Human rights scholar Jayson Lamchek (2016) noted that human rights workers from progressive groups have “systematically and painstakingly” investigated the extra-judicial killings of activists, and urged them to do the same for drug-related killings.

For some observers, the concessions the left has received from the Duterte regime have effectively curbed their appetite for critique. Political scientists Ronald Holmes and Mark Thompson (2016) argue that having received key cabinet positions and because of their eagerness for the peace deal, the left’s critique of the drug war “has been muted.” This interpretation is akin to corporatism wherein states accommodate representatives of interest groups in policy- or decision-making; the relationship accords the former legitimacy while the latter gains some of their demands that are often moderated by the corporatist relationship (Williamson 1989). Similar interpretations of Philippine politics were argued during the administrations of Ramon Magsaysay and Fidel Ramos (Clarke 1998. 212–14), and Corazon Aquino (Grodsky 2009, 903; Clarke 1998, 213). A more recent example of a similar engagement between a ruling party and a progressive group is the formal coalition between the Liberal Party and Akbavan Partylist since 2010. Some Akbayan members admitted that the coalition resulted not only in legislative gains but also in compromises on their stand on some issues (Cay and Nonalo 2014).

Arc these critiques of the left warranted? A cursory inventory of the militant left’s responses to Duterte’s bloody war illustrates that the movement continues to take a critical stance against what they consider to be unacceptable practices of the regime. Here are some examples:

  1. Call for due process. On 1 July 2016, a day after Duterte’s inauguration, Dulerte enjoined the CPP’s revolutionary forces to help in curtailing drug trafficking. CPP accepted this call and ordered the NPA to “carry out operations to disarm and arrest the chieftains of the biggest drug syndicates, as well as other criminal syndicates involved in human rights violations and destruction of environment” (CPP 2016). The Party, however, emphasized due process when conducting these arrests.
  2. Speaking up against the killings. On 7 July 2016, Bayan (2oi6d) expressed concern “over the spate of extra-judicial killings of alleged drug dealers over the past few weeks.” Even during the SONA rally—a supposedly cooperative moment between the state and the movement—Bayan called on the administration to uphold due process and respect human rights amid the spate of drug-related vigilante killings. Former solons associated with progressive groups Saturnino “Satur” Ocampo and Teodoro “Teddy” Casino urged the president to address the issue of extra-judicial killings (Sabillo 2016).
  3. Unequivocal condemnation. On 4 August, Bayan (2016e) denounced “in the strongest terms the unabated killings in relation to the war 011 drugs.” They urged government to Lake up social and rehabilitative approaches to solving drug dependency and to address the socio-economic roots of the problem (Bayan 2016c). Eight days later, the CPP denounced Duterte’s attack on human rights defenders and called the war on drugs “anti-people, undemocratic” (Bueza 2016). On 23 August, human rights group Karapatan (2016a) urged Duterte to publicly express and acL on the stopping of the drug-related killings. Karapatan is associated with Bayan.

Based on these select statements, interviews, and press coverage of the militant groups, it is fair to say that they have been steadfast in calling out the excesses of Duterte’s war on drugs. Even in the early days of the war on drugs, the CPP and Bayan have emphasized their call for due process amid the escalation of drug-related killings. In just a few weeks, they expressed their opposition to the war on drugs using strong language, even calling on the administration to end the drug-related killings. Contrary to what their critics say, the left’s voice has not been muffled but has always been critical of the war on drugs. What is apparent is their reluctance to publicly protest in the streets on this issue as they may have been expectcd. However, this reluctance will change later on, amid a crucial issue (Marcos burial) that will Lest the alliance between the left and the Duterte administration.

Economic policies

Aside from the war on drugs, another issue about which Bayan has been vocal in their opposition is the economic agenda. Days after his victory, Duterte’s transition team released an early version of the administration’s economic policy. The first point is to “continue and maintain the current macroeconomic policies.” Other points were on infrastructure spending, foreign direct investment, agricultural development, land management, basic administration, income tax, and the conditional cash transfer program (Cepeda 2016). Bayan criticized the agenda, which they consider to be a continuation of the Aquino administration’s neoliberal policies. Instead, they proposed a progressive agenda that rejects “‘business as usual’ politics” (Bayan 2016a).

Even before Duterte took office, political analyst Bobby Tuazon (2016) predicted this predicament: “how will Duterte be able to balance and rein in a government of incongruent political forces— the left armed with a progressive ideology and rightist groups representing neoliberal and pro-elite interests?” Among Duterte’s economic team arc Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno, and Economic Development and Planning Director-General Ernesto Pernia. Dominquez is Duterte’s fellow Mindanaoan and served as Duterte’s fundraising and campaign finance manager. Aside from a few years of government service under Corazon Aquino, Dominguez has had a long business career as a top executive in various industries like mining, tobacco, retail, and energy. Diokno is also no rookie in government service, having held the same position under the Estrada administration. Pernia served as consultant or adviser for various international organizations but served longest at the Asian Development Bank in different posts, including lead economist. Both Diokno and Pernia have professional experience as academics at the University of the Philippines (UP) School of Economics. Diokno is Professor Emeritus at the UP.

A hundred days into Duterte’s term, nationalist socioeconomic think tank IBON Foundation’s answer to Tuazon is that, although there are some gains for the people, the rightist groups are ruling over the economic agenda. IBON praised government efforts to pursue the peace talks and an independent foreign policy. Both agenda open the possibility for a nationalist economic agenda. But they criticized the government’s neoliberal policies that are inconsistent with Duterte’s pro-people pronouncements and appointment of progressive Cabinet members (IBON 2016). IBON Foundation shares the progressive agenda of Bayan and its allies.

IBON noted the disregard for national industrialization by Duterte’s economic team whose policies do not truly propel production by Filipino industrial firms. At best, the industrial policy privileges foreign firms and their subcontractors to set up their production in the Philippines. IBON also criticized the government for the following: its openness to entering into unfair agreements with other states and regions; its neglect of wage increase and ending labor contractualization that favor the elites; subsidizing private firms through public-private partnerships; its pro-rich moves to lower taxes on wages, estate, land, and capital income; and anti-poor moves to impose value-added lax and increase excise tax on some items. To counter these, IBON proposed the following: a new, progressive, and long-term national industrialization policy; government procurement of Filipino products and removal of unfair incentives for foreign manufacturers; the creation of a national industrialization council, among others; the renegotiation or withdrawal from unfair trade agreements; the expansion of economic relations outside of traditional trading partners; the withdrawal from the Partnership for Growth with the United States that is not beneficial to the Philippines; and joining alliances with other states taking action against large and aggressive capitalist states (IBON 2016).

Marcos burial

The burial of former President Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery) is the most glaring disagreement between the left and the Duterte regime.

Since the campaign period, Duterte has been clear in his support for the burial of the former dictator in the Heroes’ Cemetery, saying this will “erase from our people one hatred” (Ranada 2016). On 7 August, Duterte authorized the interment of Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani. Bayan (2016!) reacted by saying they “oppose any official honors for the dictator Marcos, whether as a hero, soldier or former president.” Duterte’s decision to allow the Marcos burial “opened up old wounds,” political scientist Ramon Casiple said (Gomez 2016). The left was a major opposition to the Marcos dictatorship, as several of their colleagues suffered human rights violations at the hands of his government forces.

Six petitions were filed at the Supreme Court to stop this move. Some of the petitioners arc members or allies of Bayan. Among them are Bayan Chair Maria Carolina Araullo and former Bayan Muna solon Satur Ocampo. The interment was postponed three times until 8 November, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Marcos burial could proceed, with nine voting in favor, five against, and one abstention.

Petitioners sought to challenge this decision by filing a manifestation that they have not received copies of the decision and urged the court to once again postpone the interment. However, on 18 November, the Marcoses, with the support of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, swiftly buried the former dictator. The public found out only on the day itself through news sources that posted reports and onsite videos of the burial.

That afternoon, protests were organized against the surprise burial. Militant groups, students, and civil society organizations converged in different parts of Metro Manila. Bayan and its allies scheduled noise barrages in Monumento, Philcoa, Marikina, Alabang, E. Rodriguez, Taft Ave., Intramuros, and Morayta. Ateneo de Manila University shrouded its walls in black; Katipunan Avenue was filled with Ateneo students who walked out of their classcs. At the University of the Philippines-Diliman campus—the hotbed of militancy during the Marcos era—students staged a protest rally, with the veterans of First Quarter Storm speaking to millennial about the dark days of the dictatorial regime.

Bayan took an active part in these mobilizations. They supported the Campaign Against the Return of the Marcoses to Malacanang (CARMMA), a campaign network composed of martial law victims, civil libertarians, peace and freedom advocates, and militant groups with roots in the anti-Marcos movement since the 1970s. “It is a wakeup call. Years of political accommodation and the failure to achieve true justice have brought us here. When we say ‘never again,’ we say it with a greater sense of urgency because a Marcos restoration has just become very real,” read the Bayan (2016i) statement.

On 25 November, Bayan held its first major protest directed against Duterle, dubbed #BlackFriday. Bayan condemned the “Duterte-Marcos alliance” and called the people to hold Duterte accountable for the burial. Days later, Bayan and its allies took to the streets again to protest in time for International Human Rights Day on 10 December (Bayan 2oi6j). The call for protest coincided with the growing tension between government and CPP-NDF peace panels. At that point, Duterte refused to release 130 political prisoners unless the communist rebels signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement (Merez 2017). Karapatan (2016b) said that “these rallies are meant to sustain protest actions against the hero’s burial of dictator Ferdinand Marcos and press the call for justice for and indemnification of martial law victims.” Bayan (2016j) outlined four demands:

  1. We demand justice for all Marcos human rights victims and all victims of continuing human rights violations and slate fascism. The Marcos burial and restoration threatens efforts for meaningful indemnification of Marcos human rights victims.
  2. We call for the immediate release of more than 400 political prisoners who have been unjustly detained. They should not be made bargaining chips by the government panel in peace negotiations.
  3. We call for a stop to the militarization of the countryside. Hundreds of farmers from the Visavas, affected by militarization, are in Manila now to join the protest actions.
  4. We call for an end to impunity in the war on drugs, as the death toll rises and as state agents are emboldened by presidential pronouncements.

The centerpiece of this protest is an effigy, a first, since Duterte took office. This development is very telling of the growing tension between the left and the Duterte regime. The effigy features the head of the late dictator Marcos, with a bloody ironclad hand and corpses. “The effigy depicts the political rehabilitation of the Marcoses and continuing state fascism, including extrajudicial killings, the non-release of political prisoners, and continuing military operations,” said Karapatan (Tupaz 2016). On the day of the rally, protesters burned the monstrous effigy symbolizing the authoritarian tendencies of Duterte. The move clearly attacked Duterte. The effigy may have featured Marcos’s head, not Duterte’s, but the other images refer to human rights issues in the Duterte administration.


In the lead-up to their rally timed for Duterte’s 100th day in office, Bayan released a statement that encapsulates the kind of relationship they have with the Duterte regime. They “remain conscious of differences with the Duterte administration on other issues, particularly the war on drugs.” They will, however, continue “to engage in principled ‘unity and struggle’ with the administration” (Bayan 2016g). On the day of the rally, they “lauded the resumption of the peace negotiations with the National Democratic Front of the Philippines and the acceleration of negotiations on substantive issues” but they also “lamented the government’s failure to release more than 400 political prisoners as part of a supposed amnesty proclamation that aims to correct a gross injustice committed by previous regimes” (Bayan 2016h). In this regard, the left’s relationship with the Duterte administration is one of critical engagement.

The first year of Duterte’s presidency illustrated the changing character of the militant left movement in the country. The informal alliance started on an optimistic note. Rallies were organized to show support for the Duterte administration. Using a classic corporatist lens, Duterte has been able to use the progressives in his Cabinet in order to maintain his socialist and pro-people persona. For the militant left, having allies inside the administration enables them to pursue progressive endeavors favoring their mass base, most importantly in the resumption of the peace talks and promotion of socio-economic reforms. In the early days of the Duterte administration, the militant left’s critical appetite became moderated as shown in their reluctance to protest against Duterte. Even on sticking points, such as the war on drugs, they have maintained their position through statements, but not through their usual public demonstrations.

However, nearing Duterte’s sixth month in office, the militant left broke out of classic corporatism, and went out again to the streets to protest the Marcos burial and human rights issues. While the left never relinquished their role in criticizing the excesses of the Duterte regime, particularly in the war on drugs, it was the Marcos burial that tipped the scales to more confrontational forms of political action. For the first time in Duterte’s administration, the left organized a massive protest to show indignation and demand accountability from Duterte. The tense situation in the peace talks must have also contributed to subsequent protests on International Human Rights Day, which featured an effigy—another first in this administration. It was also the first time that they protested to demand an end to impunity in the drug war, which has already escalated and become controversial by Duterte’s sixth month in office.

Looking at Philippine civil society in general, one could argue that the militant left’s lack of street protest against the drug war during the Duterte administration’s early days may not be that crucial. Other progressive groups have been organizing protests early on, albeit on a smaller scale. However, as Duterte’s allies, the militant left has the opportunity to be the decisive voice that could sway Duterte toward a more human rights-respecting approach. But this opportunity depends on Duterte’s commitment to progressive ideals. It remains to be seen how much the left could influence Duterte to fulfill his progressive pronouncements, such as pursuing the peace process, ft is apparent, that the peace talks are important for Bayan and its allies because of the talks’ substantive social and economic agenda. If Duterte truly commits to the peace process, the left could take on the drug war as an agenda in the talks, making their pursuit of lasting and just peace more meaningful for our times.


The left planned to burn Duterte’s effigy in his second State of the Nation Address last 24 July 2017 to protest the stalled peace talks. Due to rains, however, they smashed the effigy instead.


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Published in A Duterte reader: critical essays on Rodrigo Duterte’s early presidency published by Bughaw, 2017, Quezon City.

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Aug 12 2020 07:25


  • Such close ties between the state and militant left may create a void in critical discourse formation and cripple a militant vocabulary necessary in a controversial regime.

    Emerson M. Sanchez

Attached files