Sonny Melencio: Asia needs ALBA-style regionalism not US 'pivot' and 'ASEAN integration'

Peter Boyle interviews Sonny Melencio

May 22, 2014 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Green Left Weekly -- Sonny Melencio is chairperson of the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM, Party of the Labouring Masses). At its recent national convention, the PLM launched a discussion about Bayanihan Socialism, which drawing on lessons from the Latin American experience links the egalitarian principles of socialism with national and Indigenous historical experiences and traditions, as a means to popularise the ideas of socialism to a mass audience in the Philippines. Melencio is also involved in a new coalition against the established "political dynasties" in the Philippines, called Alliance for Truth, Integrity and Nationalism (ATIN).

Melencio will be one of several international guest speakers at the Socialist Alliance 10th national conference in Sydney, June 7-9, where he will be part of the one-day public seminar on People's Power In the “Asian Century” . You can find out more about the conference, and how to register, HERE.

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The People's Power in the "Asian Century" seminar will be looking at the global political, social and economic consequences of the late industrialisation of China and to a degree India. There have been many discussions about this from a capitalist perspective but we wanted to look at it from the point of view of the working class and other oppressed communities. How has this development impacted on the Philippines?

The "Asian Century" is being marked in the Philippines by talks about the need for the integration of the economies of the 10 ASEAN countries. So-called “ASEAN integration” talks started in 2000 and will be concluding in 2015. The integration is also being pushed by China and, to a degree, India. But the big industrial economies inside and outside the region are also betting on it. These include Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

The objective is the integration of the economies of the ASEAN countries into the global neoliberal capitalist economy. Since the ASEAN 6 (Singapore, Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei) have long been under the global capitalist economy, the integration is focused at the so-called “transitional economies” of the newer member states – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (CLMV).

The integration is therefore not even a plan to “regionalise” the economies of the ASEAN countries in the model of the European Union, but a schema whereby the imperialist and big industrialised nations can control and dominate the region’s economy and resources.

Nor is the integration designed to the advantage of the Philippines or most of the ASEAN countries.

The major factors of integration would involve the following: investment capital, technology and industrial complementation. Intra-investment capital is miniscule among ASEAN countries; investments can therefore come from the big economic players inside and outside the region (these include China, EU, Japan, US and South Korea).

Technology is not very high among ASEAN countries, and technology transfer requires massive investment that will come from developed industrialised countries. The third factor, industrial complementation, is something that has yet to be developed among ASEAN countries themselves.

Its impact on the working class will be bad. Integration will lead to capitalism's search for the lowest labour cost in the region. So the Philippines will not benefit from more jobs in the market as capital will settle where labour costs are lower, such as in the CLMV countries.

The Filipino workers and people have already experienced the negative effects of "globalisation" in the 1980s and 1990s when many industries collapsed and workers were thrown out of factories. Our trade unions alone, the Bukluran ng Manggagawang Pilipino (Solidarity of Filipino Workers, BMP), used to have memberships running into hundreds of thousands, but with massive closures, we now have only around 70,000 members in remaining unions. Our situation is similar with other union centres in the country.

The Philippine government has not done anything to alleviate the impact of the integration for the working class. Recent news have shown that whatever funding for industrial "safety nets" the government had put in place since 2000 were pocketed by corrupt politicians. The government has merely continued with its labour export policy where one out of 10 Filipino workers are now shipped abroad to work or to find work.

While it is true that the ASEAN integration will finally be able to industrialise some economies, like the CLMV countries, it will be too minimal, limited and linked mainly to the needs of big economies and big corporations. It is a limited and dependent industrialisation that will be at the expense of the working classes in the region.

What consequences does this have for left strategy and tactics in Asia?

With the integration going full blast next year, we are expected to suffer once again in the collapse of agriculture, garments and textile, automobile assemblies and other industries. The left and the working class have not prepared much for the disastrous impact of capitalist globalisation in the 1980s and 1990s.

This time, we hope to be able to prepare for the disaster, not in terms of “engaging” the capitalist institutions that are pushing for integration, not in terms of negotiating for safety nets with so-called tripartite bodies – just like what the NGOs are doing – but instead to prepare for widespread and crippling mass actions that will protest the massive closures of companies and industries. This is the only recourse left for the working class in the Philippines.

This of course means that we have to build unity among the different left blocs and the different trade unions in the country.

We have some positive developments in trade union unity in the past three years. A broad trade union formation, from the traditional to left union centres, have banded together under Nagkaisa (Unity), and have been working together to campaign for a number of union demands in the country. This May Day, Nagkaisa held the biggest workers’ rally ever since 2000. Only the Maoist left groups kept out of Nagkaisa and held its own rally.

We’re also reviewing all previous assumptions to left strategy and tactics. The traditional working class (industrial and service workers) constitute at least 30% of the labour force today. The so-called urban poor (those without regular jobs or those categorised as informal labour) constitute around 35% of the labour force, and is growing. The ASEAN integration will tend to increase the ranks of the informal sectors as more factories and industries close down in the country.

We need a left strategy that takes this situation into consideration. The working-class movement has to integrate the demands and struggles of the urban poor in their communities and in their makeshift workplaces (as street vendors, tricycle drivers and the like) to be able to confront the new realities of exploitation and oppression in the country. We need a left strategy that can also muster the demands of the millions of Filipino overseas workers, with their families, who are the ones keeping the economy afloat by sending billions of dollars yearly to the Philippines.

Finally, we need a left strategy that builds solidarity among the left groups and the working classes especially in the region. The ASEAN integration is pursuing the climate of competition between countries and among the working class masses. The left should counter this by pursuing solidarity linkages and solidarity actions across the region.

Are there lessons the left around the world can draw from the revolutions of the 21st century in Latin America, given that these were born in the cauldron of neoliberalism, capitalist globalisation and the so-called "multipolar world"?

The first countries that were in line for capitalist restructuring under neoliberalism, and therefore the first ones to reel under its impact, were in Latin America. The struggles waged by the working people in Venezuela, Bolivia and other parts of Latin America showcase the type of revolutionary eruption that could occur in similarly placed countries today. The left in the Philippines and in Southeast Asia should be ready to lead the uprisings and insurrectionary situations that are bound to erupt as long as the elite in power continues with the neoliberal agenda that brings unbounded crisis to society.

How is this impacting on Philippines left?

There has been a widening acceptance among the left in the Philippines for a strategy that veers away from the old Maoist schema of people’s war or guerrilla warfare. The developing strategy is preparing the working classes for critical mass uprisings as the economic and political crisis continues to mount.

The strategy is a mix of developing the mass struggles and street actions, and intervening in elections and mainstream politics to be able to get a hearing and to make use of political opportunities in using parliament and government positions to advance the revolutionary struggle.

The PLM adheres to this mix of strategy. It develops its capacity to be able to lead both in street actions and in electoral interventions. It build alliances to pursue both components of the strategy. PLM is part of the Million People March and the anti-political dynasty movement that have been campaigning against the “pork barrel” system and the widespread control by political families in various levels of government. The PLM was registered as a national political party last year, so we ran candidates from national to local levels to keep up the campaigns against elite rule in the country. Our focus though is in intervening in grassroots local councils (the barangay councils) that would allow us to build a mass base in council communities.

We do not discount the power of social institutions, such as the churches, in developing resistance to government policies and actions. The Catholic church in particular, the largest religious denomination in the country, has taken opposing position to the political dynasty and the pork barrel system in government. The church had recently opposed the reproductive rights bill (which we campaigned for), but after its passage, we deemed it possible to strike an alliance with the church, especially the priests in the parishes and the lay groups, with pressing issues such as the dismantling of the political dynasty and the pork-barrel system in government.

A week ago, we formed a broad electoral coalition called the Alliance for Truth, Integrity and Nationalism (ATIN). It is a coalition composed of former senatorial candidates who ran on the platform of anti-political dynasty during last year’s election, and the broad cause-oriented groups coming from different sectors (working masses, professionals and small business people). The coalition will prepare a full list of candidates from national to local positions in the coming elections in 2016. In the succeeding months, it will conduct educational and street campaigns nationwide in furtherance orf its anti-political dynasty, anti-pork barrel, anti-elite rule platform.

Please explain the new discussion about "Bayanihan socialism" in the PLM? What is its genesis, how do you think it could develop and what are the main challenges?

Bayanihan Socialism is our own way of explaining and pursuing socialism of the 21st century similar to the Latin American efforts of pursuing socialism with local colour, as in Bolivarian socialism in Venezuela, the communitarian socialism in Bolivia, and the Buen Vivir (living well) socialism in Ecuador.

Bayanihan in Philippine context means solidarity, or the coming together of people in support of each other, without expecting monetary reward or payment. People today understand it as a long-time practice of our ancestors during the communal period, and something that is akin to communal spirit.

In recent calamities that have hit the Philippines, such as the recent Yolanda (Haiyan) super typhoon that killed around 10,000 people, the word bayanihan was again used repeatedly to refer to people giving out whatever they have to help those in need. Even the capitalists and the elite government called for bayanihan, and sent relief materials and support to the typhoon survivors. But their bayanihan was only for a limited period. After a week, they stopped the bayanihan and called on people to return back to the capitalist mode of working and paying for whatever they need.

In linking up socialism with the bayanihan spirit, all we are saying is why not make bayanihan a social system that occurs 24/7 and 12 months a year thing. Why not reinstitute a system where society’s wealth is not privately owned, but redistributed to everyone in need.

It gives local colour to socialism in the 21st century movements and links them to those our ancestors and national heroes were part of. It projects it as a process that builds it into the future system of socialism for the country. Of course, it is a socialism that is in solidarity, in consonance and is part of the worldwide socialist struggles and movements of the working-class masses in other countries.

Regional politics is being shaped by the "US pivot" and the associated new military agreements and bases. What should the Asian left counterpose to this?

We see two types of regional integration happening in the world today. One is the integration, like the ASEAN one, which is in service of the needs of the imperialist powers and the big industrial states. This is capitalist integration around the formation of a global capitalist market and system that serves the transnational corporations and the imperialists. Since this integration benefits only a few imperialist and big-time capitalist powers, they need to implement this with military sanctions and military might.

The US has long been trying to maintain its rule as a single military power in the world. The US pivot is in line with this. It will move at least 60% of US warships from anywhere in the world to patrol Asia. It constructs new US bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam, and deploys more “rotational troops” and war materials in Ausralia and the Philippines. During the visit of US President Barack Obama to the Philippines, the military pivot was fast tracked in a bilateral pact called “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” that gives de facto basing right to the US military in the Philippines. It allows US forces to station troops and munitions inside Philippine military camps free of charge.

The US pivot is an attempt to keep an imperialist hold in the Asia-Pacific area, which for the US is a key economic growth area at this stage. The tentacles of US economic power have long been weakened in the EU region. In the Middle East it is finding difficulty keeping its hold in an area that has been quite unstable for quite some time. In Latin America, a number of countries have resisted the US economic and political stranglehold and have banded together to raise the banner of socialism anew.

What should the Asian left counterpose to this? There is a second type of integration. It is the regional integration in Latin America, led by the socialist leaderships of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba, which is showing the way towards an integration around the socialist ideals.

We need an anti-neoliberal, anti-capitalist regional integration project like ALBA, something that can be used to highlight the anti-people, pro-corporate agenda of ASEAN integration. This is the kind of Asian integration that we should fight for. ALBA however is based on the undermining of bourgeois state power and it would be utopian to think that the ASEAN countries’ regimes could be pressured to follow a similar path. The necessity to fight for political power against the capitalist regime and establishment of government of the masses in the Philippines and other ASEAN regimes is a prerequisite for anything along the lines of ALBA in Asia.