Sonny Melencio: Class struggle in the Philippines

class struggle south east asia

Speech given at Ecosocialism 2023

Good afternoon to all, comrades and friends. I’ll cover here the class struggle situation in the Philippines today and some of the initiatives we, as Partido Lakas ng Masa (Party of the Laboring Masses, PLM) are involved in to build closer relations with the Left in the Southeast Asia region.

As you all know, we have a new president elected and inaugurated in June last year. He is the son and the namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, but he’s better known in the Philippines as Bongbong Marcos or Marcos Jr.

We have had right-wing presidents in succession starting with former President Rodrigo Duterte who left office last year. Duterte spearheaded the war on drugs that killed 6000 individuals according to the report of the Philippine National Police, but around 30,000 individuals according to the reports of human rights groups in the country. Almost 99% of those who were killed by police operatives and right-wing vigilante squads riding on motorbikes were young people suspected of peddling or using drugs in mostly poor neighborhoods in the country. Duterte today is under investigation by the International Criminal Court for his alleged crimes during the war on drugs.

The first question to ask is why do we in the Philippines keep on electing right-wing presidents?

There are many reasons for this. But this is basically in the context of the failure of liberal democracy in the Philippines since the ouster of dictator Marcos in 1986, and the ushering in of what we call the Edsa Republics – liberal and neoliberal regimes – under the successive administrations of Cory Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, Gloria Arroyo, Cory's son Noynoy Aquino, Duterte and, now, Marcos Jr.

Liberal democracy after the ouster of dictatorship did not bring prominent changes to the economy and politics of the country. The same police and the military, which propped up the Marcos dictatorship, were not prosecuted and remained in power. Marcos’ business cronies were able to hold on to their corporations and assets and became adjuncts of the succeeding liberal regimes. The political clans or political dynasties entrenched in local governments continued to hold power and were given more favors by the succeeding administrations.

Many people, especially the non-political ones, and the new generation that emerged after the dictator’s rule, feel that the situation has merely worsened. This is the backdrop of the electoral victories of right-wing presidents and forces in the country.

Against this backdrop, the problems faced by the Philippine left are quite daunting.

The Philippine left has its share of problems too. There is disunity among the Left groups that we have been trying to address for a long time now. But there has been a wave of united actions of the various forces of the Left, even during the pandemic, to oppose the Duterte regime's repressive policies at that time.

Election 2022

We also joined with other left forces during the election campaigns in 2022. However, other sections of the Left chose to line up with the “lesser evil” presidential candidates to oppose Marcos Jr.'s bid for power.

On our part, we felt that it was time to challenge the entire tradition of supporting the “lesser evil” to gain some advantage during and after the election.

Our section of the Left, which consisted of a broad left formation Laban ng Masa, decided to field candidates for the top national posts. Ka Leody de Guzman, a labor leader and founder of PLM, ran as president; Walden Bello, head of Laban ng Masa, ran as vice president; Atty. Luke Espiritu and two leaders of the Philippine greens movements ran as senators under the PLM slate. We also ran as PLM partylist contesting seats in the Lower House of Congress.

Yes, we lost the elections. But we won a great number of people’s hearts and minds. At the outset, we knew that we would not win, but we wanted to put up a good fight. One that would contest the elite characters and the elite platforms that characterize every election.

Socialist-oriented platform

We put forward socialist-oriented and alternative programs of governance, such as: an end to the neoliberal policies of the government; the imposition of a wealth tax on the top billionaires of the country; full implementation of the land-to-the-tillers program promised by many administrations; urban land reform; massive public housing projects; and many more demands that confront traditional elite platforms.

Our platform got a hearing from the masses. The people cheered us on almost every electoral stunt we did. Also, every time there was a presidential debate where we got millions of watchers with millions acknowledging the merits of our program, especially compared with neoliberal candidates. In some instances, we were supported by the base of even those who supported Leni Robredo of the Liberal Party. There were some instances when the Leni Robredo forces doing electoral rounds would chase after our caravans shouting "Leody! Leody!"

How can we characterize the present Marcos Jr regime today?

The Marcos Jr regime is also called the Marcos-Duterte regime (as Sara Duterte, the daughter of former president Duterte, is the vice president). The Marcos-Duterte regime is an alliance of all the right-wing forces in the country, starting from the Marcos-Duterte groups themselves, to the forces of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and, lastly, the forces of Joseph Estrada. The Marcos-Duterte regime represents a unified regime of the most corrupt and right-wing forces in the country.

Unlike Rodrigo Duterte who tried to project himself as anti-oligarch during his first years in office, Marcos Jr immediately brought into his fold an array of neoliberal multi-billionaire capitalists in the country who serve as his Private Sector Advisory Council. They are united in pushing for a tighter neoliberal regime and ensuring that their businesses get more support and tax exemptions from the Marcos Jr regime. This Council was also instrumental in the passage at Congress of the so-called Maharlika Investment Fund or the sovereign wealth fund that will use the resources of public corporations (the government banks, the pension funds, and the GOCCs) to bolster the wealth of the top bureaucrats and the top multi-billionaires in the country.

The present situation in terms of the new forces opposing Marcos Jr

Ranged against the Marcos-Duterte regime are the following forces: 

  • A liberal opposition that is still in a mess. The Philippine Congress is ruled by the supermajority forces of the Marcos-Duterte regime. The Supreme Court and the Judiciary, the police and the military are still under the pockets of this regime in tandem.
  • The organized Left forces, on the other hand, are also in a bit of disarray: The forces belonging to the Communist Party of the Philippines-National Democratic Front-New People's Army are still reeling from the death of its well-known leaders Jose Ma. Sison and the Benito and Wilma Tiamzon couple who used to head up the local insurgency in the country.

The PLM and our bloc of mass organizations managed to hold on to our base and is doing mass expansion work at the moment based on the issues confronting the masses, such as wage increases for labor, opposing demolition and land-grabbing against the urban and rural poor, and climate justice issues in several areas of the country.

We are also beginning to see a regrouping of new forces composed of the health sectors who were the frontline of the COVID-19 response but have not been given proper recognition and support by the government. Then the urban and rural poor communities reeling from the climate crisis, land-grabbing, and housing crisis which are beginning to stir up to fight for their rights; and women and youth who are organizing and mobilizing for their respective issues on rights and welfare. We are focusing on these new forces at the moment.

The class struggle in the Philippines is defined by the multiple crises affecting the country, which include the economic mess we are in, the in-fighting and grabbing for power and resources by elite forces, the threat of war in the region, and the climate crisis.

The economy has been in stagflation since the last year of the previous Duterte regime. There is a full-blown agricultural crisis due to the rice tariffication law, which have seen the prices of onions and other agricultural products zoom up. The Marcos Jr regime is planning to borrow P2.46 trillion (more than $44 billion) to fund its 2024 budget.

The in-fighting and power-grabbing among elite groups in the country are bringing more instability to the system. The national leaders in government are maneuvering to get the upper hand in the next midterm elections in 2025 and the presidential elections in 2028.

Threat of war

There is a threat of war in the region. The Marcos Jr regime differs from the previous Duterte regime in terms of foreign policy. Rodrigo Duterte opened up links with China and even adopted a “softer stance” concerning the South China Sea issue and Chinese naval bullying in the Philippine area called the West Philippine Sea, which is also claimed by China. Duterte projected a populist stance that was against US military expansion in the region. In contrast, Marcos Jr has reopened closer relations with the US and even expanded the number of US military bases in the country from five to nine under the expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).

With Marcos Jr lining up with the US and its military forces in the region, former President Duterte himself warned of 'imminent war' in the region because of EDCA's expansion and the kowtowing to US interests.

Climate crisis

In the Philippines we do not have many climate change deniers, even among the elite. Because, like in many Third World countries, the local elites can point their fingers at the Global North, as they are all affected by the crisis. But, of course, there are differences too. During Typhoon Haiyan (nicknamed Typhoon Yolanda) that killed more than 6000 residents in the province of Leyte in 2013, the local mayor saved himself and his family by riding on his helicopter and saying goodbye to his constituents.

The PLM is focusing today on a number of communities in several regions in the country in an effort to build “green communes” that aim to empower communities into fighting for their immediate issues related to climate change and environmental problems, such as the Kaliwa Dam in Rizal, the seabed quarrying in Cavite, the reclamation projects in Cebu and Bacolod, the bridge and construction project around Cancabato Bay in Tacloban, the construction of LNG terminals in Batangas City, among others. The immediate issues are linked up with climate justice issues and building the ecosocialist movement in the country.

Ecosocialist movement in the Philippines

We are pioneering the ecosocialism movement in the Philippines. Last year, we held an Ecosocialism launch at the University of the Philippines. We believe that capitalism cannot solve global warming and the destruction of the ecosystem, as these are brought about by the operations of the system itself. It is in capitalism’s nature to destroy the environment and the ecosystem as it pursues its overarching need for economic growth in order to gain profit and accumulate capital.

Our ecosocialism goes way back to 2013 when we called our Philippine brand of socialism Bayanihang SosyalismoBayanihan is a pre-class, pre-colonial system of community assistance, or “communitarian” system in short. It is in the spirit of local, community-based socialism, a system that mobilizes support and assistance to everyone in the community, without the mediation of money, market and cash economy. When we adopted Bayanihang Sosyalismo, a Left international group criticized us for advocating a “small-is-beautiful-concept” and not understanding the need for industrial growth and the development of the productive forces. Now that we are here, having read Kohei Saito’s books on ecosocialism and degrowth communism, and having listened to his talk, I think we are more than vindicated. We represent a new wave of the future.

Our international responsibility

Let me end with the urgent problem that we face today: either we get annihilated by climate change or by a nuclear war. While we fight for climate justice, we are fighting the imminent threat of war in our region. To counter all these, we need to build broad and strong solidarity with movements around the world to stop the annihilation of humankind and all living things.

PLM gives focus to the unity and solidarity of Left parties, groups, and social movements in Southeast Asia. We have been there since the very start of the network that unites and works in solidarity with the Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM), the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) and other groups in Indonesia, the workers' movement in Thailand, and the Socialist Alliance in Australia. Outside Southeast Asia, we link up with the Left Party of Sweden, the Communist parties in Nepal, Die Linke (The Left) in Germany, and other parties and groups that we come in contact with while continuing to struggle in the Philippines.

We intend to continue and broaden the unity with ecosocialist and degrowth movements in many parts of the world. 

Sonny Melencio is a long-time activist in the Philippines and the chairperson of the Partido Lakas ng Masa (PLM). He is also the author of a semi-biographical book titled Full Quarter Storms: Memoirs and Writings on the Philippine Left.