Book Review by Jeremy Agar
“POLICING AMERICA ’S EMPIRE:
The United States , The Philippines And the Rise Of The Surveillance State ”
by Alfred W McCoy, University Of Wisconsin Press, Madison, 2009
Alfred McCoy has written the most thorough account of American relations with the Philippines that the general reader is likely to come across. It’s a history with meticulous detail, the product of an academic career that’s concentrated on the tortuous story of the connections between the US and Southeast Asia . McCoy, who previously exposed a Central Intelligence Agency role in the Asian drug trade (“The Politics Of Heroin In Southeast Asia”, 1972), is specifically interested in the workings of the Police and the Army, American creations in large part.
“Policing America ’s Empire” is a history of US-Philippine relations, stretching back to 1898, when America invaded the archipelago, expelled a tiring Spain , and announced that the upcoming century was to belong to America . Unlike European colonists, who acquired their empires in earlier days of sail power and muskets, the US typically did not feel it needed to exert explicit political rule. It would control through local proxies, a method which President McKinley called “benevolent assimilation”. He couldn’t then go the whole way and allow formal independence, but, rather than being a judgement about the needs of power, this seems to have been the result of racism and cultural bias. Manila self rule, McKinley cautioned, would be “vastly more unwise and even more disastrous than it had been in DC” (which was full of black people). Neither WashingtonDC nor Manila got a vote.
Just as, a century later, Bush the Younger used 9/11 to “justify” his attack on Iraq, McKinley’s pretext for invading the Philippines was the sinking of a US warship in Havana, the main port of a then-Spanish Cuba. When no convenient target presents itself, governments have to lie. Before the Bush-Blair “discovery” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq , the 1965 Gulf of Tonkin “incident”, an invention by President Johnson of Vietnamese aggression, triggered the US assault on North Vietnam . McCoy hints at the parallels and patterns within 20th Century history.
The trick in the Philippines was to deploy enough US personnel to keep a watch on events while relying on locals for the brunt of the dirty work. In the early years one third of the Manila City budget went to the Police, while one of the three Police Commissioners was a Filipino. The money tap necessitated a 500% tax increase and guaranteed corruption. From the start of their occupation the US fostered the power of local elites, who came to depend on American sponsorship. In a tactic since followed by cities hosting Olympic Games or World Trade Organisation conferences, low-life Americans were shipped home in an attempt to create an aura of expat cultural and racial superiority.
The US established a Division of Military Information to set up files on all influential Filipinos. This could have been the world’s first attempt at bureaucratic mass surveillance, useful for dangling carrots (patronage and cooption) and spreading divisive misinformation and playing dirty tricks. When necessary the stick could whack sense into troublemakers. US policy was to “kill off the leaders and enlighten the masses”.
Marcos Was The Americans’ Boy
Necessarily, the Philippines being scattered and heterogeneous, local warlords are generally left alone to dispense local injustice. A dictator like Ferdinand Marcos, who campaigned, inevitably, on a law and order platform, centralised the Police and Army, but even in periods of centralised power, the local fiefdoms are granted a free rein. As the elites have a common interest in suppressing democracy, the system usually works well enough for them all. There’s enough plunder to go round. According to McCoy, Marcos spent $US50 million on bribes just for his 1969 re-election campaign.
The Americans want to project their power regionally and, as long as no Viet Cong-type movement surfaced, they wouldn’t have worried about what went on in the provinces. Their problem is that the Philippines have never been pacified*, and the US military has never been far from direct engagement. The President in Manila , any President, works within the space left between the US and local powerbrokers. It’s a recipe for systematic abuse. All that’s certain is that the interests of the Philippine people won’t be the motive for policy.
*The New People’s Army of the Communist Party of the Philippines has been continuously waging a classic peasant-based guerrilla war across the great majority of the Philippines ’ provinces for more than 40 years. Prior to that there was the unsuccessful 1950s’ Huk guerrilla war waged by the former Communist Party. Separately, there has been a Muslim separatist guerrilla war continuously in the southernmost provinces since the 1970s. Ed.
In 1978, Marcos agreed to extend the lease for US bases in exchange for $US500 million in what both parties agreed to call “aid”. A State Department honcho, Richard Holbrooke, explained the dilemma: ‘We had to choose between using our bilateral relationship for human rights objectives and using it first for putting our military facilities on a stable basis”. Human rights or a stable military? They must have agonised over that for all of two seconds. Holbrooke is now President Obama’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan , one of several hints that policy hasn’t changed.
McCoy divides Philippine history since 1945, when the Japanese were pushed out, into three periods. The rule of thumb is that in the post-war period, there were the 3 G’s: guns, goons and gold. Then, from 1965-1986, there was Marcos. “People Power” toppled the dictator, but as McCoy mournfully records, post-Marcos it’s all about the 3 C’s: celebrity, criminality and Chinese – as in ethnic Chinese moneymen.
Warlords, Death Squads & Kleptocrats
Resistance has been persistent but, reflecting its often disparate origins it, too, tends to be inconsistent. Whenever human development looks to be in the offing, the killers get busy, so that sentences like this are frequent: “A liquidation campaign raged across central Luzon for a full year, hunting down environmentalists, community organisers, journalists, pastors, and land reform advocates”.
All sorts of agendas are in play. McCoy talks about the interplay, during Cory Aquino’s 1986-92 Presidency, between “criminal gangs, fanatical cults, and ex-Communist guerrillas”. One crazed Christian zealot couldn’t find the guerrillas he was supposed to hunt so he attacked human rights groups instead. When McCoy notes that the Philippines is said to have the world’s highest murder rate – though it’s highly variable between regions – the information is almost incidental. An outfit pleased to call itself the Legal Action Group saw its role to be “targeting so-called Communist front organisations engaged in development, media, and religious work”. The threat of justice has a way of uniting oppressors into making their country safe for injustice.
Joseph “Erap” Estrada, an actor, was a celebrity President (1998-2001), an example of the post-Marcos C’s, evicted in 2001 by People Power 2 amid accusations of pocketing kickbacks. McCoy says he alienated provincial rivals by trying to privatise gambling profits for himself. In a brazen comeback bid, Estrada, who used to keep the Presidential mistress in a 23,000 square-foot house, one of 18 Presidential mansions, ran second in the May 2010 Presidential election. The winner, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, son of the late President Cory Aquino, is from a rival – and more respected – political dynasty. Such is politics Philippine-style.
Aided and abetted by the US , the State has resorted to terror on a mass scale four times in recent history: “Thus coercive capacity was fashioned under colonial rule, legitimated by the country’s later Constitutions, and reinforced by popular demands for public order in the face of rising criminality. But in the half century since independence in 1946, the Philippine Executive’s reliance on coercion rather than negotiation has been encouraged by periodic infusions of US aid and advisers, contributing ever more efficient means of armed suppression, from the CIA’s counterinsurgency operations in the 1950s through US counterterrorism training since 2002”.
McCoy concludes with the observation that after 9/11 an enhanced technical sophistication has allowed the watchers to keep a clamp on freedom unobtrusively and atrocities are generally limited to outlying islands. Traditional methods, he suggests, the crudities of a McCarthy or a Nixon, or a Marcos, perhaps, would have been resisted. In the Philippines , where indirect methods have always been tyranny’s default option, cooption and bribery might have some way yet to go. McCoy makes another pertinent, if unwelcome point: at least eight million educated middle class Filipinos have recently emigrated, potentially restoring the social gap between the oligarchs and the masses, and, with it, the oligarchs’ freedom to oppress.