The Philippines’ feudal politics: How ‘different political backgrounds’ proved fatal to Typhoon Haiyan’s victims

Accounts of how the Philippines’ renowned brand of feudal politics came into play in the virtual paralysis of relief efforts in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan (a.k.a. Yolanda) are emerging. Tacloban City mayor Alfred Romualdez testifying before Congress reported how red tape and stonewalling from Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas may have contributed to the fatal outcome of the snail-paced relief effort…

Romualdez said Roxas asked him to “legalize everything” so the national government could come to their rescue.

“I told him: why is it illegal?” Romualdez said. “As far as I know, the President is the president of the Philippines and he is also president of Tacloban City.”

He said he did not see any reason why Aquino or Roxas needed a document that would enable the national government to come in and help Tacloban City.

Dumb and dumber: President BS Aquino and DILG Sec. Mar Roxas
Dumb and dumber: President BS Aquino and DILG Sec. Mar Roxas
Romualdez also reported to the Congressional committee that “Roxas reminded him that he and Aquino come from different political backgrounds,” warning also that they have to be “very careful,” presumably in the manner with which they worked together to weather the crisis.

To be fair, local governments in the Philippines have long been known to be fiercely protective of their autonomy. A Sydney Morning Herald report published shortly after Yolanda struck cited how “a weak central government and provincial governors who wield virtual autonomy over their fiefdoms, keeping millions of Filipinos below the poverty line” are likely to have been major factor in what many regard as Manila’s almost intentional foot dragging and “muted response” in the early days following the devastation.

The City of Davao exemplifies this attitude amongst government officials specially in the Philippines’ southern and Visayas regions. Back in 2011, a jurisdiction row between the national government and the city government of Davao over the eviction of a squatter colony highlighted not only local executives’ but even ordinary people’s regard in these areas for what is perceived to be the meddlesome national executives governing from “Imperial Manila”. Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte is famous for his tough approach to governance and maintaining law and order in his realm — an approach that his constituents, by all accounts, have themselves cozied up to. Duterte has been named “The Punisher” in a TIME Asia article owing to his renowned West-of-the-Pecos brand of enforcing law in Davao City.

More recently, a crisis that erupted after the forces of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III entered the Malaysian state of Sabah to uphold Kiram’s long-standing sovereign claim over that territory also highlighted the ineptitude of the Philippine national government’s management of affairs involving its southern provinces. This incursion was over a deal between the government of President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III and the terrorist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) brokered by the Malaysian government that had apparently purposely left Kiram (and, it turns out, Nur Misuari, head of that other Islamic rebel group, the Moro National Liberation Front) out of the loop in those negotiations. At one point during that crisis which found Islamic insurgents allegedly under both Kiram and Misuari waging armed attacks within Sabah, the Philippine government had sent naval vessels to join forces with Malaysia to protect Sabah’s coastline against Filipino citizens.

In both of these cases, we could see precedents that lend a bit of context to the dynamic in the relationship observed today between the Tacloban city government of Romualdez and President BS Aquino’s administration in the handling of the post-Haiyan relief efforts. From the perspective of the national government, local governments are feisty temperamental beasts with fragile adolescent egos that are to be managed much the same way a parent manages a morose teenaged kid. And from the perspective of these provincial barons, the national government is a modern-day imperialist state to be regarded at an arm’s length.

Thus whilst there is no excusing the glacial manner with which the government of President BS Aquino responded (and continues to respond) to the devastation left by Haiyan, how the groundwork upon which the paralysing red tape and perverse bureaucratic attitude that all but prevents harmonious cooperation between local and national government to happen when it counts was built came about becomes quite evident. Perhaps before we become too quick to lap up what may be Romualdez’s skillful playing of the victim card today, it might be prudent to first examine the manner with which he and his clan governed Leyte province in the years — and decades — leading up to this crisis.

Indeed, the issue of whether the Philippines remains a viable state is, yet again, made relevant today by this brouhaha…

Poverty, inequality, and corruption plague the Philippines six decades after independence. Of the past five presidents, only one took office and left it without military intervention, and he was a general. In his controversial book, A Country of Our Own (2004), David Martinez describes the Philippines as a failed state. The country in his eyes comprises five regions (“nations”): Cordillera, Luzon, The Visayas, Mindanao, and Bangsamoro. He proposes holding legally binding referenda in each of these places to determine whether those who live there wish to remain inside the Philippines or form their own independent country. In a conversation moderated by Stanford’s Don Emmerson, Martinez and the Filipinist scholar Lela Noble will examine arguments and evidence relevant to a crucial question: Is the nation-state project still valid for the Philippines?

It really isn’t a question of whose side we take on this matter, but rather a question of a more intelligent regard for the systemic issues underlying the consistent failure of the Philippines to progress and take its place in the global community as a modern society.