Across much of Southeast Asia, it’s often fashionable to rail against the invisible enemy across the seas. This usually takes the form of former colonial masters: the generic “West” or various “isms,” mostly imperialism and colonialism. I’ve often found this to be a convenient prop to entrench those in power and wealth, and deflect criticism of their own performance in delivering better outcomes for their own people.
Duterte was in such a defiant mood while in Beijing last October when he announced his “separation” from the United States, the Philippines’ top foreign investor. He also announced he was teaming up with Russia and China “against the world,” although it’s not immediately apparent the benefits that Russia would be able to provide in terms of impacting better living standards and reducing poverty in the Philippines.
The truth is, though, that if anything the United States was an absent and halfhearted colonial master of its one real colony, a colony that only came its way by the spoils of a conflict far away, in a war with Spain regarding Cuba in 1898. Unlike the European colonial masters in Southeast Asia, the United States did not fight at the end of World War II to keep its colony, as the Dutch, British and French did with theirs. Despite losing tens of thousands of servicemen fighting the Japanese, the United States granted the Philippines independence in July 1946. That’s 70 years that the Philippines has been officially in charge of its own destiny. Blaming the United States for its state of affairs is an excuse that ought to have long since passed its use-by date.
The largely absent American rule was high on ideals and low on governance. As with most colonial administrations, the United States had to work with existing elites both in Manila and in the regions. The central government was weak and regional landed potentates from the Spanish hacienda days dominated both Congress and local electorates back then – and still do today. Indeed, the Philippines was largely left to its own devices far earlier than independence. As early as 1916, more than 100 years ago, the United States granted the Philippines control over both houses of Congress, and in that year the Philippine National Bank (PNB) was established.
The British economist Joe Studwell, who has written extensively on comparative development economics in Asia, while referring to Paul D. Hutchcroft’s 1998 book “Booty Capitalism,” an extensive study of the expropriation of the state by the tycoon fraternity, noted: “The PNB became the oligarch’s personal treasury, making loans to families in estate agriculture. The government was required to keep all its deposits at the bank, which would also issue currency. It took just five years for PNB to arrive at its first major crisis, by which time the bank had squandered its entire capital base.”