At the East Asia Summit last Friday, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte took the opportunity to shock an audience of world leaders with the infamous black and white photograph of the 1906 Bud Dajo Massacre, depicting American soldiers posing proudly in a volcano crater littered with hundreds of corpses. In the wake of the president’s extrajudicial killings that has seen the deaths of more than 2,000 drug offenders and pushers, contextualizing the massacre at Bud Dajo is essential to understanding Duterte’s vitriolic comments about outsiders criticizing him for violating human rights; Obama being called “the son of a whore,” and the UN Secretary General San Ki-Moon, a “fool,” being just two examples of his uncouth rhetoric that surpasses Trump in terms of impropriety.
The Bud Dajo Massacre stands as one of the bleaker moments in a war that often escapes American consciousness. This is the Philippine-American War (1899-1902), which began at the tail end of the Spanish-American War (1898). After Spain was defeated in the Battle of Manila Bay, Spain made her exit from the Eastern Hemisphere. Filipino nationalists seized this opportunity to declare their country an independent and sovereign state. However, the United States, eager to secure an economic foothold in Asia, as well as wet her feet in the colonial game played by all significant European powers, naturally assumed that the defeat of Spain meant the seamless transfer of authority into her hands. And so began the Philippine-American War.
This war on the Filipino archipelago can best be described as a proto-Vietnam. With military superiority, the Americans were trying to subjugate a hostile country whose geography constantly thwarted an easy victory. The Filipinos utilized the hot, humid, Southeast Asian jungle to conduct guerrilla style warfare, miring the Americans into a grueling conflict. Often frustrated by the effectiveness of their enemies’ strategies, the Americans then began to muddy their reputation as being morally superior to Europeans in terms of war conduct (see the LIFE magazine cover above), by employing unethical practices which stirred the ire of Americans at home, including notables like Mark Twain. For one, the American soldiers used concentration camps, euphemistically titled “protected zones,” to intern the native peoples, which one commandment referred to as “suburbs of Hell.” They also adopted a scorched earth policy that called for the razing of entire villages. Moreover, foreshadowing Guantanamo’s waterboarding, the Americans utilized the ironically titled “water cure,” a method of interrogation involving the forced consumption of excessive amounts of water, which was then expelled either naturally through vomiting, or by force. Using these methods, coupled with modern technology, the Americans eventually forced the Filipino revolutionaries to surrender. However, while this officially ended the war and made the Philippines a colony of the United States, fighting continued to happen, especially in the southern region of the country where Duterte himself is from, the area of Mindanao.
Mindanao is a unique region of the Philippines. Historically, the peoples of Mindanao and the southern islands had a vastly differing ethnic, religious, and linguistic identity from those living on the main island of Luzon. For one, most of these Filipinos were identified as Moros, Spanish for the word Moors, i.e. the Muslim population of the Iberian Peninsula expelled in the Spanish Reconquista. While Mindanao was an economically viable area due to its proximity to important South Pacific trade routes, the Moros were reputed for lawlessness, piracy, slavery, and tribalism. In addition, they ignored any form of national law, instead basing their legal system on Islamic sharia. Even the Spanish had failed to fully pacify Moroland, going so far as to transplant Christianized Filipinos from the north into the area, a tactic that did nothing more than create further antipathy towards all outsiders.
The American strategy to handling the Moros involved making an agreement with the local datus, or chieftains, typically via some form of a bribe. America promised to stay out of the affairs of the Moros, so long as the Moros paid taxes and maintained stability. But unbeknown to the Americans, the Moros were never a centralized people. Ratifying a treaty with one datu, therefore, did not promise that the Moros under the authority of a different datu would not offer resistance. And so, predictably, some of the Moros began to rebel, seeing the American imperialist as no different than the Spaniard.
With certain slopes at steep 60 degree angles, and with an eleven mile circumference, the crater of the extinct Bud Dajo volcano was the perfect hideout for those recalcitrants that refused to concede to the Americans. It was self sufficient, containing irrigated water pools and patches along the outer rim to grow crops. It was also very well defended, with multiple defensive fortifications built along the crest. Aspiring to a famed military reputation, the local American governor felt compelled to subjugate this stronghold of criminals and their families. And so, from March 7-9 1906, a force of 800 Americans launched a difficult uphill struggle against this Moro outpost. The Moros offered a fierce resistance, but once the Americans were able to get a machine gun safely situated at the rim of the volcano, 600 men, women, and children were killed en masse, described by one veteran as, “dominoes falling.” A photographer immortalized their victory with the same photograph Duterte displayed at the Far East Asia Summit.
In the postcolonial world that’s haunted with issues of identity (think of the agonizing paradox that historically colonized people are often forced to articulate their struggle for identity through the language of their colonizers), formerly colonized countries are weary when others, especially their former colonizer, try to impose a moral reproach. Hence why Duterte reminds the world of the war that resulted in the death of more than 200,000 dead Filipinos, a war which America has yet to issue a formal apology. Naturally, when Obama denounces his policies, Duterte revives America’s skeletons-in-her-closet, as a way to kick her off her moral high ground. Be that as it may, that doesn’t excuse Duterte from criticism by America or the United Nations. And while I’ll concede ignorance to to the reality of drug trafficking and addiction on Manila’s streets, I will acknowledge that the proposed quick-fix solution of having 100,000 bodies floating in Manila Bay by the end of Duterte first six months in office won’t end the problem of drugs, just as building a wall won’t prevent people south of the border from coming into the United States, or Syrian refugees flooding into Europe. Instead what Duterte needs to ask is: what are the motivations that push people into the world of drugs? A sense of feeling economically disenfranchised? A sense of futility towards fighting an extremely corrupt government? A lack of general welfare? Or is it something within the culture? These are the questions that Duterte needs to ask himself and the people of the Philippines. Anything less would be irresponsible.
Nathan Le Master
September 11, 2016