In search of democracy

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May 1997

I was acutely embarrassed when Joel Rocamora – whose book on the split with the Filipino Left, “Breaking Through: The Struggle Within the Communist Party of the Philippines” either before or after I met him – asked me if we wanted to conduct the interview in Malay. He was scholar of Indonesia politics and seemed to welcome to chance to use the language. I declined, my command of Malay was not up to the task, I just didn’t have the vocabulary in Malay to conduct an interview on politics. And besides, if he was familiar with the Bahasa Malaysia variety, there would be that added challenge of bridging the gap between these varieties. I had been interested in the history of left politics, parties and mass movements in part because of my self-identification then as a socialist. The Left in The Philippines, however, exemplified not a future potential but historic failure. The bloody splits within the Left and the episode of hysteria that led to execution of cadres suspected of being deep penetration agents.  In my travels in The Philippines I have met many Communists – one of the most colourful being a former priest and short story writer who told me how the CPP was attempting to rewrite its manual on sexuality to be more accommodative to the LGBT ‘community’. One can’t be a student of history and not become a little inured of grandiose claims by politicians from any point in the spectrum. I have as a result become deeply suspicious of ideological purity and its accompanying sectarianism. That being said, The Philippines, its wealth and grinding poverty; its educated classes vs the culture of the masses; and long democratic tutelage under the United States of America vs one of the longest running communist insurgencies, its culture of violence, poses challenges to the expectation of democratisation and redistributive justice in the region. The photographic work of Jose Enrique Soriano added to the deeply troubling portrait of the country I had written about, drawing a strong rebuke from embassy of The Philippines which latched on to my presence at an adult bar I described. The ‘colour’ in my article was an important element in my writing. It made my very idiosyncratic perspective feel grounded.

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