CRUCIBLE: Neoliberalism in SEA: A Critical Turn in Philippine South

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/16 Feb) — The impending visit of US President Barrack Obama to Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia come April would not really mean much unless viewed in the larger context of Southeast Asia (SEA). The visit will be underpinned by increasingly intertwined geopolitical advances and clashing regional interests exacerbated with the tension in South China Sea.

We could draw some reasons why the visit has to be made: First, to assuage countries mentioned with their apprehension over China’s military preponderance in South China Sea. Second, to offset President Obama’s absence in two major meetings in Southeast Asia – Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in Bali, Indonesia; and East Asia Summit in Brunei late last year. Third, to counter the geo-strategic and diplomatic advance of Chinese President Xi Jin Ping in Malaysia four months ago with the strengthening of Malaysia-China defense agreement, trade relation, and few others. Finally, major issues in regional scene must also overarch with domestic politics like the peace front in the Philippines with the signing of four annexes of the Framework Agreement of the Bangsamoro (FAB).

We have been supportive of the quest for peace in the south. Recently though, we observe over-simplification of the issue and the herding of certain sectors towards a constricted and too particularistic peace advocacy and orientation. On the surface, there is probably nothing wrong with it, except that we could lose track of the broader underpinning that defines the Bangsamoro question. It obfuscates the layer of equally critical issues with their regional and international implications.

On our end, we have been consistent in maintaining comprehensive view of peace in the south. We have never abdicated our role as social critic consistent with the function of the University known for being the sentinel of academic freedom and the denizen of critical thinking. We have maintained our fair articulation of the Bangsamoro question while aware of the broader dynamics happening not only in the Philippines but in Southeast Asia as well.

History as canvas

We had already undertaken quite a lengthy discourse on the need to take history as a canvas in understanding Muslim society. We are fully aware of Qur’anic reminder regarding ajal (term) of nations. The Qur’an says:

“To every people is a term appointed: when their term is reached, not an hour can they cause delay, nor (an hour) can they advance (it in anticipation) (A’raf: 34).”

After consulting major works by known Mufassir and their take on the term ajal, there seems to be unanimity in their understanding of the concept to refer to as “term appointed.” Both Ibn Kathir, Yusuf Ali, and Marmaduke Pickthall speak of the same understanding. There is another term ajalu n-musammah. It connotes similar understanding, although the latter speaks of term referring to natural order of things. In a Hadith, for instance, according to Abu Darr, the Prophet said that the sun and the moon used to engage in praise under the Throne (Kursi) and they are told to go back and forth and do their cycle again and again. The term ajal therefore connotes both cosmic and historical understanding of fate or term of nations and creation.

If ajal is identified as fate, it means it is inscrutible or unknowable. This is precisely what the Qur’an has been saying that no one knows except Allah (SWT). Yet, cognizant of other passages of the Qur’an, we are also equally emphatic with the imperative to understand history and to take portion of it like those stories as qasas and to learn instruction or lesson from them referred to in the Qur’an as ibra. This is the rational, as we said, why Ibn Khaldun took time to underscore the Qur’anic term ibra and how it is being played in history.

Taking off from this latter understanding of history, it is thus important that we continuously engage in understanding our history – both past and present.  They do not only give us lesson; they also give us instruction.

Construct and stages

The feature of our time is the recurrence of development happening one after another that comes in big constructs like Cold War, post-Cold War, political Islam, and Clash of civilizations, and so on. While these are simply constructs, they can be viewed, too, as stages of contemporary history. Therefore, they represent certain phase in understanding our time. Thus, even if they are fully inscrutable, social sciences provide us tools and methodologies into which we are able to understand pattern or regularity of events; so that they make sense, at times, could even be used to predict succeeding and future events. Here, prediction does not necessarily mean perfect or total happenstance of heretofore unknown events appearing as they were previously “read” or insinuated. Reading “future history” is simply proximation or forecast; potential events therein may or may not occur. Yet, its importance is heuristically valuable especially in providing us more objective and broader framing of major events, scenarios, trajectories, and so on.

Indeed, we are fully aware that the idea of fate in history is inscrutable; yet we are also being tasked to understand it; to take certain qasas or stories and use them as guidepost in our understanding through such works of Ibn Khaldun, Malik bin Nabi, and to a lesser extent, Samir Amin, and few others.

When we frame our understanding of our time particularly the context of new Southeast Asia, it may be done partly by understanding in relation to politics and events happening in other regions and countries and the shifting pattern of global politics. One of these is the Arab Spring in the Middle East, a subject we have closely followed and previously discussed in our other khutbah. And recently, the perceived failure of political Islam especially with the tragedy that has struck the Ikhwanu l-Muslimeen in Egypt and few other stirrings in the Arab world must have triggered the reconfiguration of dominant and global power to shift from the Middle East and Central Asia to areas like Asia Pacific and Southeast Asia that comes in new hegemonic project like the US Pivot or rebalancing of US forces in strategic continents and regions.

This means any critical domestic event happening in countries in Southeast Asia has to be viewed with regional undertone taking into account the context of US Pivot and the increasing military preponderance of China. In this regard, the discourse on the Bangsamoro cannot be divorced from this regional frame. Simply looking at internal tension or dynamics in Mindanao, for instance, will not really provide us new understanding. In fact, we had been there with relatively similar peace rhetoric in the mid ‘90s. What’s probably the difference is the formation of new players; the reversal of roles by old and new actors, with new rhetoric trumpeted as new cause for peace in Philippine South.

Neoliberalism

What is equally significant is the need to understand the global context particularly the advance of neoliberalism in many parts of the Third World including those in Southeast Asia and how political developments in these areas are being siphoned off to become part of neoliberal project.

Samir Amin, in his “Obsolescent Capitalism: Contemporary Politics and Global Disorder” characterized the new phase of neoliberalism. He wrote:

“The triumphant discourse and formulas of neoliberalism, which were so widely applied in the last two decades of the twentieth century, are no longer in such good shape. Support from them among broad majorities, even on the left, was boosted by the collapse of the Soviet myth that had seemed the only credible alternative for much of the century, as well as by the final extinction of the fires of Maoism. Yet that support has been eroded in the space of just a few years. 

The new-style liberalism promised prosperity for all (or nearly all), peace following the end of the Cold War, and a new era of democracy. Many believed it. But those who understood that its recipes could only deepen the ciris of accumulation, and that this would in turn worsen social conditions for the great majority of nations and working classes, now find an even larger and more attentive audience. Militarization of world order, which has been been upon us not since 11 September 2001 but since the Gulf War in 1991, has dissipated the promises of peace. Democracy is either marking time or in retreat; it is everywhere under threat.” (p. 1)

Samir Amin is a known thinker in the Arab world. He has wide audience in many countries including progressive movements in America and Europe. He provides more specific features of neoliberalism. He wrote further:

“One view is that the Triad countries (US, Europe, and Japan) will maintain their neoliberal orientation, and that  strong reserve army of labour  will therefore be reconstituted on their own soil. I would add  that the reconstituted army  will be all the larger if these countries reorganize mainly around their five monopolies to maintain global dominance, abandoning whole chunks of “traditional” industry to dynamic peripheries. In the peripheries in question, which will remain subject to the five monopolies, there will also be a dual structure involving the coexistence of an active army (here employed in “marginalized industries”) and a reserve army. In a way, then, these trends will bring the centers and the peripheries  closer to each other, though within the framework of a monopoly-based hierarchy.”

Samir Amin identified five monopolies of neoliberalism: (1) Technological monopoly; (2) Financial control of worldwide financial market; (3) Monopolistic access to the earth’s natural resources; (4) Media and communication monopolies; and (5) Monopolies over weapons of mass destruction.

Incidentally, these five monopolies of Samir Amin reflect relatively the features previously identified by Felix Greene in his classic, “The Enemy: What Every American Should Know about Imperialism.” Greene wrote his work in 1971, while Samir Amin came up with this characterization quite recently. It is quite clear: the global landscape has not really changed since then and now as far as global control and monopolies by dominant powers.

This, in our view, should be taken part of the equation in understanding the new feature of Southeast Asia and the attendant development unique in each country like the issue surrounding the Bangsamoro as crucial in providing that prism so that we could fully understand the canvas of this new new rhetoric. By using this frame, we are able to elevate our understanding of qasas and ibra in our time, while aware, too, that we could only scratch the surface of history.

Philippine South connection

When we underlined neoliberalism as a frame in understanding domestic issue like the Bangsamoro, it is to allow us to develop a perspective that is actually quite old. We are not pioneer in this discourse.

A Filipino author and radical critic, E. San Juan Jr. in his book, “From Globalization to National Liberation: Essays of Three Decades” has this to say about globalization and its impact in the birth of neoliberal ideologies and its corresponding implications in many countries including the Philippines. He wrote:

“Globalization as the transnationalized domination of finance capital exposes its historical limit in the deepening class inequality of a polarized antagonism-lade world. While surplus extraction in the international labor market remains basic to the logic of accumulation, the ideology of neoliberal transnationalist exchange  has evolved, after 9/11, into the unilateral American Exceptionalist” discourse of the “war on terrorism” and the more contentious “clash of civilizations.” Contradictions in specific loci of social struggles inform the imperialist project of resolving the crisis of unilateral globalism operating in the fierce competition of the ruling power-elites in the US, Japan, and Europe. Prompted by this exigency, the US ruling class is desperately striving to impose hegemonic control over multiple nations, states, and peoples in an increasingly contested space and continue the neocolonial oppression of the rest of the planet.” (p.xvi)

In this regard, both Samir Amin and San Juan Jr. are on the same boat. They provide critical reading how globalization and neoliberalism have become dominant force in shaping domestic, national, and regional affairs.

It is quite important that San Juan mentioned “clash of civilizations,” a prism that was developed after the post-Cold War and became the dominant discourse recently. It is quite fair to assume that the rational behind the “clash of civilizations” was the attendant rise even earlier of political Islam. In other words, what justifies “clash of civilizations” was the emergence of politically motivated sectors in the Muslim world that tried to catapult Islam as ideology. By twist of history, and as shown, as we said, with the tragedy of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt three years since the Arab Spring began, there are insinuations that political Islam is on slide. If that is the case, then the “clash of civilizations” paradigm should also be deconstructed.

Politcal Islam and Moro struggle

This part of deconstruction is critical into the discourse of political Islam in Southeast Asia particularly in the Philippines more so with its subsequent injection into the Moro struggle few years ago. It is worthy to note that one of the reasons in factionalizing the Moro front in the late ‘70s was the allegation that Communism had gripped the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) not to mention the claim against Nur Misuari as too secular and too nationalist in his orientation; hence, necessitating the breaking away of a new group that came to be known later as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). In order to gain legitimacy, the latter raised the rhetoric of political Islam particularly the need to advance an Islamic state.

In just few years, however, that rhetoric stumbled. The MILF’s discourse of Islamic state was eventually abandoned and took a critical turn to align with “national” struggle of liberation. It facilitated, as a result, the forging of peace talks beginning in the mid 80s, retried in late 90s, and was made to kick off again in the early 2000s. It was bungled though in 2008 with the non-signing of the MoA-AD (Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain) in Kuala Lumpur. As the MILF’s deconstruction of its struggle became too obvious to be neglected, it simply needed re-framing of the defunct MoA-AD and came to be known as the FAB signed on October 15, 2012.

What puzzled many observers is the propensity to abandon original causes Moro fronts used to raise early in their formation only to eat them up later in their aging stage. Their shifting stance on Bangsamoro Republik and/or Islamic state is just one of their propensities as they eventually blur the line of their secessionist-integrationist rhetoric and their nationalist-Islamist strand not to mention their often pliant conduct of struggle with their ever-shifting ideology, strategy, and tactics.

In the case of MILF’s rhetoric of Islamic State and why it was abandoned could only be understood in that crucial phase when the “war on terror” as a project was launched in Southeast Asia with the Philippines dubbed as the “second front of terror” after Afghanistan. San Juan has this to say why the US return to the Philippines affecting the tenor of Islamic stance of the MILF:

“to stigmatize as ‘terrorist’ the major insurgent group that has been fighting for forty years for popular democracy and independence – the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and its armed wing, the New People’s Army (NPA), both members of the National Democratic Front (NDF) – the introduction of thousands of US troops, weapons, logistics, and supporting personnel has been given an imprimatur of legitimacy.” (p. 85)

San Juan identified also the reason why the Abu Sayyaf, for instance, has been previously organized and eventually used as a pretext in broadening the “war on terror” in Southeast Asia particularly in Southern Philippines. It was a very critical time when the MILF was about to be declared as a terrorist organization by the US State Department in the early 2000s. After neutralizing the Abu Sayyaf in Basilan and other areas as the latter failed to take a strong stance against US forces, the CCP-NPA became the object of US “war on terror” as it was subsequently included in the list of Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) in the US State Department.

What we are saying is there was a time when the MILF was about to be taken like others as terrorist organization. If it had pushed through, that would have changed the whole course of peace process in Southern Philippines. The non-inclusion of the MILF in the FTO, I would contend,  could be due to the fact that the neoliberal project needs a “handle” in the Philippine South. It is not in the interest of the Philippines and neoliberal operators to cast out all Moro fronts and place them all at the other side of the fence. Doing so would entail much war, instability, and so on. There has to be at least one group (even if it is made to interchange role with one after another) that is made to talk with the government so that it could be projected that there is a semblance of peace in the south and that this entity could become a proxy or in more moderate term a “partner” in implementing neoliberal agenda in Mindanao and Sulu. In this regard, the MILF is not necessarily relevant because it is still important. It is made to be relevant because it could serve as a new “handle” of neoliberalism in Southern Philippines.

On the contrary, the MILF could not be faulted for taking a paradigm shift away from its earlier rhetoric of Islamic state. Except for Iran, there had been no new Muslim countries that took the path of Islamic state. In fact, many countries and groups that attempted ended in tragic failure. The case of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan and few others speaks of catastrophe that befell political Islam. Many Islamic movements as they became more radicalized lost tract of their ideology so much so that that their struggle was eventually used against them. It justified the broadening of US hegemony the world over and the furthering of neoliberal project in many parts of the world including Southeast Asia. As political Islam had been crumbling in the Middle East and elsewhere, the MILF, unlike the Ikhwan in Egypt for instance, could be commended for seeing as early the “sign of the times” in the ‘90s as it deconstructed its struggle and strategy back to integrationist-nationalist-autonomist line, except that it made itself vulnerable to the proddings of neoliberalism steered by new regional rivalry in Southeast Asia.

This is the context why it is important that we develop a new frame in understanding our society. We need to see to what extent the new politics of neoliberal ideology in Southeast Asia would create an atmosphere where people’s struggle continue to gain standing so that the whole process would not become the monopoly of neoliberalism.

It is undeniably a difficult task. It requires critical examination of current events including the use of appropriate works and sources to guide us understand the new story – the new qasas – of our time. There are pioneering works from classic to modern, as we said, like those of Ibn Khaldun, Malik Bin Nabi, and Samir Amin, and few more. These could be augmented and reinforced with other equally relevant and critical readings like those of Noam Chomsky, Edward Said, Tariq Ali, and E. San Juan Jr. and others. It is important to inseminate our understanding with new sources of discourse.

What has happened as it is quite unacceptable is the deafening silence many of us have resorted to amid the dominance of too particularistic orientation and advocacy remiss with broader understanding of our issues. In fact, we lament over the capitulation of our ulama for not being able to articulate in its full range our issues and the need to understand our time especially at a critical juncture Southeast Asia is undergoing.

[This piece is a slightly revised khutbah delivered at the Institute of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines. MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Associate Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines Diliman].

URL: http://www.mindanews.com/mindaviews/2014/02/16/crucible-neoliberalism-in-sea-a-critical-turn-in-philippine-south/

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