Kej Andrés is the National Spokesperson of the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines and Matt Deza is the organization’s Basic Masses Integration Officer. We talked to them about the Philippine national-democratic mass movement, the roots of the brutal Duterte regime, and the relationship between religion and politics.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Brady A.: What is the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines?
Matt Deza: We are an ecumenical national-democratic youth organization, made up of student youth across different denominations united in seeking social justice as well as national sovereignty and democratic rights.
Kej Andrés: In terms of politics, we identify ourselves as “national-democratic,” meaning that we aspire for national liberation against the neocolonialism of the United States and the incursion of the Chinese imperialists in our territories. As Matt said, we fight for the democratic rights of the Filipino people, for just wages, land for the farmers, free and mass-oriented education, accessible utilities, human rights, and health, especially during a failed pandemic response under the Duterte administration.
Josh Messite: How did you two become politically active?
KA: I have been politically active since childhood — I wanted to help people because the Philippines is mired in poverty. Minimum wage here in Metro Manila is 537 Philippine pesos a day, which is less than 11 US dollars.
MD: We have a regional wage system, so in other regions, that might go down to ₱400, which is around $8 a day.
KA: There are also farm workers tilling sugarcane plantations who receive the equivalent of $0.20 a day. So it’s not hard for us to witness poverty. That’s the reality that many people face here, although I would classify myself as petit-bourgeois or middle-class.
During high school, I got into a Franciscan school. Franciscans are very intimate with advocacy regarding poverty and ecological justice, and that fired up my sense of political commitment. Then I got into college at a Jesuit university called the Ateneo de Manila. During my last year in college, I took a course on liberation theology, which is actually a mandated subject at Ateneo. What was interesting was that while they do teach liberation theology here in the Philippines, it’s more of a reformist version of it. Their conclusion is that you should enter the government or become part of the reactionary forces, because as someone who is privileged, as someone attending an elite university, you have the skill to change the rotten system from within.
But in 2016 Rodrigo Duterte got elected to office, and many youth in the Philippines became disillusioned with the political system. So we joined mass organizations that offer a more militant kind of activism — mass movements that aren’t constricted within government. We entered Kabataan, which is a youth party. It’s actually very hard for a genuinely-progressive party to participate in our Congress. We basically have a landlord Congress — to participate in politics in the Philippines, especially at the national level, you either have to be a landlord yourself or you have to be backed by a landlord or multinational company.
I continued with that participation in Kabataan, and then I found the Student Christian Movement of the Philippines (SCMP) to be compatible with my belief that faith must be lived, faith must be militant, faith must be revolutionary, serving the people. Initially I was hesitant to become part of the SCMP because I just saw myself as a basic Catholic. I went to mass every Sunday, but I didn’t know many Bible verses, I didn’t know much theology. But being part of the SCMP deepened my commitment to the liberatory aspect of our faith.
Now, as part of the Executive Committee of the SCMP, specifically as a National Spokesperson, it pushed me to study the Bible and the gospel in light of the situation here in the Philippines, which is mired in poverty, neocolonialism, feudalism, and rotten politics.
MD: Relative to Philippine society, I had a fairly affluent background as well. I got into elite schools, and my upbringing was generally one dispositioned towards Western culture, even as just outside my neighborhood there were people working in horrible conditions for little pay. In my family’s provinces and others like it, there are millions of peasants who don’t own their own land, whose land is owned by landlords. Those realities were there, but they weren’t in the forefront for the majority of my upbringing. My upbringing had a lot to do with exposure to Western culture and living that type of life despite being in a semi-feudal society.
Interestingly enough, getting into internet trends would wind up getting me into Western internet politics around the time of Bernie and the disillusionment following the 2016 American elections. That exposure sparked up something in me to read more about leftist and progressive politics around the world, but still not so much about the Philippines. I was still ignorant about the mass movement here in the country, partly because of state propaganda, partly because my background doesn’t exactly make me the type of person that local progressives are mainly trying to organize.
When I went to college after reading about progressive politics, the first thing I wanted to do was join the most progressive, left-leaning organization that was present at the Ateneo de Manila. Unfortunately, at the time that meant joining a social democratic political party, the Union of Students for the Advancement of Democracy. I wound up with them for a bit, but eventually I became disillusioned with them because of their sectarianism and relative inaction against the Duterte regime. By that point, Duterte had been exposed as a fascist, as corrupt, as an imperialist puppet, yet the “socdems,” as we call them here, were wasting time by red-baiting national-democratic activists and equating the violence of Duterte’s state terrorism with the violence of farmers and indigenous peoples taking up arms to protect their community. But after being disillusioned with the socdems, I didn’t directly end up in the national-democratic mass movement. I was still doing my own reading online about Marxism, and then Marxism-Leninism, and eventually Maoism.
From my reading, I realized that the revolutionary movement here in the Philippines is actually very well-respected among the international communist movement. Eventually, I came to my senses and became a walk-in at the local chapter of Kabataan Party-list, as Kej did. Kabataan Party-list finally came to our campus around 2017 or 2018.
The type of politics that we were trying to bring into our campus was still one that used electoral means to achieve tactical victories like free education reform, but it was centered around the mass movement of the streets, and it was centered around the militant and progressive patriotic politics that wasn’t present on our campus until that point. Those militant politics had been present at Ateneo in the past, however, especially during the Marcos dictatorship. In fact, our university had its own share of revolutionary martyrs, people who took up arms against Marcos, people who were part of the mass movement leading up to his downfall. So those were historical factors, but there was no continuity between the militant campus politics of the past and the campus politics when we arrived. Yet there we were, trying to pick up the pieces from where they started. We did make certain strides in our time as campus activists, especially in campaigns trying to develop the consciousness of students from anti-Marcos sentiments and anti-Duterte sentiments towards a deeper understanding of why these tyrants come to power in the Philippines, why our society is set up this way. Our Kabataan chapter ended up rebirthing the mass movement in the Ateneo. Ateneans launched a student strike late last year, pressuring the university administration into pledging their commitment to safeguarding students’ academic freedoms from red-tagging and repression, the right to hold protests on campus, and an ease on academic workloads during the pandemic. The university now has a widening and deepening base of Atenean student activists who, despite their affluent backgrounds, engage in militant cultural work, broad anti-fascist alliance building, and urban-poor community organizing.
During the course of my time organizing at the university, Kej joined the SCMP, and watching him from afar, I also realized that there’s so many Christian youth that can and need to be organized. Especially at a time when we need the broadest unities to isolate and combat the Duterte regime, which is the number one barrier to realizing the people’s democratic rights. There’s a long history of Christian youth participating in the mass movement and also the revolutionary movement. Faith-based youth organizations and ministries played an important role in the overthrow of the Marcos and Estrada regimes — there was more historical continuity in that respect. So eventually I joined the SCMP.
For somebody living in a semi-feudal society, I didn’t really take the usual path to becoming organized; I walked into an activist organization after very little prior contact with the toiling masses and the genuine progressives in the country. But I don’t regret it.
BA: For readers who aren’t aware of the situation on the ground in the Philippines since Duterte took power in 2016, what makes his administration a “butcher state” and a “fascist regime”?
KA: When you look at the Duterte administration as a whole, it’s not fundamentally different from our past presidents. Past presidents have also been primarily subservient to the United States, implementing neoliberal policies since the time of the Marcos dictatorship. They are all backed by landlords, and they all participate in different kinds of corruption, in one way or another.
But what makes Duterte different is that he is probably the worst president in the history of the Philippines. His status as our worst president is a manifestation of the worsening of the semi-colonial and semi-feudal characteristics of the Philippine situation. Our last president before Duterte was Benigno Aquino III, and he implemented many neoliberal policies. He made it look like the Philippines would be the next “Tiger of Asia” which would attract foreign investors to the Philippines. He basically implemented a trickle-down policy. Because many Filipinos were disillusioned by his type of elite politics, many of them voted for Duterte in 2016. Duterte promised change, and we cannot blame the masses for seeking an alternative. But Duterte is another puppet of the imperialists, the corporations, and the landlords.
Duterte has waged three wars against the Filipino people. First is the murderous drug war, which has killed about 30,000 urban poor Filipinos in the name of eliminating drugs, which Duterte identifies as the root cause of poverty in the Philippines. His drug war is still happening, still killing innocent urban poor Filipinos. Second is the imposition of martial law in Mindanao, which is the southern island in the Philippines, under the veil of “counterinsurgency” and “counterterrorism.” Essentially, it’s a war against the progressive movement in Mindanao, which is the hotspot of the civil war in the Philippines. Third is the war Duterte is waging against activists in the legal mass movements. This war is waged through a counterinsurgency program that is actually patterned after the CIA. Although the Philippines gained independence from the United States after World War II, the US Army continues to provide intelligence support and tactical support to the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). There’s actually a US Army headquarters within the General Headquarters of the AFP.
So that’s the situation we’re in today. Fascism has killed thousands of Filipinos, and Duterte wants to prolong his regime, either directly or through his successor.
MD: I’d like to add that the declaration of martial law in Mindanao is not only an attack on the people’s movements and the revolutionary movements in the region. Martial law in Mindanao was also an excuse to deploy battalions of AFP troops in order to level Marawi, a historically-significant city for the Muslim Moro national minority. In the guise of a war on terror, the government destroyed historical sites, heritage sites, then in their place, they set up malls, they set up enterprises for local big businesses. They did use martial law in an attempt to get rid of the armed struggles on the island, but they also used it to degrade the whole island, which is the second-largest island in the Philippines. They used it as an excuse to harass and evict tens of thousands of the island’s national minorities from their communities. The incentive to force Moro and Lumad communities out of their ancestral domain is there because they sit on mineral-rich land where local and foreign mining corporations were aching to set up shop once these communities had been dealt with by the military.
So we can see that Duterte is sort of a culmination of these wars against the Filipino people, of the violence, impunity, and fascism of the puppet governments, especially since the days of Marcos.
JM: You’ve described Duterte’s handling of the pandemic as militaristic, oppressive, and ineffective — how has the Duterte government responded to Covid, and what would a superior response look like?
KA: From the very start of the pandemic, we have been calling for actual medical solutions instead of military options. Sadly, we anticipated that the Duterte administration would use military force to enact its Covid policies. Unfortunately, the Filipino mass movement was correct that Duterte would use the pandemic as an opportunity to impose de facto martial law. Legal impunity has worsened ever since the pandemic started.
What has Duterte done in the past year and a half? Well, he brought down ABS-CBN, the biggest news broadcaster here in the Philippines, because the media kept offending his feelings.
MD: He thought they were biased against him.
KA: So he shut down our largest media conglomerate. He railroaded the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which we call “the Terror Law.” The Terror Law expands the definition of “terrorism” so that anyone can be identified as a “terrorist.” There’s rampant “red-tagging,” which is when unarmed activists are tagged by the military and by the government as armed communist insurgents. Even priests, nuns, and pastors have been red-tagged. Red-tagged priests have been killed.
So we can see the opportunistic mode of Duterte. He uses the pandemic not only to tighten his grip on the opposition, but he also uses it to impose more neoliberal policies. Amidst the pandemic, he wants to revise the Constitution of the Philippines to deepen privatization and to remove the limits on foreign ownership of our enterprises.
The performance of the Department of Health and other agencies has been lackluster, especially because the heads of the pandemic response are actually retired military generals, who don’t know anything about treating patients or handling pandemics.
MD: A note on the violence dealt against the urban poor during the pandemic — for the initial months of the pandemic, there was a government ordinance which put a moratorium on demolitions. But there were many cases in which the moratorium was ignored, and demolitions went forward anyway. Eventually, they did away with the facade of the ordinance so they could speed up infrastructure projects that benefit local big contractors as well as foreign construction firms, especially those from the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. To pay for that, Duterte has taken on some of the largest debt in the country’s history, supposedly in the name of our pandemic response. But in reality, the debt is to finance the continuation of these construction projects, which the Filipino people will pay for in higher taxes. Our tax laws skew towards the poor paying more taxes and the rich paying less. So that demolition and debt-fueled construction is another aspect of Duterte’s pandemic response.
As Kej said, Duterte also pushed the Terror Law in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when a medical response was urgently needed. This Terror Law is based on the 2009 US Counterinsurgency Guide which is already used in countries like Palestine. They want to bring a sort of “Patriot Act on Steroids” to our country. They shut down media outlets, both mainstream and alternative. Imagine if Trump shut down MSNBC or something, and all you had on the airwaves was Fox News, 24/7. That’s sort of the media situation that we have at the moment.
Overall, we see that this is all serving to silence not only critics and activists, but ordinary Filipinos. There have been many instances of state violence against people who allegedly violated the lockdown. They were responded to by fatal force. There have been continuous killings of activists under the guise of search warrants to their homes where they claimed that the activists fought back. That’s a tactic carried over from the drug war. So we see profound violence, profound legal immunity, even in the middle of the pandemic… especially in the middle of the pandemic, now that Duterte has these emergency powers.
BA: In criticizing state violence and repression in the Philippines, the SCMP regularly returns to the language of “human rights.” In the West, there’s a tendency among Marxists to be skeptical of that type of language, especially because we are accustomed to hearing it in the context of its hypocritical use by our state administrators to justify imperialist interventions. Are you using that language in a more strategic way, or do you think the concept of human rights has a validity that isn’t undermined by its utility for liberal imperialists?
KA: For us, the concept of human rights can be found in two dimensions. First, you have the anti-fascist notion of human rights: you have to be against state killings, you have to be against unjust detentions, you have to be against red-tagging and terrorist-tagging. For all progressives in the Philippines, that anti-fascist notion is our basic understanding of human rights, especially because the Philippines had a two-decades-long dictatorship under the infamous Marcos regime in the ‘70s and ‘80s where disappearances, extrajudicial killings, and arrests were very rampant and well-known in the history of the Philippines.
But for us in the national-democratic struggle, aside from the anti-fascist understanding of human rights, we also believe that human rights concern the economic rights of the Filipino people. These economic rights must be accounted for when we talk about human rights. That includes genuine land distribution for the peasants here in the Philippines. Why “genuine”? Because we actually had multiple agrarian reform programs, but those laws are very inadequate and inauthentic — think about a landlord Congress making an agrarian reform law! An authentic agrarian reform law would damage their class interests as landlords, so there are so many loopholes in these programs, and even still, violent resistance to their implementation is rampant.
I actually experienced that violence. There’s a plantation called Hacienda Luisita in Central Luzon, and it’s owned by the family of former President Aquino. There was this one parcel of land that was granted by the Supreme Court to farm workers. But when we went there in 2017 as the peasants were trying to enter the land, it was barricaded by walls and watchtowers, and we were faced by at least 70 policemen. The police threw rocks at us and illegally arrested Florida Sibayan, the elderly woman who was the peasant leader in that farming community. So that’s how inauthentic the agrarian reforms have been, and that’s how violent the agrarian situation is.
Other human rights problems include the lack of adequate wages for the workers and the intense homelessness in our country. We are on track to have 7 million homeless people. So, for us, human rights does not only concern the anti-fascist side, but also the economic side: people must live a life that is full.
MD: I want to touch on what you mentioned about the strategic or tactical nature of human rights work. There are certain practicalities of conducting the struggle for human rights in our country. There are many portions of Philippine society that are not part of the ruling class but are not necessarily engaged with or in full support of our mass movement quite yet. There are those who can be agitated and organized, whose consciousness can be deepened, through broad united fronts based on seeking justice, seeking human rights. That is a fact that we, as part of a mass movement, cannot ignore.
We can also see the issue in parallel to what the revolutionary forces are doing in the countryside, where the Armed Forces of the Philippines regularly commits atrocities against the population. So the New People’s Army constantly talks about its practice of Mao Zedong’s Three Rules of Discipline and Eight Points of Attention, and they also adhere to the Geneva Conventions as well as the Comprehensive Agreement on Respect for Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law. The revolutionary forces in the countryside reflect that dual nature of human rights, as both a value and as a practicality.
Of course, there are no illusions on our part that human rights can and have been used by imperialists and their local lackeys to, ironically, suppress the rights of the people. There have been many cases of that throughout our own history. They tell us martial law is declared “for the safety and security of the rights of the Filipino people, and eventually we will restore democracy.” There is a need to expose that usage of human rights language as fake, and to provide an alternative — to explain what striving for genuine human rights actually means.
JM: Why do you place China in the category of “imperialism” alongside the United States? What’s wrong with the argument made by some Marxist-Leninists that post-1976 China is simply advancing the “socialist construction” process that was started by Mao?
KA: I’ll give a more surface-level answer while Matt prepares his answer. It’s not right for China to be present in Philippine waters, especially in the “South China Sea,” which we now call “West Philippine Sea” as our way of asserting the right to that maritime space. The Philippines actually won an international court case regarding the right to that part of the ocean. Most Filipinos are strongly against Chinese incursion in the West Philippine Sea — China has been destroying coral reefs and they’ve been building military bases in that part of the sea.
We’re also very worried because the Philippines is now caught in a debt trap by China, because infrastructure projects here are indebted to Chinese companies and the Chinese government. These infrastructure projects are often harmful for national minorities in the Philippines, as well as the general population. For example, east of Metro Manila, China is building a dam that will flood and displace the ancestral lands of the Dumagat-Remontado indigenous people. And in general, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative places the Filipino people under tremendous debt.
There’s also a geopolitical danger involved in Chinese imperialism in the Philippines. Typically, Philippine presidents are puppets of the US government. But Duterte is a puppet of both the US and China, and because the US and China are rival countries, he is putting us into a very dangerous situation, where we actually fear that the Philippines could be the setting for a war. The US and China both really want the Philippines as a strategic location in Southeast Asia.
MD: When Marxist-Leninists assert that China is not imperialist, they go by Lenin’s five characteristics of imperialism: monopoly in industry and finance, export of surplus-capital, and economic and territorial divisions. So they argue that the monopolies present in China are in fact socialist, organized as socialist enterprises, and they argue that the economic and territorial divisions associated with imperialism are not present, because the alleged examples are just instances of China defending its national sovereignty. So it falls on that third characteristic of imperialism, export of surplus-capital, to decide if China is indeed imperialist according to Lenin’s definition.
If we look at the Philippine experience of Chinese entry, we do see that export of surplus-capital. As we said earlier, an example is the infrastructure going up to the detriment of many urban poor, indigenous, and peasant communities. These projects are being pushed by various deals made by the collaborationist Duterte government and the Chinese state. It’s being done in the context of overproduction of concrete and steel in China after their construction boom died down. China is looking to its Belt and Road Initiative to export this production. These infrastructure projects are not being run in a way that’s designed to serve as building blocks for a country to emerge out of its semi-feudal conditions. Instead, the countries receiving this infrastructure from China are further entrenched in semi-feudal exploitation. The project Kej mentioned, the Kaliwa Dam, is not serving any demand for added water supply in our country. It’s being built for the sake of more profits for the companies involved, because local big corporations are looking to cash in on the dam, and China stands to make a profit on its investment as well.
So we see this export of surplus-capital working in China’s favor. We see this creeping emergence of China in the economic affairs of our country in many, many aspects — from the dams we’ve mentioned, to other infrastructure projects that are destroying urban poor communities, to more foreign direct investment in our country, and higher levels of ownership in very commercialized enterprises. An example of that is our electricity grid — a growing percentage of our electricity grid is owned by China, yet electricity prices are still quite high.
So what sort of “socialist construction” are we speaking about here?
Once you realize that this export of surplus-capital really is going on, you also realize that China’s monopolies are not run by a proletarian vanguard, but by capitalist interests that masquerade as a proletarian vanguard. They are doing so to maintain their economic control and gain territorial control. That is why, one day, it may even turn into a point of the Philippines becoming a battleground between the two imperialist giants. I think it’s a task of revolutionary forces in the Philippines to turn that imperialist war into civil war, to quote Lenin.
But if there are any holes in my argument or objections to what I’ve said, I am always open to discuss that, as I always have been online. I often get that question. It’s a good one for me to answer, because during my…
MD: Yeah, during my time of trying to read up ideologically, I did have this phase where I thought that China was socialist. But once I became organized, once I actually spoke to everyday Filipinos who bore the brunt of exploitation at the hands of Chinese projects, my support for China melted away. It wasn’t theory but practice that started to change my standpoint on China. That’s why I’m so passionate about it, because it really is a topic that deserves more exposure, one that impacts the lives of the Filipino masses.
Which is not to say that China is the number one imperialist country. That is still, by far, the United States. The US is still the number one imperialist force in the Philippines.
JM: This next topic is something you’ve been vocal about, Kej — why is it important for gay people not to separate ourselves from the broader struggle? What do gay people stand to gain from engaging with those who may hate us or reject the validity of our existence?
KA: The liberation of LGBT people, especially in the Philippines, is associated with the notion of bourgeois liberation — you’re free to do whatever you want, you’re free to experience whatever you want. That notion of liberation feeds into the capitalist system. But for Filipino activists and revolutionaries, we believe that the liberation of LGBT people must be in the service of national liberation. It must be in the service of attaining democratic rights, especially the rights of the basic masses. The mainstream notion of gay liberation is actually a bourgeois notion of gay liberation, which only affects a small population here in the Philippines — the middle class and upper class. But LGBT people are also very much present among peasants and workers, and their top priorities are decent wages and genuine land reform.
We believe that in order to liberate LGBT people, in order to liberate women, one must also liberate society. LGBT people and women must find their place in the revolutionary struggles of the basic masses.
MD: I’m reminded of the historical fact that the very first Pride March in our country — in a sense similar to Stonewall in the US — was caused by the fact that the president at the time instituted higher taxes on basic goods and services. That was something that got LGBT people so agitated that they took to the streets. That first Philippine Pride March in 1994 had slogans like “End the Value-Added Tax!” alongside the specifically anti-discriminatory calls of the LGBT community.
Relating back to your earlier question on human rights, so long as we live in an exploitative society, a society with ruling classes, there can’t be a full realization of human rights. Similarly, there can’t be a full liberation of LGBT people so long as there is this semi-feudal and semi-colonial society, or an exploitative society in general.
BA: The SCMP is a member of a national political coalition which also contains various groups advocating for indigenous people and national minorities, as well as groups like Bahaghari, an organization fighting for LGBT liberation, Gabriela, an organization fighting for women’s liberation, Kilusang Mayo Uno, a labor union, AMIHAN, a federation of peasant women, and many other organizations and institutions spanning an extraordinarily broad range of identities and activities. What is the connection between a Christian youth group and the other members of this alliance?
KA: As Christian youth, we want to live out our faith. Our faith must not be enclosed within the four walls of the church or the four walls of our classrooms. We must be like Christ. Christ is God, but he chose to be a poor person. It is very relevant to us that Christ chose to be born in the poorest manner. Christ preached the good news to the poor, he preached that there is hope for a better society if we struggle and live with the masses. Christ taught us to become fishers of men. The gospel according to Matthew teaches that the harvest is plentiful, there are so many people who deserve liberation, but us organizers must be laborers for Christ and with the people. We must carry the cross of the poor and oppressed. We cannot be Christians if we do not carry the cross, if we do not carry the cross of the basic masses for liberation, for decent wages, for genuine land reform, for free education.
Being in this ecumenical mass organization is actually a challenge, especially because militant Christianity is a minority strand in the Philippines — we all know how the colonizers used our religion to colonize our country. In this year, 2021, we’re commemorating the 500th year of Christianity in the Philippines. But as Christian activists, we want to mark these 500 years of Christianity based on how our prayers reflect the concrete situations and aspirations of the Filipino people. When you ask ordinary people what they pray for, they will say that they pray for higher wages, they pray for medical solutions, they pray for human rights. We must act accordingly. Just as Jesus did in his time, we must act to challenge the ruling classes, to read the signs of the times, to comfort the downtrodden, and to be one with the struggles in attaining national liberation.
We say that “faith without action is dead.” It’s a very good thing that many more Christians are realizing that in order to live out our faith, in order to have a genuine manifestation of our Christian faith, we must live and struggle with the toiling Filipino masses. That’s how faith becomes a crucial part of our activism. Faith is not a numbing agent used by the ruling class to kill the flames of revolutionary spirit in the Philippines. We are brought by our religion to push ourselves, to become one with the masses and their revolutionary fervor.
In the Philippines, the militant use of faith is not new to this kind of struggle. You can find many examples of rebel priests during the Spanish colonial and American colonial eras. The establishment of the first socialist party and communist party in the Philippines during the 1930s was actually achieved within convents! There’s a long history of the church being very accommodating to the revolutionary struggles of the Filipino people. This accommodation was highlighted during the Marcos martial law era, when Filipino Christians fully embraced the revolutionary struggles for social liberation.
Today, the SCMP aims to advance to higher levels of struggle in order to hasten the liberation of the Filipino people.
MD: To this day, churches in the Philippines make many efforts to protect the basic masses in times of government attacks. For example, in the case of the United Church of Christ in the Philippines (UCCP), they housed national minority communities when they were forced out of their ancestral domains during Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao. The UCCP allowed them to stay there for years, even though the church itself became a target of state violence and the police tried to enter their compound on multiple occasions. The UCCP still has remained firm in its defense of the Lumad people. Many other churches have also taken in national minorities and peasant evacuees during times of state violence.
There is a great need for the Christian youth to both channel the characteristics of the church as a progressive force and to realize the role of the youth in being a part of the push for social change, the push for a future that works for them. When you unite these two aspects of struggle, you can become a very powerful force for the mass movement as a whole. That’s what brought me in particular to join the SCMP, despite not being a very religious person. I saw the potential, the need to bring the Christian youth to the basic masses, the need for the Christian youth to learn from the basic masses and struggle with the basic masses. That’s my mission, now. In our situation, we can be subjective forces decisively consolidating the Christian youth, bringing them towards the communities, to serve them as Christians and as youths.
BA: To get more specific, what does the SCMP have in common with groups like Gabriela, Bahaghari, and Kilusang Mayo Uno? How do you house all of these organizations under one roof? At Negation, we’re very interested in the challenges of coalition building — in US political discourse, groups like the ones in your movement are treated as being almost incompatible with each other.
KA: We have our basic principles when dealing with other organizations who are not necessarily part of our sector. So we are part of the national-democratic struggle, where the first basic principle is that the Philippines is a semi-colony of the imperialist powers, primarily the United States. We are united in our belief that there must be a struggle for national liberation. That’s the root of the problem here — imperialism continues to bring its fangs against the Filipino people and their livelihoods on a daily basis. That’s the nationalist aspect of our political coalition. The second basic principle is the need to assert human rights for land and wages through militant means. Why through militant means? For us Christians, we must live out Romans 14:19 — “exert every effort towards peace and mutual edification.”
Those are the points of unity across these different sectors. Of course, the organizations in our movement are not always actually moving synchronously. There are some limitations. For example, the church might be less inclined to support reproductive health. But there are core issues that tie the numerous sectors together: the struggle for the defense of human rights, the struggle for economic rights, and the struggle for national liberation.
We conduct regular meetings with these organizations in order to identify different demands that can tie together multiple sectors in our country. Recently, this has been about Duterte’s new round of stricter lockdowns. Our movement has a very conducive and friendly environment where different sectors can gather at the same table and build a consensus on which demands must be prioritized.
MD: I think it speaks to the importance of setting a class line that is based on unity between workers and peasants. From that basic alliance, many different sectors with their own particular issues and struggles can and should unite. We’ve seen many historical examples where the contrary has happened — going all the way back to the Paris Commune, to the Russian Revolution and even the Chinese Revolution — and because of that, sectors that could have been part of a united struggle against the ruling class were not part of this struggle. To build a class line based on uniting with the basic sectors of workers and peasants is so crucial. To never lose your grasp on that unity between different sectors no matter what particularities we may face.
That unity has to be built on an analysis of the concrete conditions of our society. What are the interests of our peasants? What are the interests of our workers? What are the interests of our different sectors? This analysis allows us to keep struggling for these particularities while bringing them together into a cohesive, general political line.
I certainly hope that struggles in other countries get their principles of unity right. And of course, we in the urban mass movement still have our own issues of consolidating such alliances between our different sectors, both in a qualitative and quantitative sense. But the basic sort of blueprint for a united struggle built on a class line derived from analysis of concrete conditions is there.
JM: How antagonistic is the contradiction between the Student Christian Movement and Actually Existing Christianity? How do you deal with the reactionary and collaborationist tendencies of the Catholic Church as a whole, particularly its teachings on LGBT people and its relationships with fascism?
KA: That’s a very good question regarding the different issues that surround different Christian groups and churches. About 85% of Filipinos identify themselves as nominally Christian, and most Christians here are Catholics who are very respectful of the Catholic hierarchies here and throughout the world. When dealing with these different groups and issues, we first look at the unities. There are some issues around which more church people can be united. Currently, the number one issue for church people in the Philippines is human rights. That’s how we gain alliances, that’s how we broaden unity, that’s how we talk to different church personalities in the time of Duterte, in the time of worsening human rights, when violations are blatant and the regime has killed several priests and pastors and has red-tagged church personalities. The number one principle of unity for church people in the Philippines in the current situation is for the defense and upholding of human rights.
But, of course, the struggle does not stop there. After we unite, we struggle with the other issues that also concern church people. For example, the issues of foreign intervention and foreign backing of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. It’s often automatic that church people oppose Duterte’s human rights violations, but we encourage them to go deeper in their analysis of the human rights situation here. Many people here do not know that the AFP and the Philippine National Police (PNP) are actually funded and guided by the United States through their counterinsurgency programs and via the CIA. That’s a very surprising fact for many Filipinos. So we explain that yes, it’s good that you oppose human rights violations, but you should also be anti-imperialist. We explain that the US, even under the Biden administration, is continuously funding the atrocities of the Duterte administration. That’s how we make church people realize that to be a human rights advocate is also to be an anti-imperialist. We say that imperialist nations should stop funding, supporting, and training the AFP and PNP.
That has actually served as a bridge in making many church people realize the dignity and sanctity of the rights of LGBT people, because there was a very notorious case where a US Marine named Joseph Scott Pemberton murdered a transgender person named Jennifer Laude. Pemberton was pardoned by Duterte because of the Visiting Forces Agreement, where the sovereignty of the Philippines is being undermined by US interests to maintain their military presence here. The killing of Jennifer Laude was how many church people in the Philippines started to get actively involved in the respect of the dignity of LGBT rights and lives.
So we try to link issues together. We try to challenge church people to seek higher understanding, to go to the roots of human rights violations, to not just look at the issues of the Philippines in a surface-level kind of way. It’s very, very hard. It’s not easy to make people realize that Duterte’s human rights violations are related to imperialist aggression, and that imperialist aggression enables legal impunity against LGBT people in the Philippines. But through constant dialogue and arduous ideological struggles, the SCMP has made many youth realize a deeper commitment to their faith and to the broader struggles of the Filipino people.
MD: I mean, there is a contradiction between the Student Christian Movement and the Church as a whole. But Kej touched on a very good principle of recognizing the different sections of the masses, from advanced, to middle, to backwards, and figuring out the correct handling of these different sections of the masses. In the current situation, where Duterte has vilified the Church itself, the objective situation is open to, as Mao would say, unite with the advanced elements, win over the middle forces, and then for them to win over the backwards forces. Those dynamics are constantly present, yes, but they’re quite clear right now under Duterte.
KA: The actual key here is encouraging the church people to integrate with the basic masses. When they do that, the church people realize that they have more in common with oppressed LGBT people than with Duterte himself and with the imperialists who want to ransack our country.
MD: Yes. And of course, it’s not just about “winning over” the middle and backwards forces but actually raising their levels of consciousness.
BA: How do you reconcile the spirituality of Christian faith with the materialism of Marxist analysis, the “warm” and the “cold” streams?
KA: Jesus chose to be poor, to be born among the masses. Jesus is God, but God chose not to become part of the ruling class — he chose to become part of the working class. That gives us deep inspiration on how spirituality is not divorced from material conditions. In order to achieve life that is full, we must attain heaven on this earth. Like it is said in the Lord’s Prayer, to enact the will of God on earth as it is in heaven.
For us Filipino people who are struggling with the realities of imperialist aggression, the realities are ever-present in making us realize that the struggle for economic liberation is very tied to our need to spiritually liberate ourselves. It’s very similar to the Exodus story, where the Israelites lament that they are not in their sacred land, they cannot practice their faith, so they have to face the oppression brought to them by the pharaoh, they have to escape their bondage in order to live faithfully. As militant Christians, we realize that faith in the Philippines is not currently free. It’s not liberated yet. As long as imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat-capitalism rule our country, faith will be bound by the roots of poverty here in our country. In order for us to liberate our faith, we must liberate our society.
MD: From the perspective of someone who is not quite as religious — and there are members of SCMP who are not religious at all — there is recognition of Jesus as a historical figure who, as Kej mentioned, was among the exploited and oppressed masses in the period of the Roman slave empire. Jesus sided with the oppressed. There are principles in the life of Jesus that Marxists should not simply cast aside, but should learn from.
And whatever the case in the present-day, the Church is there and the millions of faithful are there. The majority of them are not the “narrowest target” of the revolutionary, patriotic, and democratic forces. That target is still the imperialists and the local ruling classes. So while there is a contradiction, it is not one of antagonism. Even following, let’s say, a period where the Philippines has been freed from semi-feudal exploitation, religious belief can and should be allowed. Religious belief is not necessarily antagonistic to the proletariat that would be ruling a post-semi-feudal Philippine society. Religious belief could be there alongside the ruling ideological current of Marxism-Leninism-Maoism.
On the underground side of things, the revolutionary forces espouse that exact same program on religious belief and freedom of religion, as well as the freedom not to believe in religion, because atheism is very much frowned upon in this country. The revolutionary forces also have allied organizations of underground revolutionary Christians and underground revolutionary Muslims.
JM: Why isn’t it enough for individuals in their private lives to pray for God to make things better? Isn’t it possible that oppression and exploitation are simply components of God’s mysterious plan for us?
KA: For us in the SCMP, we believe that the act of God is nothing but liberation. We believe in liberation from death. Death is the greatest manifestation of sin. For us in the Philippines, where we are experiencing a horrible pandemic response where people are dying every day due to a lack of social services, a lack of medical solutions, death is not just a thing that people experience. There are government forces that are not doing their duties, that are imposing military solutions, and this forces death upon people, forces violence on their lives and livelihoods. So that’s why we say that the problems in the Philippines cannot be “prayed away.” There must be action that is complementing our faith.
In the Bible, God seeks collaborators in the form of prophets, ordinary humans, to mobilize the people and liberate the people against tyranny, against monarchies, even against oppressive religious hierarchies.
MD: During my time in the SCMP, I’ve built a certain appreciation for prayer, like art, as a part of culture. It is the gun and not the pen that will ultimately free the people from imperialism, feudalism, and bureaucrat-capitalism, but just like the pen, the prayer has its own purpose. It is part of having a movement that is cultured. For revolutionaries in the countryside, it is part of having a movement that is willing to pick up the gun and then use it until it is unnecessary. As the pen is used by revolutionaries in the countryside to expose exploitative and oppressive conditions in the Philippines, to show the need for them to pick up the gun, so too have the faithful in the cities used prayer to reflect the exploitation and oppression experienced by the Filipinos, to show the need for them to march in struggle against it.
BA: In this interview and in your other statements, you stress emulating Jesus — Jesus as God, and also Jesus the man, Jesus the historical figure. What does it mean for a radical to be like Jesus? Was Jesus a radical? Were his wanderings radical? Was his temptation radical? Was his resurrection radical?
KA: I particularly like the part on the resurrection, because that’s one of my favorite things about the life of Jesus: his resurrection is a triumph against death. Here in the Philippines, death is a common occurrence, especially with the failed pandemic response and the extrajudicial killings. Some of our colleagues have been extrajudicially killed or forcibly disappeared. It’s very tough for us to experience that kind of loss. Many of those who are killed are very prominent and respected labor, peasant, and indigenous leaders.
But as Christians, we believe in Resurrection. There can be no Resurrection if we don’t continue these struggles for national liberation. Even though there have been so many martyrs, we will fight to resurrect them by taking part in the struggle every day. That gives us intense encouragement to wake up in the morning and ask ourselves: “For whom are we doing this?” We must act for the workers and the peasants, for the masses and with the masses. We act for the martyrs who came before us, including Jesus himself.
But Jesus triumphed against death. Death actually has a name here. The name of death in the Philippines is none other than Rodrigo Duterte himself. We aim to triumph against this Death.
JM: Kej, in your Twitter bio you have a quote from the martyred poet Eman Lacaba: “Awakened, the masses are the Messiah.” I wasn’t previously familiar with Lacaba, but that idea has always appealed to me — in a piece I wrote about Jewish mysticism and Marxism, I used the phrase “the Messiah strikes as a collective force.” You have identified the revival of martyred comrades through the national-democratic struggle with the Christian concept of Resurrection, while I follow Walter Benjamin in identifying the debt that communists owe to fallen generations with the Jewish concept of Redemption. In my case, I’m thinking of the generations of Jews wiped out in the Holocaust. What do you think we’re getting at, here? Why use Messianic language to describe collective political action?
KA: To give some background, Eman Lacaba was a warrior-poet. He actually attended the same elite Jesuit university as us, the Ateneo de Manila. During the martial law era of the Marcos dictatorship, Lacaba went to the mountains to join the armed struggle. Saying that “the masses are the Messiah” was very humbling for him and is very humbling for us. There’s a culture at our university that because we are receiving an elite education, because we are being taught by the Jesuits, we are going to “save” the Philippines. But struggling with the masses and participating in the revolution humbled Eman Lacaba and has continued to humble generations of Filipino students. It teaches us that elite students are not the Messiahs of Philippine society. The Messiahs are those workers and farmers who are the bulk of the mass movement, who are consciously struggling every day for social and national liberation.
This strikes deep into our hearts as Christians. One of my favorite prayers was written by Saint Teresa of Ávila; she said that Christ has no physical body right now, Christ is not physically present on earth, so we are the eyes of Christ, we are the hands of Christ, we are the feet of Christ. As Christ identifies with the poor, as Christ identifies with the peasants and the workers in the Philippines, we see that Christ identifies with the activists and the revolutionaries who are actively and daily struggling for social justice and liberation.
We are very much sick and tired of the mentality that the Messiahs are the traditional politicians, the rich people, the people who use their high educational backgrounds for their own personal gain. No, the Messiahs are the masses who know the situation best and are the most thirsty for social change.
KA: Yes. We see Christ being incarnated among the masses every day.
JM: Is there anything else you’d like to say before we conclude?
KA: To be honest, we are trying to put our organization into a resurgence phase. The SCMP has existed for 60 years, but we really want to advance it, to make it more visible. So it’s very nice that we have been forging relationships with other progressive Christians and leftists around the world, like you guys. We have had interactions with other Student Christian Movements, as well as leftist Christians in the United States, including David Inczauskis, who runs the Liberation Theology Podcast. Those interactions have been very nice. We would love to invite progressive Christians and leftists in the United States to integrate with the experience of the Filipino mass movement. Some people complain that the struggle in their countries is more theoretical and that they are lacking direct experience of mass movements. So we are really hoping that after the pandemic, you guys could fly to the Philippines and integrate with the Filipino masses in order to see the more practical side of things in terms of the marriage of faith and struggle.