‘What’s Happening in the Philippines Is Happening Here in America’: Ket Maarte of Anakbayan on the Filipino Diaspora and International Solidarity

Interview by Tarig Robinson
Photo by Alexes Gerard on Unsplash

This is a transcript of an interview with Ket Maarte, the Deputy Secretary General of Philadelphia’s chapter of Anakbayan, a comprehensive National Democratic mass organization of Filipino youth and students in the US. The organization, which is based in the Philippines, has a number of overseas chapters throughout the world, organizing diaspora youth in countries like Canada, Australia, the UK, and others. This particular chapter, which began in the summer of 2020, has grown rapidly and is quickly making itself known among Philadelphia’s anti-imperialist and progressive formations. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tarig Robinson: For those who might not be familiar, what is Anakbayan?

Ket Maarte: Anakbayan is the youth sector of Bayan which is the umbrella organization for national liberation and national democracy for the Philippines. Anakbayan is a youth-led mass organization that arouses, organizes, mobilizes, and prioritizes the youth here in Philadelphia. Anakbayan Philadelphia is a newer chapter that started two years ago that is trying to implement itself into the community, and our biggest priority right now is to raise awareness of the political issues in the Philippines because it seems that the community here in Philadelphia doesn’t necessarily have a broad understanding of that. Our main priority right now is to just bring that knowledge here and educate people on that before trying to mobilize and organize them.

TR: Could you tell me a little bit about the history of the National Democratic movement up to now? What does it mean to be a National Democratic organization?

KM: Whew! Ok, that is a good question! So the National Democratic movement I would say was influenced by youth-led organizations during the time of Spanish colonialism. Anakbayan specifically was influenced by Katipunan, which also influenced Kabataang Makabyan, which influenced us. It’s just decades and centuries of being resilient against colonialism and imperialism and capitalism. I don’t have the most articulate way of explaining what the ND movement is. I can say though that it has always had a socialist perspective influenced by the teachings of MLM (Marxism-Leninism-Maoism). We’re not dogmatic with these theories but we apply them in order to mobilize the masses.

TR: What would you say is the situation facing Filipino youth and the Filipino diaspora community here in Philadelphia?

KM: I would say a big issue with any diaspora but especially in the Filipino community is the idea of identity. When you’ve dealt with centuries of assimilation, of colonialism, of the stripping of that identity and then are made to believe that you are lesser, and are even stripped of your religious identity, not just your cultural or racial identity, you lose yourself. You start to identify with your oppressors. It’s a huge thing ingrained in [Filipino] American identity because we’re made to believe that we don’t have autonomy, you know? It’s really hard to take that issue, the identity politics, and broaden it into a systemic analysis. Our problem in the diaspora is not just about who we are and how we can identify ourselves. Our problem is, how can we find the root of it systemically? How is this problem not just an individual “American Dream” ideology? This [identity problem] is ingrained in US imperialism and we are affected by it, often without knowing. I think that’s the best I can explain it.

TR: That was a really good answer. So I guess my next question would be, how have you seen the political tensions that exist in the Philippines play out here in Philadelphia’s diaspora community?

KM: So, I’ve noticed the older immigrants here are Marcos supporters. From the investigations and analysis I’ve picked up, they are generally supportive of BBM [Ferdinand “Bong Bong” Marcos Jr.] and [Sara] Duterte, and they have this idea that the Marcos regime and the Martial Law era was a golden era. They’ll also try to justify it by saying, “Oh, BBM is not his father, we should give him a chance!” I’m not saying everybody that I’ve met here is a Marcos supporter, but there seems to be a majority of people that exist here that are more conservative and more Republican and traditional and white apologist and US apologist. But it’s also interesting that when you see the youth, and the second generation, third generation Filipinos, they’re able to discern that what happened wasn’t right once they learn the history of it. It’s interesting because either they don’t know what’s going on or they’re very agitated because they’re affected by the situation in the Philippines. What I will say though is that they’re not lost causes, because you can tell that they’re just uninformed and there’s always a chance for them to be educated on what’s going on in the Philippines. Here in Philadelphia, not everybody is as engaged, even if they do have strong views, because of the idea that, “Oh, I’m in America. I’m not in the Philippines. I don’t need to know about politics there because it doesn’t affect me here.” It’s really interesting to see how their views of the political situation [in the Philippines] are shaped by things like what party they vote for here or their citizenship status.

TR: Do you think that the Filipino diaspora here in Philadelphia is maybe a bit more reactionary than the diaspora elsewhere?

KM: Yes, I definitely think so. No fault of their own of course, but because the Filipino community here isn’t geographically concentrated, I’ve noticed that Filipinos tend to form communities around churches, religion, and food but never around Filipino as a political identity, and when we do have these [political] conversations, they’re very reserved. The older generation doesn’t like to have these political conversations. They have a lot of fear about those conversations compared to the youth. The generational divide definitely comes from their upbringing. These are immigrants that came from the Philippines that have seen what happens to people who are politically involved there. On the other hand, you have second-generation and third-generation Filipino-Americans who don’t have that experience but know “this isn’t right, and I have the privilege and the right to have these opinions and voice these opinions,” so I would say diaspora politics is more based on age and citizenship status than anything else.

TR: How are people here in Philadelphia’s Filipino community feeling about the elections?

KM: People have opinions but they don’t have strong enough opinions to act on by themselves. There is a need and a want for community but there’s no one to initiate it. I’m not saying that Anakbayan is the only solution for this, but we understand how intense the political climate is and we understand that we need a space to hold each other in. Sorry, can you repeat the question?

TR: It was just about how Filipinos here in Philadelphia are feeling about the elections.

KM: Ok, like I said, they want that community and they have these opinions that aren’t strong enough to make them take action. There are people that know and understand how messed up and corrupt the situation over there is but they have no outlet for those emotions, and then there are some that feel as if this doesn’t affect them because they’re in America. We have to bring awareness to the fact that just because we’re not in the country where these things are happening doesn’t mean we don’t play a role in it. We are part of the problem, we are living in the country that is a huge part of why we have BBM and Duterte in power, why these corrupt officials are being celebrated and asked to speak about democracy when it’s clear that their fathers have committed atrocities against their own people with the blessing of America. Having these conversations and bringing that awareness is necessary because these people feel that being apolitical is their only option for safety here in America, do you know what I mean?

TR: Yeah, yeah, totally. So in your opinion, how are the struggles of Filipinos both at home and in the diaspora linked to those of other oppressed people here and elsewhere?

KM: US imperialism 100%. There’s nothing that affects oppressed people like US imperialism and capitalism. These are our struggles globally. Universally, because of how ingrained they are in our economies, in our cultures, in our identities, and in our societies. The Philippines and America are not the only places affected by these things. You see it in Palestine, you see it in Yemen, you see it in South Africa, you see it in all these places that have to fight against US [military] presence and economic disparities. Those struggles are affecting all of us. It’s manifesting in different ways because of how different our histories are but it’s the root of it all. Capitalism and imperialism are the problems that have manifested in all cultures.

TR: Now for the elephant in the room: Could you tell me a bit about the Martial Law years in the Philippines? 

KM: Yes, so, Martial Law started in 1972 when Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., declared it near the end of his second term in office. He had two terms as president, and he noticed that he wasn’t as popular anymore, so he declared martial law to keep his power. He committed a lot of atrocities like disappearances and torture against activists. His family is the reason why the Philippine peso is not as valuable as it once was. We are trillions of dollars — dollars, not pesos — in debt! He did not help the economy, and he did not help the social and political climate of the Philippines during this era. His family was notorious for supporting the one percent and the big corporations while the poor were struggling to feed themselves, and you can see that this has continued until today. They’re still struggling with the poverty line, they’re still struggling with access to resources for the pandemic. The Martial Law Era was, I think, 14 years officially, 20 years if you add the years of his presidency.

TR: Did anything change after Martial Law ended, and if so, what did?

KM: That’s really interesting, because I don’t want to sound like a pessimist, but even though the People Power movement really sparked something in people and gave people the ability to take charge of their country, you see the repetition! Did anything really change? You see that people have fought against Marcos, you see that people have fought against Spanish colonialism, Japanese occupation, and American imperialism, but we’re still having the same problems, so did anything really change? It’s so systematic and so cyclical. You can’t say that these movements are not powerful, because they are. They’ve influenced generations and future organizations just like Anakbayan to continue the fight, but the fight needed to be continued! What has really changed if Marcos’s son is now in power? If Duterte’s daughter is now in power? You had Martial Law end; Marcos is no longer president, but then you have Cory Aquino become the president, and she was just as corrupt! Just because she’s not Marcos doesn’t mean she wasn’t a part of US puppetry and the bourgeoisie! It doesn’t mean she wasn’t out here trying to take all of the land for her family! You still see the corruption in the Philippines, it doesn’t matter who the head person is. Just because the face of the person changes doesn’t mean the system has changed and that the people have truly taken that victory. They won the battle but they haven’t won the war yet. I genuinely feel like [the People Power Revolution] changed the person who was in charge but it did not change the system. The main priority and the fight for the [National Democratic]  movement and for these organizations is changing the system. With Leni [Robredo] vs. BBM, you had all these people saying, “Oh the future is with Leni!”, “God chose Leni!”, all this stuff — but no, Leni is just another puppet who seems prettier and sweeter and nicer than BBM because of his history. She’s still very privileged and upholding a system that does not benefit the Filipino people, so what has changed?

TR: Do you think it would have made a huge difference if Leni ended up winning?

KM: Systematically no, but energetically and socially, yes. I noticed this with Biden vs. Trump or Hillary vs. Trump. They’re both a part of the same system. It doesn’t matter which party, red or blue, they’re still upholding the same system, but when Trump won, people said, “Oh this is fascism and this is wrong and we should impeach him!” When Biden won, the atmosphere died down. People thought, “We’re finally back to normal,” as if the normal is ok. It’s like, “Oh we’re still under white supremacy, but at least it’s professional this time.” BBM winning is how people would have reacted if Trump won. They’re up in arms. I’m not saying the Leni supporters are wrong, we want to uplift and uphold the masses together and elevate their political consciousness, but they see it as a dichotomy. They see it as Leni vs. BBM instead of the people vs. the institution. If Leni won, it would have been like, “Oh this is fine, everything is fine now, it’s Leni! She went to college and she has a political background. BBM didn’t have that so we’re fine!” That’s why, and I know this is crazy to say, but I think BBM winning was a wakeup call for people to help them realize that it doesn’t matter who’s in charge. The system is still corrupt. How can you trust the government when BBM had the potential to win!

TR: So, knowing what we know about the history of the Marcos and Duterte regimes, how did we get here? How is it that the son of a widely despised dictator was able to win an election in a country where many remember the atrocities committed during his father’s administration?

KM: Historical revisionism and disinformation. Government corruption in the form of vote buying and disinformation and — it’s apparent you know? In the Philippines, there are textbooks that don’t even talk about the Martial Law Era. There are youth there in the Philippines — we talk about how in the diaspora we don’t know about Martial Law — in the Philippines they don’t even know what happened under Martial Law because they’re trying to erase that history. They’re trying to say that it was the golden era. They’re trying to convince people that the survivors and the martyrs and the victims of Martial Law are incorrect. As for the vote-buying stuff, that’s been a thing. That’s been part of politics there. As someone who comes from a political family in the Philippines, I can say firsthand that it’s extremely common.

TR: So, could you speak a little bit about the US role in Philippine politics?

KM: It started back in the heyday of Spanish colonialism. Spain was fighting against the natives of the Philippines in the Spanish-Filipino War, but it became known as the Spanish-American War because America supported the Filipino people — well, air-quotes on “support.” They only fought Spain for geographical power. They needed the Philippines for their geography, not for this “everybody needs to be free” bullshit. They knew that the Philippines would be the best place for a Pacific base. That said, the Philippines became a prize for America under the guise of wanting freedom for them, so when Spain was like, “Alright, you’re kind of winning here, let me sell you the Philippines and we’ll get out of your hair,” America gained control of the Philippines. That went on for 50 years, and then finally they said, “Ok, you can have your freedom here on July 4th and you are now independent people,” but are they really an independent people? Everyone that they have elected has always been in good standing with the US government and accepting of US military bases. That’s why there are US military bases in the Philippines, that’s why there are hundreds of them in Mindanao! Mind you, this is a small country of islands. Why are there so many US military bases? Why are our constitution and our police force and our military based on those of the US? It’s because we are still being neocolonized by America. Filipino politics and Filipino social culture are based on American society and the American government. When you have that big brother-little brother relationship, you don’t really notice how ingrained it is in every single part of the Filipino culture. Connecting it to Marcos and Martial Law, when Marcos was ousted, he was able to go to Hawaii! He was supported by Reagan and allowed to take refuge in Hawaii! The relationship between America and the Philippines is so deep-rooted, and you can tell that the US is just here to gain a geographical advantage.

TR: So, do you think there are signs of the Biden administration taking a sterner posture with the current regime as human rights violations continue?

KM: Yes! His premature celebration and congratulations to Marcos was already proof enough in my opinion —

TR: So you mean “no,” you don’t think Biden will take a sterner posture with Marcos?

KM: Yeah, yeah, that’s what I meant, sorry! No, he will not. I don’t think he has anything else to say. He congratulated Marcos and now [Marcos] is in the US to speak at the UN General Assembly. With the history America and the Philippines have and the history the Marcos family has with America, I’m not surprised that he’s been celebrated and given a platform. Biden and Marcos are in good standing, him and the Philippines are in good standing. He still has the political power in the Pacific against China, so I’m not even a little surprised that [Biden] gives no fucks.

TR: What message is Marcos and the international community as a whole sending by having the former make a speech at the UN on the anniversary of the beginning of martial law 50 years ago?

KM: It’s a fucking slap in the face, dude. It’s honestly so heart wrenching and so disrespectful, not only to the Filipino people both in the Philippines and in the diaspora, but also to all oppressed people, because this is just saying that it does not matter at all what a person’s history entails, how a person got into this position, as long as it benefits these people. It proves that they are only there to support one another and support corporations and support big landlords and support people that are giving them money because if they really were here to help their constituents and improve the lives of people in their countries, then they would understand that giving Marcos — who is literally an embodiment of corruption — a platform sends the message that what his family did was ok. That the people affected by Martial Law are wrong and that the Martial Law Era was good. No one is benefitting from giving this man a platform during the 50th anniversary of Martial Law but the people in power. The message is that the only people who matter are those that are giving them money to stay in power.

TR: How can anti-imperialists here in the US stand in solidarity with and support the people of the Philippines as they fight for genuine democracy and national sovereignty?

KM: International solidarity, my guy! We love it! We love to see it, we love to be it, we love to do it. If one considers themselves anti-imperialist, they have to understand the weight and the power America has. If anti-imperialists want to support the Philippines and all oppressed people and all victims of US imperialism, they have to recognize that we [here in the US] have to use our privilege to challenge and combat them here. We have to let them know that what [America is] doing in the Philippines, what [it’s] doing in Palestine, what [it’s] doing in Yemen — all those countries are being affected by us here because we are living in a system that is affecting their lives. It’s hard to fight for people that are geographically so far away from you, but you have to understand that our struggles are all interconnected, because what’s happening in the Philippines — the economy, the poverty line, the housing issues, the lack of resources — that’s literally happening here, in America! In Philadelphia! We are having a housing problem here in Philadelphia! We are having a resource problem here in Philadelphia! We are having a poverty and homelessness problem here in Philadelphia! What is happening there affects us here, so how [the US] reacts to it in other countries also affects us here. Do you really think [American politicians] give a damn flying fuck about how they’re treating people there when their own constituents in America are poor? 

TR: What is the role of National Democratic formations here in the US specifically?

KM: The point of forming ND orgs here in America is to educate the diasporas and connect them to our struggles in the motherland. To help them understand that combatting US imperialism and capitalism here helps combat US imperialism and capitalism in the Philippines because it’s all really interconnected. The idea that we don’t have a say because we’re not in the Philippines is the illusion of division. It’s the idea of divide and conquer. We have that ancestral connection, and even those that are not Filipino who are in the ND movement also understand and relate that struggle to their own cultural backgrounds and their own social standings. We have to use the privilege that we have here and understand that how we fight might be different, but it has an impact regardless. 

TR: So, I know you guys are planning a few actions for next week which I believe is the week of the 19th [of September] — a couple in New York and one here in Philly. What do you hope to accomplish?

KM: The ones in New York are regional actions. There are gonna be people from Philly, New Jersey, New York, some people from Boston, some people from DC, even people from Portland and Seattle! They’re all coming to have that presence in New York because Duterte is speaking on the 19th to the UN about the importance of education, and Marcos is going to be speaking to the General Assembly on the 20th. What we want to accomplish with those is remind them that just because he has this platform here and is speaking in front of world leaders does not mean that the people support him or that we condone what he is doing. We condemn the Marcos regime, we condemn the Duterte regime, we condemn the Marcos-Duterte tandem, and we condemn the US support of Marcos and Duterte. It’s difficult to have those conversations with people, but when we have these actions, we don’t need those conversations. You see it. We’re not just saying it, we’re showing it now. People always say, “Oh you’re just complaining about what’s happening about the Philippines” — well let me show you! The president and the vice president of the Philippines are now here, now let’s show you that we don’t support that. Let’s show you that the people are literally flying in to tell him, “Fuck off.” 

The Philly action* is happening on the 24th, and what we want for that is to hold community. So, the reason why the New York actions are more politically agitating is because it is a contingent of all ND organizations as well as agitated people that aren’t part of the movement that see the struggle and recognize the corruption. This is happening at the UN headquarters, which is in New York. Here in Philly, like I stated before, there are a lot of reservations and conservatism with politics. A lot of people feel apolitical here in Philly, so our priority is to raise that political consciousness. We might not be able to mobilize them. Hell, we might not even be able to organize them, but we can arouse them. We can educate them and help them understand that there are people here in Philly that had to move from the Philippines because of Martial Law. There are people here in Philly that don’t know their identity and don’t know anything about Martial Law and don’t know anything about the politics of it. Let’s raise that awareness, let’s bring that conversation to them so that they’re able to continue that conversation by themselves.

TR: Right, so I guess my last question is, who is eligible to join Anakbayan and how can people get involved?

KM: Purr, we love to hear it! Anyone from the age of 13 to 35 is eligible to join any Anakbayan COC or chapter. You don’t have to be Filipino, you just have to support the movement and be against imperialism and feudalism and bureaucrat capitalism. Honestly, just having that agitation and wanting a direction for that agitation and wanting to support the Filipino people. That’s all you need.

*This event will be taking place on September 24th from 12PM to 4PM. The location is still TBA. Follow @anakbayanphilly on Instagram for updates

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