WASHINGTON D.C. They strode, some pushed on wheelchairs, inside Capitol Hill’s cavernous Emancipation Hall to receive one of America’s highest honor, the Congressional Gold Medal – surviving Filipino veterans of World War II and their families finally recognized for their role preserving American liberty. It was a signal achievement after decades of struggle for justice that was for many Filipinos and Filipino Americans, their headline story for 2017.
The past year proved momentous for Filipinos in the Philippines and here in America. The inauguration of Pres. Donald J. Trump on Jan. 20 signaled the start of his highly unconventional administration epitomized by his puzzling but very public spat with the press over the size of the crowd at the event.
A pre-election poll, National Asian American Survey (NAAS) revealed that the future president drew his biggest support in the Asian American community from Fil-Am voters. It showed that while 54 percent of registered Fil-Am voters expressed a preference for Hillary Clinton, about a quarter said they preferred Mr. Trump, described as the “highest favorability rating among all surveyed ethnic groups.”
Noel John Francisco, a 1st generation Fil-Am attorney, became the first Asian American to hold the office of United States Solicitor General after the appointment was confirmed by Congress in September.
Back home though the news continued to be dominated by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs. It’s been widely criticized there and abroad ever since Davao’s “Punisher” launched the campaign in July 2016. Although the drive appears to enjoy significant domestic support, it’s put the Duterte administration on the defensive, forcing the president to pull out the Philippine National Police (PNP) from the frontline of the anti-drug war on Jan. 30 after the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) concluded that rogue narcotics cops kidnapped and murdered a South Korea businessman, allegedly in a botched extortion. Mr. Duterte has since withdrawn and moved back the PNP to the anti-drug campaign at least twice during the year.
Pres. Duterte has bristled at the slightest accusations of state-sanctioned extrajudicial killings and rights abuses. On Feb. 24, police arrested his most vocal critic of his anti-drug campaign, Sen. Leila de Lima and the government continues to block granting her bail. Her imprisonment has fueled an international clamor for her release. On May 5, United Nations special rapporteur Agnes Callamard made a controversial visit on a drug policy forum in the University of the Philippines. The Duterte administration vociferously protested the unannounced visit.
On May 23, Pres. Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao while during an abbreviated visit to Moscow. A relatively new terror group – the Maute gang – had joined forces with the more notorious Abu Sayyaf to lay siege on Marawi City. They mounted the attack in the name of the Islamic State (ISIS) that was then desperately hanging on to territories it previously captured in Iraq and Syria.
Because it raised the prospect of ISIS gaining a beachhead in Southeast Asia, the fighting drew the US, China, Australia and other regional powers into supporting the Philippine armed forces. Still, it took over five months for them to crush the militants.
In the hours between Oct 16-17, army snipers shot dead the ASG’s Isnilon Hapilon and the Maute group’s Omar Maute, decimating the last leaders of the uprising. On Oct. 23, the government formally declared the “Battle of Marawi” over.
Even as Filipino soldiers were fighting to win in Marawi, there was another victory being celebrated across the Pacific, in Washington D.C. About two dozen Filipino veterans of World War II received the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest civilian award, on Oct. 25. The medal honors the 260,000 Filipino soldiers and guerillas who fought under American command during the Pacific War. House Speaker Paul Ryan said the award is “long, long overdue.”
The awarding ceremony – over 75 years in the making – was also attended by relatives of Filipino veterans who’ve already died and activists in the Fil-Am community who’ve lobbied Washington to reverse the effects of the infamous 1946 Rescission Law that withdrew recognition and benefits from the Filipino veterans. They were joined Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and US Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.
Other events focused the gaze of Filipinos in the US to the old country. On Aug. 8, the Supreme Court removed the last obstacle against the burial of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos at the Libingan ng mga Bayani, ending years of litigation over the legality or propriety of interring the remains of a disgraced leader in the country’s premier heroes’ cemetery. His body – preserved in an air-conditioned glass enclosure since 1989 – was finally buried there on Nov. 18.
A meeting between Mssrs. Trump and Duterte, favorite targets of media hype for their similarities – e.g. they’re about the same age, unfiltered language, authoritarian bent, etc. – finally happened in Manila when Pres. Duterte played host to world leaders, including Pres. Trump, attending the 50th anniversary celebration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and East Asia leaders’ summit on Nov. 12-14.
Not surprisingly, both men heaped praise on each other. Pres. Trump complimented his Philippine counterpart for an “unbelievable job”, and well, Pres. Duterte – better known for his acerbic tongue – called reporters who tried to throw human rights-themed questions at the pair as “spies”, drawing a chuckle from the “fake news”-hating Pres. Trump.