A Complex Achievement

Arab News 

A Complex Achievement

by Manuel L. Quezon III
June 12, 2006

Since 1962 (by presidential fiat, and since 1964 by law), Filipinos have commemorated June 12 as Independence Day, when previously, from 1946, they had celebrated their independence on July 4. The decision to shift to June 12, itself celebrated since 1940 as Flag Day, was a historically valid one. But the decision became encrusted with some much Kant, and so conflicting and confused were the motivations for the shift, that since then, it must be asked whether Filipinos really know what they are celebrating.

Scrape away the popular conceptions and a clearer picture emerges. In 1896, Andres Bonifacio and his followers tore up their residence certificates, symbolically withdrawing their allegiance from Spain and proclaiming the Katipunan, the government of an independent Philippines. The Philippine revolution thus began, and its main preoccupation was primarily inward: That is, while independence from Spain was being fought, the main concern of leaders like Bonifacio was to inspire Filipinos to adopt an identity as citizens of a new nation.

By 1897, in a power struggle typical of revolutionary movements, Bonifacio had been supplanted by Emilio Aguinaldo, representative of the provincial gentry as Bonifacio had been an exemplar of the proletariat. With Bonifacio’s fall came the rise of an orientation as much concerned with outward developments as an inward advocacy: The full panoply of statehood, in international terms, became more important than the rather mystical, and mass-oriented, Katipunan, the secret society that had planned, and led the revolution, but which was formally abolished and supplanted with a bourgeois-oriented provisional government.

A negotiated peace with Spain had ended hostilities late in 1897 and Aguinaldo had gone into (he hoped, temporary) exile to plot a reinvigorated independence movement, when the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. The Americans invaded Cuba; a naval squadron defeated the Spanish naval detachment in the Philippines: The Filipino revolutionaries in exile in Hong Kong were identified, and courted, as American allies. Aguinaldo was brought back to the country, formally resumed the revolution on May 28, 1898, and by June 12 had returned to his native town, Kawit, in Cavite province and proclaimed Philippine independence to the world (recall that Bonifacio had proclaimed independence to his countrymen in 1896).

Apolinario Mabini, lawyer and intellectual and eventually the most important adviser of Aguinaldo, found the June 12 proclamation shockingly provincial and even counter-productive. Among other things, it declared the new nation a protectorate of the United States without having formally negotiated American recognition of either Philippine independence or the government being established by the Filipinos. Mabini attempted to rectify the situation by organizing local governments, which in turn could deputize individuals to represent them in ratifying the June 12 proclamation of independence along more dignified lines, and in turn, ratify a constitution which laid down a formal basis for the leadership of Aguinaldo (hitherto merely proclaimed an “egregious dictator” in Kawit). All this was accomplished by early 1899, when the First Philippine Republic was inaugurated in Malolos, Bulacan.

Filipinos earned the distinction of being the first formally-organized constitutional republic in Asia, the first colony to assert independence in Southeast Asia, and the last Spanish colony to do so in the 19th century. They also had to endure the tragedy of having an otherwise inspiring and potentially solid start to nationhood aborted by American conquest, formally achieved with Aguinaldo’s capture in 1901 and unquestionably asserted by the first decade of the 20th century.

Filipinos, however, didn’t let go of the independence ideal; and they were variously granted, or managed to wheedle out of the Americans, elected provincial government by 1905, a Filipino lower house in the legislature in 1907, a fully Filipino legislature by 1916, and control of the executive with autonomy by 1935 along with a formal commitment to restoring independence by 1946. This was a period of fairly successful nation-building, tragically interrupted by World War II which brought Japanese occupation and liberation by Allied forces.

This was accompanied by the near-total destruction of the infrastructure and carefully-built political infrastructure that had the country confidently poised to resume its independence prior to the outbreak of the war. And yet independence was recognized by the United States in 1946, adding yet another distinction: The first Asian colony to achieve independence, and the first functioning democracy in Asia in the postwar era. Filipinos forget that this was no piddling accomplishment: The peaceful independence efforts had been closely watched by their neighbors, serving as an inspiration to leaders ranging from Sukarno to Ho Chi Minh; and Americans forget that the effort was successful enough to inspire an initial confidence in American good will on the part of these same leaders, and even as far afield as Mao Sedong in China. The confidence among Asians in American benevolence and sincerity didn’t last; and in the Philippines it quickly began to crumble.

A ravaged, wrecked Philippines embarked on independence with conditions — imposed by Americans eager to bask in the shared sacrifice of World War II, but unwilling to match its rhetorical sentimentality with measures to rebuild the country. The Philippines would be rebuilt, but assistance from America would be based on the hard-nosed proposition that Americans receive equal access to the Philippine economy. And thus the pride of having its sovereignty recognized ahead of say, India and Indonesia (whose colonial rulers had watched prewar independence efforts with hostility motivated by the fear) was marred by the irony that those — and other — colonized countries achieved a later, but perhaps more authentic, independence.

It is said that President Diosdado Macapagal decided to transfer independence day from July 4 to June 12 in a fit of annoyance. He was merely the latest in a line of Philippine leaders exasperated over American indifference to the cause of Filipino veterans deprived of their benefits since 1947, and other vexations that included disagreements over tariffs and economic assistance. The gulf between the official proclamations of love, devotion, and a shared democratic idealism with the United States, and the increasingly harsh realities of economic and social conditions in the country (despite having defeated a Communist insurgency in the 1940s and 50s), made basking in the rapidly-diminishing warmth of America increasingly unsatisfying to a younger generation of Filipinos.

Macapagal’s initial pique, even if true, gave way to the realization that here was a chance to buttress a failing administration by seizing nationalism away from his critics: The country could, in a sense, be reinvented. If the present was bland and lacking confidence, a mythical past could be appropriated. In 1961, Filipinos had commemorated 15 years of independence (a fact); in 1962, they suddenly were told the country could bask in the glory of 64 years of independence (false). The sad end of the First Republic was set aside to prop up the shaky realities of the Third Republic established in 1946: The intervening period that made possible the restoration of independence began to be subjected to an officially-inflicted amnesia ignoring everything in between.

The country then, in Diosdado Macapagal’s time, and now, under his successors including his daughter, could not afford to make historical distinctions in the rush to reconfigure the past. Doing that was easier and perhaps more emotionally satisfying than the hard, necessary, work of enabling Filipino society and government to evolve to meet the needs of the future. If it was healthy to refocus the attention of the citizenry on the glories and achievements of the Revolution against Spain and the First Republic, it was unhealthy — and delusional — to ignore the end of that republic, and the painstaking and equally inspiring effort to insist on independence being recognized by the United States.

Philippine leaders since Macapagal have been in the position of parvenus claiming a heroic past in competition with Filipino Communists and Socialists equally eager to claim that past: The difference lies in Philippine officialdom trying to incense the corpse of the First Republic (ill-fated but bourgeois and cosmopolitan) while radicals try to reanimate the remains of the Katipunan (also ill-fated, but mystical and mass-based). Outside the Philippine equivalents of the intelligentsia, nomenklatura, and their apparatchiks, whether mainstream or revolutionary, Filipinos have been left with bold slogans (“100 years of independence!” celebrated, deceitfully, in 1998, but then “100 years since independence was originally proclaimed!” was too clumsy, and honest, for government billboards) disguising hot air.

And yet — on June 12, 1898, on the balcony of Aguinaldo’s mansion in Kawit, Cavite, was proclaimed, to the world, the independence of the Philippines. That the proclamation read to the public left some things to be desired, only fairly depicted something all colonies aspiring to independent nationhood have come to learn: That independence and sovereignty must be redefined and reasserted as time passes. The other things done that day: The unfurling of the Philippine flag not in battle, but before a joyous, peaceful, public assembly, and the first public performance of a national anthem that would only have lyrics appended to it a year later, were not only the trappings, but in a sense, the substance of nationhood.

The Philippine flag itself was the product of evolution, incorporating colors and symbols from the independence movements and leaders that came before; and it would be that flag that would be forbidden by the Americans, then grudgingly allowed to be hoisted again; and both flag and anthem would rally Filipinos to reclaim their independence from America and fight for native soil against the Japanese.

If today Filipinos live under their Fifth Republic, their familiar symbols of national identity were born under the First; and serve as a reminder of the high achievement — and high tragedy — that has characterized their national identity ever since. This marvelously complexity means that June 12, 2006, marks 108 years since independence was proclaimed; and soon, 60 years of uninterrupted independence and sovereignty since it was restored in 1946; and just as the country looked back in February to 20 years since it overthrew the home-grown Marcos dictatorship, next year it can look forward to two decades of having a restored, constitutional, democracy. No mean feats, each one; an inspiring tapestry overall.

Manuel L. Quezon III.

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