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Filipino Nationalism

The Philippines nationalist movement was the earliest of its kind in Southeast Asia. Many of its leaders saw their movement as a beacon for other Southeast Asian colonies. In reality it had little impact. Nationalism took a decidedly different course in the Philippines than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Philippine intellectual and political elites identified themselves more with Spain and later the United States than they did with anti-colonialists elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Philippine export crops were grown predominantly on land owned by the Chinese mestizo community. The haciendas developed by powerful regional families were worked by tenants. The landowners became rich and powerful while the tenants became increasingly impoverished, trapped in a grossly unequal relationship with the landowners. Here lie the origins of the major Philippine families who continue to control the rural Philippines in the 1990s and from this economic base continue to exert enormous political power. Their wealth by and large continues to be based on large estates, even though many have diversified their investments in recent decades. The landed elite which emerged in the 19th century, unique in Southeast Asia for its social, economic and political power, educated their children in Spanish schools, seminaries and universities. Their Spanish-educated children, known as ilustrados, were influenced by the liberal reforms in Spain after 1868. From the 1870s they began to demand the same rights as Spaniards, including representation in the Spanish parliament.

Avowedly anti-clerical, they demanded the separation of state and church, the expulsion of the Spanish friars who dominated rural areas and the introduction of native clergy. Their demands were disregarded by both the colonial government and the Catholic Church. In the 1890s, disillusioned by Spain’s refusal to treat them as equals and its dismissal of their proposals for social and economic reform, the ilustrados began to call themselves Filipinos.

They were led by Jose Rizal, a wealthy fifth generation Chinese mestizo. Hitherto the Spanish had appropriated the term Filipino for Spaniards born in the Philippines, referring to natives as Indios. The term Filipino now became a symbol of nationalism.

The ilustrados – the educated, wealthy mestizo elite – wanted to rid the Philippines of clerical domination in order to assume leadership of their society. In contrast to their moderate nationalism, in 1896 a rebellion broke out in Manila organised by a far more radical group known as the Katipunan and led by Andres Bonifacio, a relatively poorly educated Manila clerk. Fighting broke out in the Manila area between Katipunan forces and the colonial army. The Spanish responded by arresting not only Katipunan leaders but also many ilustrados as well. Rizal was arrested, charged with treason and publicly executed. Philippine nationalism now had a martyr.

At the same time as Spain was confronted by open rebellion in the Philippines it was fighting a major rebellion in its central American colony of Cuba. The drain on its limited resources was immense. United States intervention in Cuba resulted in the American–Spanish war. As a consequence the United States Pacific fleet sailed into Manila Bay, destroyed the Spanish fleet and laid seige to Manila. Philippine nationalists took advantage of a weakened Spain by declaring independence on 12 June 1898 under the ilustrado leader Apolinario Mabini. The Filipinos were the first people in Asia successfully to fight their colonial power and create a modern nation-state.

Unfortunately for the nascent Philippine Republic the United States decided that occupation of the Philippines would provide it with a base in the western Pacific from which it could promote its political and economic interests in East Asia. Early in 1899 warfare broke out between the Philippine Republic and the United States, eventually involving more than 10,000 United States troops. Most hostilities ended in 1901 when the United States effectively bought off the ilustrado elite, promising to maintain their wealth and power in return for collaboration with American colonial rule. However, the Muslim south remained under American military jurisdiction until 1913. Even then sporadic violence continued against American authorities for some years.

The agreement of 1901 consolidated the power of the landed Chinese mestizo elite enabling them to dominate the political and economic structures of the Philippines in the 20th century. It also created a Filipino elite that looked to the United States not only for economic and political patronage but also as its intellectual and cultural model. The ilustrado elite in the Philippines was a powerful landed elite with no parallel elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Its members’ social and political power stemmed from an economic base independent of the colonial state.

United States colonialism

It has been argued that if Spain occupied the Philippines for ‘the glory of God’ then the United States occupied the Philippines for ‘the democratic mission’. Certainly, Americans were uneasy about their status as an imperial nation. It ran counter to their self-perception as a people who had thrown off the colonial yoke to become the beacon for free, democratic and egalitarian values in the world. Americans’ own history of anti-colonialism ensured that there were significant differences in United States rule in the Philippines from colonial rule elsewhere in Southeast Asia. From the start the United States made clear that its goal was to lead the Philippines to independence. Nationalism was a legitimate force, if possible to be moulded in its own image of course, but not to be distrusted and repressed. It followed from this that the role of the colonial state was to tutor Filipinos in the administration of a modern nation-state in order that they learn the skills necessary for independence as quickly as possible.

Given their views of themselves as being in the Philippines for the best of reasons – ‘the democratic mission’ – it is not surprising that United States colonial administrations stressed the development of education, health and democratic processes. Electoral systems were introduced at all levels of society and the national parliament was encouraged to invigilate officials and influence colonial policies. By 1934 the United States Congress mandated Philippine independence within twelve years. As a first step, in 1935 a Philippines Commonwealth was established, autonomous in domestic affairs with Manuel Quezon as its first President. Political developments in the Philippines were unique in Southeast Asia, though in the long run the effect was to increase the wealth and power of the landed elite.

The United States government expended money on the Philippines rather than extracted money from it – another unique occurrence in colonial Southeast Asia. Much of this money was spent on developing education and health systems far superior to anywhere else in the region. At home the United States was committed to mass education at all levels, in contrast to Britain, France and Holland which restricted access to high schools and believed that a University education was only for a small elite.

Education policies in the Philippines reflected American domestic educational philosophies, in the same way as education policies in British, French and Dutch colonies reflected their domestic policies. The contrast between the Philippines and Indonesia on the eve of World War II is illustrative of these differences.

In the Philippines in 1938–39 there were 7,500 students at the University of the Philippines in Manila. In the same year in Indonesia there were a mere 128 students at Colleges of Law, Medicine and Engineering. In 1941 the literacy rate in the Philippines was five times that in Indonesia.

Nationalist movements in most of colonial Southeast Asia flourished from the 1910s, demanding independence, by and large rejecting colonial cultural mores and vigorously debating the need for radical social and economic reform. They were generally led at the ‘national’ level by the western-educated sons of either the traditional aristocracy or the bureaucratic elite and at the local level by upwardly mobile clerks, schoolteachers and government officials. There was a wide spectrum of parties, ranging from conservative ones, which wanted independence and little social or economic change, to the communist parties which wanted revolution. The Philippines was once again an exception. Its nationalist movement was dominated by the Nationalist Party under the leadership of Manuel Quezon.

Leaders were from the landed elite, even more wealthy and powerful under American rule than they had been under Spain. While publicly demanding immediate independence, in fact their personal economic interests were well served by continued United States rule.

Enjoying self-government after 1935, and under a relatively benign colonialism, the Filipino nationalist elite remained pro-American. In many ways they were bi-cultural. The shape of Filipino nationalism – in ideology, myths and symbols – was very different from elsewhere in Southeast Asia. With no need to foster a strong ‘national’ consciousness and few ‘national’ symbols, regionalism and regional loyalties based on regional landed elites remained strong. This had significant consequences after 1945. Filipino nationalists were barely conscious of the events going on elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It left a legacy of separateness from the rest of Southeast Asia which had only partially changed by the 1990s.