Tuesday, June 12, 2012

True independence

Celebrations of Philippine Independence Day every June 12 at home have been focused more on fanfare and parades, and here in Toronto, on festive galas and beauty pageants. Many Filipinos tend to gloss over that period of the revolution against Spain that began in 1896 and ignore the complete picture of the continuing struggle of Filipinos for nationhood and self-determination.
President Benigno Aquino III reviews the honor guard in front of the Barasoain
 church in Malolos, Bulacan to celebrate Philippine Independence Day, June 12, 2012.
Photo by Reuters Pictures. Click  link to view "Aquino-Obama Meet to Affirm Neo-
Colonial Ties - Bayan,"

There has been very little mention, for instance, in official Independence Day celebrations of the Filipinos’ bloody struggle against the United States, which ruled the Philippines for some five decades. It is not surprising that Ambeth Ocampo, a Filipino historian and professor, would write that “many Filipinos and Americans are not aware that there was such a thing as the Filipino-American war.’’ The fact is, that war and the pacification campaign from 1899 to 1902 waged by the American government under a policy of ‘‘benevolent assimilation,’’ ‘‘civilising’’ and ‘‘Christianising’’ the Filipinos was marked by torture, cruelty and racism.

It therefore makes sense for every Filipino to fully understand the history of our struggle for nationhood so that it will open our eyes and minds to what actually transpired in history and what could be unfolding before us, instead of being simply caught up in the joy of many or despair of some over the celebration.

The war of Philippine independence against Spain started in April 1896 when members of the Katipunan gathered in Pugad Lawin to declare the country’s independence in what is now historically remembered as the Cry of Balintawak. It was the Philippines’ first public expression of the nation’s aspiration to be independent from colonial rule.

On June 12, 1898, a month after General Emilio Aguinaldo returned from exile in Hongkong and resumed command of the Filipino revolutionary forces, he proclaimed the independence of the Philippines from the balcony of his house in Kawit, Cavite. This was the official date which President Diosdado Macapagal decided to choose in 1962 to celebrate Philippine independence to replace July 4, 1946, the original date the Philippines commemorated its independence from the United States.

These are two contrasting dates of national independence, indicative of how the country was torn between two colonizers—Spain and America. Philippine independence on June 12, 1898, was short-lived when the Americans took possession of Manila on August 13, 1898, during the Battle of Manila Bay—the first hostile engagement of the Spanish-American War. The Battle of Manila Bay was actually an arranged show of resistance since Spain had already agreed to surrender Manila and the mocked resistance would preserve the Spanish sense of honour, and worse, excluded General Aguinaldo’s revolutionary forces. Knowing that the United States did not intend to recognize Philippine independence, Aguinaldo moved his capital in September from Kawit, Cavite, to the more defensible Malolos in Bulacan. That same month, the United States and Spain began their peace negotiations in Paris.

The Treaty of Paris was signed on December 10, 1898, with Spain ceding the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico to the United States for the sum of US$20 million. The Philippines became the first colony of the United States, but the campaign for Philippine independence continued on. On January 23, 1899, Aguinaldo proclaimed the Malolos Constitution and the First Philippine Republic. A month later, the Philippine War of Independence against the U.S. began on February 4, 1899, which would last for two years. Aguinaldo was captured by the Americans on March 23, 1901, and was persuaded to swear allegiance to the United States and called on his soldiers to lay down their arms. The United States declared an end to military rule on July 4, 1901, and America’s colonization of the Philippines would continue on until July 4, 1946, when the U.S. Congress passed the Tydings-McDuffie Law transferring sovereignty to the Filipino people.

Which of these two dates—June 12, 1898 or July 4, 1946—accurately reflects genuine Philippine Independence?

While most Filipinos are always beholden to the United States for its tutelage of Filipinos for self-government, the public education system it implemented during its colonial rule, and the colonial mentality it has embedded in every Filipino’s mindset, the July 4th celebration had always been considered as the Independence Day that wasn’t. Rightly so because the American gift of independence in 1946 had numerous strings attached. The U.S. retained sovereignty over dozens of military bases in the islands, and the U.S. Congress made sure that granting independence to the Philippines would keep it a virtual economic ward of the United States. Furthermore, the Bell Trade Act prohibited the Philippines from manufacturing or selling any products that might “come into substantial competition” with U.S.-made goods and required that the Philippine constitution be revised to grant U.S. citizens and corporations equal access to Philippine minerals, forests and other natural resources.

So in 1962, Filipino nationalists prevailed upon President Diosdado Macapagal to change the date to celebrate Philippine Independence Day to a day which was closely linked with our “revolutionary identity, rather than our colonial identity,” according to Dr. Samuel Tan of the National Historical Institute. Thus, June 12 was chosen when Filipino revolutionaries in 1898 proclaimed their freedom from Spain. Except that this Filipino declaration did not lead to actual independence as the United States annexed the Philippines as its colony.

Why would it matter then if June 12 would be the official Independence Day?

Although it did not lead to independence from Spain, its significance is not necessarily diminished. The Philippine revolution was the first Asian uprising against a foreign imperial power, and the Filipino revolutionary forces would have eventually defeated Spain had it not been for the short-lived Spanish-American War which resulted in Spain ceding the Philippines to the U.S. for $20 million, thus paving the way for American colonization of the Philippines.

If Filipinos were asked today when their country achieved independence, many would vacillate between the historical significance of the Philippine revolution against Spain and their undying fascination with the United States. Filipinos who knew their history would emphasize the process that began with the 1896 uprising against Spain by Andres Bonifacio or the 1898 declaration by Aguinaldo. Some would pay lip service to the July 4, 1946 date, noting its limitations.

Still others would insist that Philippine independence was finally achieved when the Philippine Senate on September 16, 1991, refused to extend the U.S. lease of the Subic Bay Naval Station. Alex Magno, a political scientist at the University of the Philippines, said that in a “psychological” sense, Filipinos were not free of the U.S. until then. He explained that the Senate’s refusal to extend the lease of Subic Bay to the Americans liberated the Filipinos from the idea that Washington was responsible for their fate and allowed them to think as a nation rather than an American appendage. “Until 1991, the ghost of the Philippine-American War still haunted us,” Magno said.

Professor of comparative literature at the University of the Philippines Vivencio R. Jose similarly expressed the same sentiment: “We declared independence in 1898, established a republic in 1899, but in 1991, a certain part of the cycle was completed.” According to Jose, the Senate vote demonstrated a sense of “self-determination” that was missing in the grant of U.S. independence, and it symbolized “the fulfillment of our national aspiration.”

But this sense of the Filipino aspiration to become fully independent from a foreign power would not last long and would be shattered in 1999, seven years after the Americans transferred control of their military bases to the Philippine government. In 1999, the Philippines and the United States entered into a Visiting Forces Agreement allowing American troops under the moribund Mutual Defence Treaty between the two countries to conduct military exercises in the Philippines, but only for short periods. These military exercises overlap one another, with an exercise being started before one even wound down, thus making the “temporary” visit of U.S. forces virtually permanent.
Filipino protesters led by nuns demanding U.S. troops to leave the Philippines
now. Photo courtesy of slavishtubesocks.
The visiting American soldiers are not only involved in military exercises with the Philippine military. The troops are also known to be engaged in the war against terrorism in Mindanao and other areas of the country where local communist rebels are operating. With the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea among six ASEAN countries including the Philippines over territorial sovereignty claims to the Spratly Islands and surrounding waters, the American forces are expected to stay for longer periods pursuant to the U.S. new foreign policy of engaging China in Asia and the Pacific region.

Part of the foreign policy pivot of the United States to Asia and the Pacific, the United States is already realigning its military strength in the region based on its naval facilities in Darwin, off the coast of Northern Australia. Americans would have access to their former Subic Bay Naval Station, either under permanent basing rights or on the basis of the rotating presence of U.S. troops and ships in the Philippines. This would be similar to the old Olongapo set up when the U.S. had full control of the Subic Naval Base and where U.S. naval vessels could go in and out for refueling, repair and redeployment, and as a port for rest and recreation of American troops.

Again, the Philippines is being used as a vital cog in America’s shift in foreign policy and military strategy under the pretext of containing the threat of China’s hegemony in the region. The South China Sea dispute is already drawing the involvement of the United States into the fray, and the Philippines is actively courting (begging, perhaps is the better word) for U.S. military assistance to defend its territorial claims against China in case hostilities broke out.

This brings us to the more relevant question of whether the Philippines has achieved true independence. A question more serious than simply picking a date to commemorate Independence Day. If the Americans were able to snatch the victory of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, it is beyond doubt that the U.S. is again repeating history, thanks to the RP-U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement and the obsequiousness of the present Aquino government who has cast hook, line and sinker to the new U.S. foreign policy of engaging China in Asia and the Pacific region.

Parades, festivals, galas and beauty pageants will not give meaning to our celebration of Philippine Independence Day when the United States continues to mock our aspiration and struggle to become a truly independent nation—the spirit of yearning for self-determination which was begun by our revolutionary forebears during the Philippine Revolution of 1896.


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