After Bonifacio

While often confused with National Heroes Day, November 30 is a day we set aside to remember the heroism of Andres Bonifacio, the father of the Philippine Revolution. It is his birthday, the feast day of St. Andrew, after whom he was named.  Most Filipinos do not remember when he died, or indeed, how he died.  The manner of his death is one of those inconvenient truths we have expunged from our nation’s official narrative.

Like Rizal, Bonifacio did not live long enough to see the country emerge from the shadows of Spanish rule.  But unlike Rizal, who was martyred by the Spaniards, Bonifacio was killed by his own comrades.  For refusing to recognize the leadership of General Emilio Aguinaldo that was installed at the Tejeros Convention, he was tried for treason, and executed on May 10, 1897.  He was 33.  The founder of the Katipunan – the one, in the words of Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, “who had guts and gumption like no other,” had become, in the eyes of the new leaders, a danger to the revolution.

The elimination of Bonifacio did not advance the cause of the revolution.  Soon after the infamous meeting at Tejeros, the Cavite towns held by Aguinaldo’s forces fell one after another.  These defeats led straight to the negotiations that culminated in the pact of Biak-na-bato.  This shameful agreement with the Spanish government provided for the surrender and voluntary exile of the Aguinaldo-led group to Hong Kong on Dec. 27, 1897, in exchange for P800,000.  Fortunately, Filipinos did not heed their leaders’ call for the surrender of arms and the termination of the struggle.  The revolution continued.

The fortunes of the revolution changed dramatically with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.  Riding on the worldwide sympathy for the Cuban revolution against Spain, the US created the conditions that would justify declaring war against Spain.  Less than a week after war was declared, Commodore George Dewey sailed to the Philippines and effortlessly destroyed the Spanish fleet on Manila Bay.

The leaders of the Hong Kong junta had been conferring with American representatives in Hong Kong and Singapore.  They saw in the US intervention an opportunity to reclaim their leadership of the revolution at home.  On the other hand, the Americans saw in the Filipino revolutionary forces an interim army that could keep the beleaguered Spanish soldiers busy pending the arrival of US troops. An American boat brought Aguinaldo and his fellow exiles back to the Philippines on May 19, 1898.  Five days later, Aguinaldo announced the formation of a dictatorial government that acknowledged “the disinterested protection” of “the great and powerful North American nation.”

By June 12, 1898, barely a month after his return from Hong Kong, Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine independence.  By most accounts, this declaration was premature and flawed. But Aguinaldo was engaged in a complex political maneuver via-a-vis Spain, the United States, and the rest of Filipino revolutionary movement itself.  There was one good thing about June 12 however.  On this day, Aguinaldo met Apolinario Mabini and made him his political adviser.  Mabini never lost sight of the basic nationalist direction of the revolution.  It was he who single-handedly prevented the Aguinaldo leadership from becoming a blind tool of elitist and foreign interests.

Conditions were changing very fast.  At every point, the brilliant Mabini knew how the fledgling revolutionary government should respond.  But time was not on the revolution’s side. The Spaniards had no intention of recognizing Filipino sovereignty; they would cede control of the islands only to the Americans.  Still, the Filipinos wanted to show the world they were already in full control of their own country and that a functioning modern government was already in place.

And that is why the last six months of the year 1898, a hundred and ten years ago, became for Filipinos a frantic season of instant statecraft.  Mabini had wanted the local governments to be fully formed under the command of a powerful executive before political power was to be shared with a legislature.  But, Aguinaldo had already issued an order to convene a national congress – mainly to create the impression of institutionalization at the national level.

The Malolos Congress convened in September 1898.  Technically, it did not have the powers of a constituent assembly. But the delegates, a large number of whom were foreign-educated ilustrados, were keen to show the world that they knew how to create laws and to live by them.  They also wanted to assert legislative power as a check on the executive. Accordingly, they proceeded to draft a constitution appropriate to an independent republic, using the French constitution as their working model.  They created the nation, but remarkably they omitted any reference to its territory.  They would not presume Muslim Mindanao’s membership in the new nation.

All these were overtaken by the Dec. 10, 1898 Treaty of Paris, by which Spain transferred sovereignty over the islands to the United States for $20 million.  On Feb. 4, 1899, the young republic found herself at war with the new invader.  But perhaps the unkindest cut of all was when, at the moment of truth, her educated sons, who, only a few months before, were busy writing the constitution, swiftly abandoned her in exchange for positions in the new colonial government.  Since then, the country has always needed the unerring vision of Mabini and the audacity of Bonifacio.