Meditation on independence

Tomorrow, as we mark the 117th year of our country’s independence, it might do some good to reflect on what we, as a people, went through after the leader of the Filipino revolution, Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo, pronounced these islands and their inhabitants to be free from Spanish rule. Such reflection might help us to understand better some of the issues we face today, not the least of which is the Moro quest for substantive self-rule.

The year was 1898. The Spanish colonial government, which had ruled our people for more than 300 years, was crumbling. A new foreign power, the United States of America, was at our door. The Americans brought Emilio Aguinaldo home from exile, goading him to continue his people’s revolution against Spain. The general was made to believe that America had come to help liberate the Filipino people from Spanish oppression.

Aguinaldo must have entertained doubts about the sincerity of these assurances from a newfound friend, while drawing hope from the fact that, up to that point, America did not hold any colonies. The 1898 declaration of independence, made in haste, could have been his way of preempting America’s true intentions.

In any case, the immediate task he faced was how to start the process of forming a new government. Having heard of the brilliant young lawyer, Apolinario Mabini, Aguinaldo summoned him to Cavite to help in the design of this new government. A polio victim, Mabini arrived in Kawit, borne on a hammock, on the same day Aguinaldo had declared independence. It was the first time the two met. I could imagine how startled Aguinaldo must have been on seeing the physical condition of the man he was commissioning as his chief political adviser. But it was Mabini’s body that was impaired, not his mind.

Mabini counseled the young general that the first business of the day was to secure the support of the rest of the Filipino leaders for the declaration of independence that he had just made. He deemed it necessary to ensure a unified political leadership in view of the American presence. From the start, Mabini had been suspicious of America’s intentions. Long after Spain had given up its defense of the islands, America continued to send waves of troops to the islands, and he asked why.

America’s real intentions became clear after Spain ceded the islands to the United States in exchange for $20 million under the December 1898 Treaty of Paris. Aguinaldo’s government was deliberately kept out of the Paris talks. From that point onward, it was just a matter of time before the Filipino revolutionary forces would clash with American troops. The hostilities finally broke out in February 1899.

America demanded the immediate surrender of the Filipino revolutionary forces, declaring all those who opposed US rule as insurgents. The Philippine-American War was a brutal war of subjugation waged against a poor exhausted nation that had just freed itself from more than three centuries of Spanish colonial rule. That tragic and bloody episode in our nation’s history was successfully buried by America’s attempt to depict its project in the Philippines, not as a form of conquest, but as liberation and tutelage in the art of government.

The Americans doubted that there was a Filipino nation to speak of in the first instance. They only saw a collection of diverse ethnic groups, each one speaking a different language, and hardly capable of forming a unified government. The foremost proponent of this view was Sen. Alfred J. Beveridge, who, in a speech before the US Senate on Jan. 9, 1900, described what he saw during a brief visit to the Philippines.

“They are a barbarous race, modified by three centuries of contact with a decadent race. The Filipino is the South Sea Malay, put through a process of three hundred years of superstition in religion, dishonesty in dealing, disorder in habits of industry, and cruelty, caprice, and corruption in government…. My own belief is that there are not 100 men among them who comprehend what Anglo-Saxon government even means, and there are over 5,000,000 people to be governed.”

In many ways, these insulting words are symptomatic of the kind of prejudice that today underpins many common objections to the regional autonomy contemplated by the Bangsamoro Basic Law. These objections tend to be anchored on the commonly held sentiment that so backward are the people that they are utterly incapable of self-government. If you would not think it suitable for the American Indians at home, Beveridge had chided his colleagues, “how dare you grant it to the Malay abroad?”

But, while Beveridge was candid about the geopolitical and economic motives that fueled his call for the annexation of the Philippine islands, we continue to hide ours behind vague patriotic appeals for the preservation of the nation’s territorial integrity. The Beveridge line went like this: “The Pacific is our ocean…. China is our natural customer…. The Philippines gives us a base at the door of all the East.” Moreover, “the Philippines are so valuable in themselves that we should hold them.”

In contrast, what seems to prevent us from exploring the best political option possible for Southern Mindanao is the unexamined fear that we might eventually lose all of Mindanao. I think that, if they are determined, there is nothing to stop the Moro people from pursuing the path of complete independence. Seen in this light, the BBL is our way of showing that their existing affinity with the Philippine nation-state, for all the injustices that have been committed in its name, is worth keeping.

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