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It's All History by Jon Malek

Reckoning with Memory – Part 3

by Jon Malek

Today, I write the final segment in my three-part series on “Reckoning with Memory,” wherein I explore three major events in the history of the Philippines and the ways in which memory has illuminated these events. In August, I wrote on Magellan’s fateful encounter with the men of Lapu-Lapu of Mactan Island; In September, I wrote of the life and death of José Rizal. This week, I tackle Philippine Independence, celebrated this past June 21st. Without a doubt, political independence is a major event in any nation’s history, especially in the Philippines, as it marked the end of centuries of colonialism. A major theme of this series has been the idea of the Philippines and of the Filipino; while in the days of Lapu-Lapu, they both did not yet exist, and in Rizal’s life they had already taken form, independence saw the flowering and expression of a free Philippine nation and Filipino people.

As we saw in last September’s column on Rizal, there were many different ideas about what Philippine independence should look like and what timeline it should follow. While Rizal did not support armed rebellion against the Spaniards, he was used to encourage such a movement. Rizal’s writings gave a language with which to express Philippine independence, but also identified the evils of imperial society and offered a vision of what a future independent Philippines could look like. His acuity reminded Filipinos that they were capable of greatness, despite centuries of being educated otherwise by the Spanish. The independence movement with which Rizal became associated gained momentum after Rizal’s execution in 1896, garnering much support from wider Philippine society. Months after Rizal’s execution, in March 1897, Emilio Aguinaldo declared the Philippines an independent republic at the Tejeros Convention in Malabon, Cavite. After spending some time in exile in Hong Kong, Aguinaldo returned to the Philippines weeks after the American victory against Spain at the Battle of Manila Bay on 1 May 1898. On June 12, Aguinaldo proclaimed Philippine independence.

This is the moment that is celebrate today on Independence Day in the Philippines. This, however, did not usher in true independence. When the American’s arrived in Manila, many Filipinos thought they would hand over control of the Philippines, given the rhetoric of freedom and liberty of the United States. However, the Americans refused this, claiming the Filipinos were not ready to govern themselves. This resulted in the American-Philippine War, which supposedly only lasted a few years, although, in reality, there was armed resistance against the Americans until the invasion of the Japanese in 1941.

The truth is that the American occupation continued the long history of foreign occupation of the Philippines. In the eyes of the American government, the Philippines were not politically capable of governing themselves and so the U.S. would serve as a sort of tutor. Of course, during this time, the Philippines was opened up to American economic exploitations. In 1935, the U.S. government decided that they would begin the process of handing over political independence to the Filipino people. Part of the reason for this was domestic pressure. As a territory of the U.S., the inhabitants of the Philippines were officially labelled as U.S. nationals. This was during the time of heightened anti-Asian sentiments in the U.S. (and Canada, too) when Asian migrants were denied entry simply because of their ethnicity. Filipinos, however, were able to avoid this restriction as they were U.S. nationals, and many Filipino men were moving to the American west coast to work in the agricultural industry. This upset segments of the white American population, who began demanding of their government that Filipino immigration to the U.S. be halted. The answer was to give the Philippines independence, thus stripping Filipinos of their status as U.S. nationals. The date initially selected was in 1945, but of course this was pre-empted by the Pacific War (1941-1945). However, when the U.S. defeated the Japanese army and secured control of the Philippines in 1945, they initiated the transfer of power back to the Filipino people.

The date selected for the transfer was July 4th - the same independence day of the United States. This was likely an attempt by the American government to remind the Filipino people that it was the United States who gave them their independence. Sharing their Independence Day with the “big brother” of the United States seemed to devalue the work, the struggle, and ­– quite honestly – the death of so many Filipinos who for decades had been fighting for Philippine independence. However, the July 4th celebration of Philippine independence was recognized in the Philippines until 1962, when President Diosdado Macapagal renamed July 4th as “Philippine Republic Day,” and celebrated June 12th as “Philippine Independence Day.”

To me, this is a very significant event. President Macapagal declared that June 12th recognized “our people’s declaration of their inherent and inalienable right to freedom and independence.” This was, in a way, a condemnation of the American occupation, which prevented the Philippines from claiming its rightful independence. It was a statement that foreign occupation does not nullify the right to freedom and, even if the Philippine government might express gratitude to the American government, this move allowed them the opportunity to also express that the U.S. did not need to “give” them their independence, because they already had fought for it.

This historical narrative may seem missing from current celebrations of Philippine Independence. Indeed, many celebrations don’t seem to give a critical eye to the American occupation, which saw the deaths of thousands of Filipinos and the development of the so-called waterboarding technique against Filipino independence fighters. But this is another function of memory, specifically the collective memory of the Filipino people. Political independence was attained on 4 July 1946, but it was formally claimed on 12 June 1898. Deciding which of those dates to celebrate and acknowledge is a statement about the Philippines, its history, and its autonomy. Like so many post-colonial states, the Philippines has decided that it decides for itself when independence was claimed; the fact that it had to fight for decades before it was attained only emphasizes how hard was the fight for independence.

We now come to the end of this short series of articles. When we began with the arrival of Magellan, the Philippines was a region not united by state, nationality, or identity; by the end of our discussion today, that same region has become something that is real, something that is recognizable. The Philippines and the Filipino people have been forged by millennia of history – the little bit that we’ve discussed in these three columns is only a fraction of that history. This history – the experiences, the encounters, the struggles, the triumphs ­– has moulded a collection of islands with countless different customs and traditions into a national identity that, while maintaining unique identities, can call itself Filipino. It is important to recognize that much of this identity is based upon a collective memory that privileges certain histories over others, and it is also important to recognize that this choice is a part of nationhood. What is remembered can always be changed, based on the needs of the current and future generations, and it is incumbent on all people to know their history – all of history, not just that taught in a textbook – to make those new histories.

Jon Malek received his PhD from Western University and currently teaches history at the University of Manitoba. He is working on a book manuscript on the history of the Winnipeg Filipino community.