Philippine Independence 101
By Joe Rivera
On June 12, 1898, Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the independence of the Philippines from the window of his home in Kawit, Cavite. A month before, Aguinaldo also formally established the Dictatorial Government which he believed would be more efficient than a republican one in time of crisis. It was only later upon the advice of Apolinario Mabini that Aguinaldo changed the form of government from Dictatorial to Revolutionary.
Aguinaldo’s proclamation of Philippine independence came at the cusp of the Spanish army’s defeat in the hands of the Filipino rebels. It was never recognized by Spain or the United States which at the time had also been at war with Spain. In December 1898, American and Spanish peace commissioners met in Paris to settle questions relating to Cuba, the Philippines, and other matters. Felipe Agoncillo, Aguinaldo’s diplomatic envoy, pleaded with the commissioners to recognize the Philippines as an independent nation. The commissioners refused to listen to Agoncillo and went ahead to sign the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898, in which Spain gave up the Philippines to the United States for a sum of 20 million dollars.
On February 4, 1899, the Filipino-American War broke out which would last until 1902. Aguinaldo’s revolutionary government was crushed and his proclamation of independence short-lived. The Philippines was annexed as a Commonwealth of the United States until the end of the Japanese war in 1946 when independence was granted to the Philippines on July 4 by the United States’ Congress.
The June 12, 1898 independence proclamation was essentially an aspirational one. It was never achieved, and the colonization of the Philippines was handed over from its former colonial master Spain to the emerging power, the United States of America. Whereas the July 4, 1946 independence was merely a nominal one, it came at the expense of officially adopting the vestiges of American colonialism such as parity rights for American citizens in the Philippine Constitution and one-sided bilateral agreements in favour of the United States such as the Bell Trade Act, Laurel-Langley Agreement and the RP-US Military Bases Agreement.
In other words, the celebration of Philippine independence, as it was held before every July 4 commencing from the third Republic under President Manuel Roxas and then every June 12 beginning the fifth Republic under President Diosdado Macapagal, is a ritual bereft of historical correctness. Macapagal changed the celebration of independence to June 12 as a symbolic act of nationalism which was praised by other Filipino nationalists at the time since the July 4th independence was declared not by a Filipino but by an American, President Harry Truman. Both dates, however, do not represent the historical truth if the celebration of independence should really reflect the first act made by the Filipino people to establish a free and sovereign nation.
Aguinaldo’s June 12th declaration of Philippine independence was in itself questionable since he had earlier made overtures to Admiral George Dewey to recognize the independence of the Philippines under the protection of the United States Navy. One can argue that no sensible and patriotic leader of his country would claim independence, yet beg for protection from a foreign army. A U.S. Library of Congress Country Study on the Philippines completed in 1991 contained reports that the United States Department of the Navy during that time had ordered Dewey to distance himself from Aguinaldo so he would not make untoward commitments to the Philippine forces. Besides, Aguinaldo was never in a firm position to declare independence from Spain when the Philippine revolution was not over yet. The most Aguinaldo could accomplish was to proclaim the Filipino aspiration for a government that was independent and free from Spanish control, except this aspiration or desire to be an independent state was already expressed two years earlier after members of the Katipunan, led by Andres Bonifacio, declared a nationwide armed revolution to win freedom from Spain.
If we have to critically study the origin of an independent and sovereign Philippines, albeit aspirational, we can trace the embryonic idea to the formation of the Katipunan in 1892 when a small group of patriotic Filipinos decided to found a society dedicated to the objective of securing separation and independence from Spain. The Katipunan was founded right after Jose Rizal was arrested on July 7, 1892 by Spanish authorities and ordered to be banished to Dapitan. But it was four years later on August 24, 1896, under the threat of discovery by the Spanish civil authorities that the Katipunan would finally declare its decision to wage a national armed revolution against Spain.
The Katipunan did not just declare its intention to fight Spain but it also established a national government with elected officials who would lead the nation and the army. There was no holding back the revolution. The Spanish secret police already knew of the dangerous clandestine Katipunan and the Spanish civil authorities had been warned by the clergy of the grave danger the society posed to the Spanish community. Governor-General Ramon Blanco made up his mind to order the “juez de cuchillo” or total annihilation of the Filipino population in identified areas of the uprising. Some, like Rizal, balked at the idea of the timing of the revolution, but to many, the time had come.
It was clear to Bonifacio and the members of the Katipunan that they were waging a national struggle. The Spanish historian Manuel Sastron described the revolution as a “rebellion of the Tagalogs against Spanish domination,” although it was clear that the 1896 revolution was a national endeavour. The term “Tagalog” referred to all persons born in the archipelago, whether Bisayan, Ilocano, Pampango, etc. Thus, the Tagalog nation or Katagalugan, consisted not only of Tagalog speakers but also included those who grew up in the Philippines, regardless of their ethnolingusitic classification and ancestry. At the time, the term “Filipino” applied solely to Spaniards born in the archipelago while “Tagalog” applied to all indios or natives.
From the declaration of war of independence on August 24, 1896, the Katipunan became an open de facto government. It had its own laws, bureaucratic structure and an elective leadership. As a matter of historical fact, it was the first Filipino national government. That was the conclusion made by John R.M. Taylor, the American military historian and custodian of the Philippine Insurgent Records. Most Filipino historians also agreed that the Katipunan was more than a secret revolutionary society and that Bonifacio intended to have the Katipunan govern the whole Philippines after the overthrow of Spanish rule.
How is the Katipunan’s open declaration of war against Spain any different from Aguinaldo’s proclamation of independence almost two years later on June 12, 1898? Both may be considered aspirational and did not accomplish the objective of a free and sovereign nation, but Bonifacio’s Katipunan was the first act declaring a national struggle and it paved the road to liberation from Spain, although independence was never achieved because the hopes of the Filipino people were quashed by the new colonial masters from America.
After the hostilities during the Filipino-American war ended in 1902 and the United States established its colonial foothold in the archipelago, Muslims in the south never wavered in their struggle for independence from the central government which continues until today. Despite grant of limited self-autonomy to Muslim-dominated provinces in Mindanao, the struggle for liberation goes on for the Muslim inhabitants of the south. Arguably, the same can be said about the Communist Party of the Philippines and the New People’s Army which have persevered in their struggle for national democracy despite the powerful presence of the United States’ military through the Visiting Forces Agreement.
The question therefore is not whether we have achieved independence as a nation through the revolution of 1896, or whether the struggle for real independence continues because hostilities between government’s soldiers and the local insurgents and Muslim rebels have not ceased.
If we accept that all we have accomplished is merely an aspiration to become an independent and sovereign state, isn’t it right that we observe our celebration of independence by making it historically correct? We may not have to call it “Independence Day” if this shocks or bothers our conscience. We can always call it our “National Day” instead. But we must abide by events in our history and the struggles of the Katipunan if the 1896 Philippine Revolution has to have any worth at all. We can begin by recognizing Andres Bonifacio not only as the founder of the Katipunan and leader of the revolution of 1896, but as the first Filipino president, the father of our nation and founder of our democracy.
But then Bonifacio was regarded by those who would proclaim heroes—members of the educated and landed elite in Philippine society—as a mere lowly worker, uneducated and probably illiterate by the standards of our education system today, whereas Aguinaldo was a member of the ilustrado, educated, and also from the landed class. It’s up to us to honour our historical roots correctly, and it is not necessary that we wage another revolution or a civil war to settle this issue.