Ilustrados Philippine Nationalism Essay

“Colonies do not cease to be colonies because they are independent” – Benjamin Disraeli, British Prime Minister (1804-1881)


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Hi All,

Below is one of the many excellent articles written during the early 1980s by Leticia Constantino, wife of the great Filipino nationalist of recent history - the late Renato Constantino. 

A collection of these concise essays, in several (8?) slim volumes, designed to help understand important national issues and developments was published, and as a teacher's aid to developing a nationalist education, under the title"Issues Without Tears", extremely useful to those who have no time nor patience to read books or scholarly treatises, as Mrs. Constantino explained. Hopefully the books are still available in Philippine bookstores. I highly recommend buying them.

- Bert

- Mrs. Leticia R. Constantino

Nationalism has had a long history in our country. In our struggle for freedom, there have been periods when strong nationalist feelings fired our people to action and other periods when nationalism seemed to be forgotten. Not only did nationalism as a sentiment have its peaks and valleys, nationalism as a political concept has been espoused at one time or another by different sectors of society which projected particular nationalist goals as their own interests and historical circumstances demanded.

The ilustrados who led the Propaganda Movement were expressing the nationalist goals of the Filipino elite when they demanded reforms which would give them participation in political rule and a greater share in economic benefits. The people, led by Bonifacio, went further than the ilustrados. They demonstrated the highest nationalist fervor when they spontaneously heeded the call of the Katipunan and fought an anti-colonial revolution against Spain. They had practically won their freedom when they were confronted by a new colonizer.

Nationalism again sustained the people in their fierce resistance to American rule. Many from among the masses fought for a decade more, even as most of the ilustrado leaders changed sides and collaborated with the enemy. Their goal, their ideal was independence. They equated independence with a better life, and rightly so, although they had no clear idea of the economic dimensions of the independent society they aspired for beyond the immediate demand for land to the tillers.

Nationalism at that time was mass nationalism. It was clearly anti-colonial; its dominant goal was political independence.

American colonial policy suppressed Philippine nationalism by military campaigns against resistance groups - the members of which is branded as brigands and outlaws –and by the Sedition Law (1901) which imposed the death penalty or a long prison term on anyone who advocated independence from the United States even by peaceful means. The Flag Law (1907) prohibited the display of the Philippine flag, that symbol of Filipino nationalism, from 1907 to 1919.

As for Andres Bonifacio, the leader of the anti-colonial struggle, it was only in 1921, when Senator Lope K. Santos authored a law making his birthday a national holiday, that he was recognized as a national hero. On the other hand, with Governor Taft’s approval, Rizal has been proclaimed a national hero as early as 1901.

The American administration gave every assistance to this recognition because, in the words of Governor-General W. Cameron Forbes, “Rizal never advocated independence, nor did he advocate armed resistance to the government. He urged reform from within by publicity, by public education, and appeal to the public conscience.” Rizal became the symbol of "safe" patriotism. (my quotation marks - Bert)

American public policy further undermined Filipino nationalism through the educational system which imposed the English language as a medium of instruction, projected American society and culture as models to be emulated, omitted all mention of Filipino resistance to American conquest and the cruel suppression of that resistance, inculcated the idea that Filipinos must undergo tutelage in self-government to deserve independence, and presented the United States as our generous benefactor.

Although the beneficiaries of American education began to imbibe American values and culture and to like American consumer goods, the majority of Filipinos remained faithful to the ideal of independence. Politicians therefore had to declare in campaign speeches that they would work for “immediate, complete and absolute independence”, in order to get the people’s votes. But this independence was now to be requested from the colonizer who had promised to grant it in due time.

Actually, the major political leaders, representing as they did the landlord class which grew rich on the export-crop economy dependent on the US market, had become afraid of the economic difficulties independence would bring. Hence, there were instances when leaders of the independence Missions themselves privately requested American officials to postpone the grant of independence preferring instead greater autonomy, that is, more political power from themselves.

Manuel L. Quezon himself had worked secretly against the Jones Bill. Because they had acquiesced to the growth of a dependent economy, these leaders could not very well explain the economic realities to the people nor could they espouse economic independence since they were the beneficiaries of economic dependence. Independence therefore remained a political goal.

Nationalism as anti-colonialism was raised to new heights of necessity by the brutal Japanese occupation. Ironically enough, this hatred for one colonizer only increased the longing for the return of the other colonizer and our blind faith in his promises. 

While an aroused nationalism and a healthy suspicion made most Filipinos see the sham independence by Japan and correctly appraise Japan’s exploitative designs on our economy and natural resources, we failed to recognize very similar policies and objectives when these came from our American friends.

When our “liberators” demanded that we accord American citizens the same rights as Filipinos, when they asked for military and naval bases on our soil, not enough Filipinos objected. We did not see these as derogations of the sovereignty we had just regained. Our nationalist aspirations were satisfied with flag independence.The economic dimensions of nationalism were not yet clearly within the perspective of the majority.

Soon, however, economic problems arising from the re-imposition of free trade and the renewed domination of our economy by foreign, mostly American, corporations would make more Filipinos realize that the task of nationalism did not end with the attainment of political independence

In fact, American interventions in our internal affairs and American influence on our foreign policy made thinking Filipinos doubt that we were even politically independent. The subservience of the Philippine government to American dictates was most obvious under our most pro-American, and indeed, American-made president,Ramon Magsaysay.

Almost single-handedly,Senator Claro M. Rectoespoused the nationalist causes against Magsaysay’s pro-Americanism. He said that US-bases made a mockery of our independence and would expose us to nuclear annihilation; he advocated an independent foreign policy. Above all, he projected the economic aspect of nationalism, opposed the granting of special incentives to attract foreign investments and instead advocated nationalist industrialization. On the last point, he had the concurrence ofPresident Carlos P. Garcia and of Filipino businessmen who supported Garcia’s “Filipino First” policy.

Although the nationalism of these Filipino entrepreneurs was based on their narrow economic interests (they wanted the government to protect them against foreign competition and to give them preference in dollar allocations), Filipino First as a nationalist slogan inspired other sectors to voice out nationalist demands in their particular fields. Educators, for example, asked for freedom to design a pattern of education more responsive to Filipino needs.

Recto has raised the banner of economic nationalism, and clearly showed that the greatest obstacle to its realization is American imperialism, which acting in behalf of corporate giants, pressures weaker states to open their economies to penetration and control. His definition of nationalism is still valid today: “…a banner of freedom proclaiming the national interests of the people, to be protected and safeguarded by themselves so that the fruits of their efforts and the wealth derived from their God-given resources shall accrue to them and thus enable all of our people to rise above poverty and march on to prosperity, contentment and dignity.”
From this definition, we can deduce the major characteristics of Filipino nationalism for our time. 

Nationalism is defensive, protective. Nationalists believe that the resources of our country should be for the benefit of our people today and in the future. Since our economy is increasingly being dominated by foreign corporations with the active intervention in their behalf of their governments, nationalism is necessarily anti-imperialist. This means primarily, American and Japanese imperialism though it includes the operation of other advanced countries as well.

However, anti-imperialism is not racism. Nationalists are not anti-American or anti-Japanese; they are only against those policies of governments that harm the interests of the Filipino people, policies which these governments pressure our government to adopt.

For example, nationalists criticize the many incentives and privileges given to foreign corporations which take over areas of the economy that could well be handled by Filipino businessmen if our government gave them preference and protection. Whereas Filipino businessmen would have no reason to remit their profits abroad, foreign corporations are guaranteed by our government the privilege of remitting their entire profits in dollars. Thus, a large part of the dollar earnings of our exports only goes to finance these profit remittances.

A second example: nationalists criticize export orientation which satisfy the needs of others rather than those of our own people. We export our best fish and shrimps to Japan and import their canned mackerel. Our best fruits are for export. Meanwhile, 77% of Filipino children between the ages of one and four are suffering from malnutrition.

The nationalist goal is the welfare of the Filipino masses; therefore the second major quality of nationalism is its mass character. Our people themselves must protect and advance their own interests. Nationalism should no longer serve the interest of one or another sector as in the past. Mass nationalism is therefore democratic; it believes in the greatest possible participation of the people in the determination of policy, particularly in the re-orientation of our development program. Corollary goals of mass-based nationalism are a more equitable distribution of economic resources and a just and humane society.

Nationalism does not advocate economic, political, scientific or cultural isolation. It is not anti-development; it does not long to return to an idealized past. Nationalism believes that our people deserve all the ease and comfort, good health, and access to the best products of man’s intellect and artistic spirit that the highest achievements of modern science and art can provide. For this reason, nationalism believes in economic, political, scientific and cultural exchanges with other countries but it will be careful and selective, always placing priority on the needs and welfare of the Filipino people.

As a national ideology, nationalism must permeate every aspect of Philippine life. We have been witnessing in past years heightened interest in ethnic culture as well as local music and art. These are manifestations of cultural nationalism. However, if this new sense of cultural identity is not integrated with economic and political nationalism and instead is used to divert our attention from growing foreign control of our economy, then this cultural development is a disservice to our people.

Nationalism demands both economic and political independence. It resists and condemns foreign intervention in our internal affairs as well as in the conduct of our foreign policy. The US bases are an unwarranted derogation of our sovereignty and should be dismantles. In the field of education, the use of our national language vas the medium of instruction is a primary nationalist demand. Instruction is always more effective in the national language. This should not be taken as hostility to English or any other foreign language. They should be learned as a foreign language because that is what they are.

It is a measure of our colonial mentality that we are more interested in understanding and being understood by foreigners than we are in developing an efficient medium for internal communication. The multiplicity of Philippine language is often advanced as an argument by those who have favor for English. Let us not forget that these are sister languages and therefore mastery of Pilipino is infinitely easier for a Visayan or a Pampango than mastery of English, if only there were no psychological roadblocks arising from colonial conditioning. We must not equate good education with proficiency in English.

Education can be a powerful weapon in propagating nationalism. A nationalist education would place great importance on the teaching of Philippine history from the point of view of the Filipino people. This will develop an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist orientation based on our historical experience as a people. Such a history should clarify how, why, and for whose benefit our people have been exploited and oppressed. 

A nationalist education would also emphasize a critical study of the Philippine economy so that as a people we will learn to be wary of economic programs proposed by foreign governments and institutions. Moreover, we should know how the world capitalist system operates so we will understand in what way economic development will affect our people. In history as in economics, we must use only one yardstick. We must judge past events and present developments in terms of whether or not they served or will serve the best interests of the people.

The Filipino people have the right to decide what kind of society they want, what is best for them. They should strive to have the fullest political and economic independence to chart their own future. This is the essence of nationalism.

Source: Issues Without Tears, A Layman's Manual of Current Issues, Volume II (1984),
Teacher Assistance Program (TAP) - Leticia R. Constantino, Director

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Hi All,

The below link will show a short list of my past posts (out of 540 posts so far) which I consider as basic topics about us native (indio)/ Malay Filipinos. This link/listing, which may later expand, will always be presented at the bottom of each future post.  Just point-and-click at each listed item to open and read. 

Thank you for reading and sharing with others, especially those in our homeland.

- Bert



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Upang maitindig natin ang bantayog ng ating lipunan, kailangang radikal nating baguhin hindi lamang ang ating mga institusyon kundi maging ang ating pag-iisip at pamumuhay. Kailangan ang rebolusyon, hindi lamang sa panlabas, kundi lalo na sa panloob!"--Apolinario Mabini La Revolucion Filipina (1898)

"We shall be better and braver and less helpless if we think that we ought to enquire, than we should have been if we indulged in the idle fancy that there was no knowing and no use in seeking to know what we do not know..." - SOCRATES"

“Nations whose NATIONALISM is destroyed are subject to ruin.” - Colonel Muhammar Qaddafi, 1942-, Libyan Political and Military Leader

What are we to make of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte? The Sydney Morning Herald had no doubt, introducing his overwhelming electoral victory this way:

A foul-mouthed anti-establishment outsider has been elected president of the Philippines in an extraordinary political upset that will return the island-nation to authoritarian rule 30 years after a popular uprising ousted the dictator Ferdinand Marcos.

Later in the article it explained:

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The victory has rattled powerful dynastic families who have ruled the country for decades and alarmed diplomats who fear the foreign policy novice could upend diplomatic efforts to ease tensions over China’s aggressive claim to the South China Sea.

Unexplained, however, is how “30 years after a popular uprising ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos” the Philippines has somehow still managed to been ruled (“for decades”) by “powerful dynastic families,” now “rattled” at the result of a popular election. And just as unexplained is what (and whose) “diplomatic efforts to ease tensions over China’s aggressive claim to the South Sea” are threatened by “the foreign policy novice.”

This confusion and ideological bias may reveal a lot about the forces Duterte confronts, but it tells us little, if anything about Duterte himself, and his political ambitions. In this article we will try and do better.

The place to start, as with so much in the Philippines, is with the United States and notoriously this is where Duterte did begin. In a long speech before traveling to the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Laos, Duterte warned of U.S. criticism of his policies with these words, addressed to U.S. President Barack Obama:

You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum.

In fact, it seems, as Duterte later claimed, that he was not referring to Obama, but to an annoying interviewer (the video seems to confirm this), and nor was he calling anyone a “whore” (in his native Bisaya ‘putangina’ is used as a general expletive, better translated as ‘screw it’ rather than a pointed slur). But as the full speech shows (a speech almost entirely absent from subsequent international reporting), Duterte certainly did criticize the United States’ place in Philippine history, angrily condemning the colonial abuses perpetrated by the U.S. against Filipinos. Prominently featured in this was the Bud Dajo massacre, and more generally the brutal pacification campaign the U.S. military waged against the Moro people.

We believe that looking closely at Duterte’s critique of U.S. colonial history in the Philippines helps us to better understand what it is he is up to – and, just as important, what he is not up to. For what he says is true, but crucially, not all the truth.

The Origins of the Philippine State and Historical Revisionism

The United States conquered the Philippines in the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. To make a long and complex story very short, in the final decade of the 19th century, some of the last remaining overseas colonies of Spain rebelled. The emerging nationalist movement of the Philippines waged a successful war of independence, into which the United States, engaged in hostilities with Spain over other matters, intervened in 1898. Instead of granting independence to the Philippines (along with Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Guam), Spain ceded these possessions to the United States. The term “Philippine Revolution” for the anti-Spanish rebellion fits nicely with sanitized national narratives of the kind invoked by Duterte in his speech, but it hides important class, geographic and ethno-linguistic cleavages.

First, and from the outset, the revolution was divided along class lines, its two major factions roughly representing the principally reformist upper- and upper-middle classes (the urban intelligentsia known as ilustrados, landowners, and early capitalist entrepreneurs), and the more revolutionary middle- and lower classes. Hinting at what would characterize Philippine politics since, the reformist faction sought concessions from Spain, collaborated early on with the Americans, and eventually had the leader of the opposing faction executed. When it turned out that the Americans came as conquerors, not liberators, the ilustrado and upper-class leaders mounted a short-lived resistance, but soon surrendered, preferring to become part of the new comprador ruling establishment to continuing the struggle for independence. (At the end of the struggle, President Emilio Aguinaldo’s secretary of foreign affairs, Felipe Buencamino, had this to say: “I am American, and all the money in the Philippines, the air, the light, and the sun I consider American.”)

Second, the revolution was not exactly Filipino. The Spanish refer to the war as the Tagalog war, as it was concentrated in the Tagalog areas–the eight provinces surrounding Manila and a few minor centers elsewhere in the country. Apart from a handful of outposts along the coasts, Mindanao was free from Spanish rule at this time, and many upland areas remained unpenetrated by Europeans.

These fault lines matter because it was the ilustrados and the economic elite who eventually built the Philippine state Duterte currently governs. For much of the 333 years of its dominion, Spain was unable to extend its territorial control to the entirety of the archipelago, lacking the military and institutional capacity to do so. Too few Spaniards had an interest in moving to a country where the prospects of becoming rich fast were bleak. Instead, state power was deputized to Catholic friars. In contrast with the Spanish, the American colonial authorities conquered the entire archipelago and quickly set out to create a functioning modern state so as to facilitate the economics of resource extraction and to ensure U.S. strategic domination of the South China Sea.

This economic and strategic logic was compounded by the American version of colonial mission civilisatrice: to make the Philippines into an American-style democracy. The rapid consolidation of a domestic landholding class and the very early introduction of elections, combined with a restrictive franchise which allowed less than 1.5 percent of the total population to vote, saw the consolidation of an oligarchic patrimonial elite. This oligarchic elite, created and enabled by American colonial authorities, built the state and geared it towards their own patrimonial and comprador interests. Just as the Americans reinforced and enabled the elite in Manila, they also reshaped the elites of Mindanao, hand-picking local leaders from among the willing segments of the traditional royal families as well as Christian settlers, sending their sons to colleges in the U.S. and later placing them in key positions.

It was this local elite who gained most from the American conquest of Mindanao and were among its primary drivers. Thus while Duterte may be right about the generally baneful U.S. influence on Philippine politics, he is not right when he paints a homogenous picture of Filipinos as the victims of American oppression. While there was plenty of victimization, not all were equally victimized, and not only Americans were the victimizers. In fact, in 1924, Moro leaders, while wanting more than anything, independence, preferred in its absence that they be an “unorganized” U.S. colony, and in 1935 requested that they be given independence separately, rather than forced into a Philippine polity dominated by the Christian parts of the Philippines.

In fact, one of the major grievances of Moros had long been the U.S. colonial government-organized settlement of Christian Filipinos from Luzon and Visayas (‘Homesteading’), dramatically changing the demography of Mindanao, encouraging land-grabbing, and generally the marginalization of Muslims and indigenous people. This policy did not cease with colonialism — later governments of the independent Philippines often intensified it, either to release demographic pressures in Luzon and the Visayas or to change the ethnic composition of Mindanao.

These injustices led to a series of insurgencies which have tormented Mindanao since 1969. When the insurgency broke out, it signaled the rejection of not only “Imperial Manila” but the particular arrangements between the Philippine state and the Moro elite through which it projected its power into Mindanao. In this sense, it challenged the Philippine state, perceived as Christian-assimilationist, oppressive, and exploitative, as well as certain segments of the incumbent Moro elite.

Duterte is not a Moro. He is from the Christian Filipino upper class. His family came originally from the island of Cebu in the Visayas region, and his greatest support lies there as well as in Mindanao. Duterte’s sanitized, simplified image of the past also glosses over more recent massacres committed against Moro people under the dictatorship of President Marcos, an ally of his father’s, and whose son, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, is an ally of his.

Building a nation?

Duterte speaks the truth about U.S. colonialism, but not the whole truth. He speaks truly about U.S. colonialism and “the Philippines,” but he is not openly truthful about “the Philippines,” ignoring or glossing over important class, geographic and ethno-linguistic cleavages that lie beneath its politics of patrimonial elitism. 

One reason for the latter is, as we have seen, that he and his family are from that class itself. But this cannot be all there is to it, for his predecessors (even his immediate predecessor President Benigno Aquino III, who himself attempted, as Duterte is now, to negotiate a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front) steered very clear of any overt criticism of the United States’ historical and continuing role in shaping Philippine politics. It is not only the elite: nowhere in the world does the United States enjoy as high popular support as in the Philippines.

Why has he broken with this convention? 

The fundamental reason would seem to be the conviction that the Philippine state cannot purge itself of systematic traditions of patrimonial corruption unless it does so from the foundations of a perceived and universally shared Philippine national identity. And such a shared identity, in a land of many identities, demands a single, us-versus-them, narrative foundation of the kind his simplified history of U.S. colonialism implies.

In this context his drawing of outraged Philippine attention to the U.S. massacre of the Moro people at the battle of Bud Dajo is a key move. First, in acknowledging grievances (though only by generalizing them as not only Moro, but Filipino), and second, through this generalizing, in reframing the official national mythology. For the Moro people, it is a rare public recognition of historical grievances by a Philippine president. For the leftist movement, it is an acknowledgement of their historical narrative: that the plight of the Filipino poor is due to the domination of a neo-colonial comprador bourgeoisie beholden to and kept in power by American interests.

“Nation-building” is so common a trope in public parlance in the Philippines that it is almost meaningless. It has also proved elusive, not the least because of the difficulty of weaving a common narrative in such a diverse political community riven with so many fault lines of language, culture, ethnicity, geography, and class. But it is, we suggest, entirely plausible that this is what Duterte’s actions amount to, even if it is impossible to be sure with what clarity, if any, he understands that this is what they do.

Consider too that Philippine political scientists often talk about mayors as a special breed of politician: down-to-earth, aware of limitations, and pragmatic. With over two successful decades in municipal politics, these are the traits Duterte’s behavior manifests. Drugs are a problem in the Philippines. What is the most direct way of dealing with it? Kill drug pushers and users. Is it feasible? Yes. Let us do it. China is encroaching on Philippine maritime territory. Is it possible to repel China? No. Let us deal with China, then. The insurgencies are a fundamental challenge to the state and a major loss of treasure and life. Can they be defeated? No. Let us negotiate peace with them. All these are part of what add up to an effective nation-building project, perhaps not planned, but playing out so. The insurgencies are the capstone of this. President Aquino had tried to stir up nationalism against China and not without success, but it was not an issue the Moro people or the rural poor were interested in getting behind. He succeeded in signing a peace agreement with the MILF but that was sabotaged in the legislature, by among others, Senators Alan Peter Cayetano and Bongbong Marcos, Duterte’s running mate and ally.

His obsession with drugs and more broadly (petty) criminality might be based on personal conviction but it struck a chord. He was able to thematize it and create a platform that apparently all socioeconomic classes can share. By changing the national narrative as he appears to be doing, he might be able to bring those two other key segments, which have never really fit in: the Muslims of Mindanao and the revolutionary left.

However, much that great scholar of Southeast Asian nationalism, Benedict Anderson, would have disapproved of his penchant for brutal methods, it may be that Duterte sees himself (if only through a glass dimly) as, in his strongman way, constructing “an imagined political community,” a Philippine nationalism “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

Certainly this would explain his difference-denying account of Philippine political history, and his determination to set that story against the colonial sovereign authority of the United States, just as it fits with his us (good filipinos) versus them (drug dealers) narrative, and his assertion of Philippine autonomy in foreign affairs.

Whether this is a good way to build a nation is another question.

Balázs Áron Kovács is a PhD candidate in Peace Studies/Politics and International Studies at the University of New England, Australia. His thesis titled ‘Peace Infrastructures and State-building at the Margins in a Philippine Province’ is under examiners’ review. Earlier he taught at United Nations-mandated University for Peace in Costa Rica and the Philippines and worked at Freedom House Europe in Hungary.

Tony Lynch is is a senior lecturer at The University of New England in Australia. Tony’s research interests centre on questions of liberal and environmental politics, the philosophy of economics and moral psychology. Tony has published two co-authored books, eight book chapters, and over thirty journal articles.


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