Philippines basic facts

A (very) brief history of the Philippines

Prior to colonisation by Spain, the Philippines archipelago was peopled by independent self-sufficient indigenous communities. The islands benefited from sitting astride the busy maritime trading networks of South East Asia, between the Chinese empire in the north and the rising power of Islam coming from the west.

But it was an invasion from across the Pacific by Spanish conquistadors in the sixteenth century that brought the Philippines (now named after the King of Spain) under colonial domination that lasted for nearly four hundred years. The Philippines was the only Asian country within the Spanish Empire but, as with their colonies elsewhere, the Spanish set about hispanising the indigenous cultures.  Their religious orders imposed the Roman Catholic religion in most of the country though they failed to displace Islam in the south.

Agriculture was re-oriented to feed the colonists, and attempts were made (largely unsuccessful) to mine gold. Later, new cash crops such as tobacco and sugar were introduced. But the Spanish concluded that the main profit to be made was through trade with China, with silks and other Chinese goods taken across the Pacific to Mexico and Mexican silver brought back on the return run. A brutal forced labour system cutting timber and constructing ships maintained the Spanish sea power needed to defend its island outpost and maintain its vital sea links with Mexico. Spanish rule was interrupted only by the brief occupation of Manila by the British for 20 months in 1762-4 during the Seven Years War.

In the nineteenth century, nationalist rebellions swept across Spain’s decaying empire. In the Philippines, an armed uprising was launched out in 1896 and within two years the rebel army had more or less brought the Spanish to their knees. However, Spain was also in a war with the United States which sought to replace Spain in both Cuba and the Philippines. Rather than surrender to the Filipino rebels, who had already declared independence, the Spanish signed over the country to the US after a mock battle to save Spanish honour. There followed a further three years of even bloodier conflict between the Filipino forces and the US army in which more than 20,000 Filipino combatants were killed and a further 200,000 civilians died, many after being herded into US-run concentration camps set up by the US army.

The US claimed to be bringing a more enlightened form of imperialism (Kipling’s phrasUS-rune “the white man’s burden” referred to the Philippines). They actually brought mining engineers and machinery to extract gold on an industrial scale, and protestant missionaries to pacify the remoter lands where the gold lay under the mountains. The Catholic church and the feudal-style landlords that had controlled the country under Spain were left in place to continue the job.

The Philippines acted as a US military outpost protecting its Pacific flank but it fell spectacularly to Japanese attack in World War II and was only retaken in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war. More than 250,000 Filipino civilians died in the Battle of Manila alone.

After the allied victory, a new tide of pressure for independence arose in lands governed by the old imperial powers. In the Philippines, the main armed resistance to the Japanese, the communist Huk guerrillas, demanded independence from the US colonial power.

Before the start of the war, the US had been shifting to a new model of dominance. In a long and carefully managed process power was being handed over to the wealthy Filipino landowning families who had always collaborated with their colonial masters, Spanish, Japanese or American. After the war, US forces hunted down the Huk fighters who opposed their neo-colonial model. This model operated on the understanding that the US would support the traditional elite to stay in power (albeit with a faint veneer of democracy) while they in their turn would protect American investments and allow a strong US military presence to remain inside the country.

This mutually beneficial arrangement has remained largely intact to this day. Government in the Philippines is still in the hands of a small group of political dynasties to the extent that the country – even now lacking meaningful land reform – is largely characterised as “semi-feudal”. US military power has never left the Philippines. US bases in the Philippines were their largest facilities outside of the US mainland until the 1990s. The Philippines acted as a major supply base for the Vietnam war and, along with South Korea, acted as a US far eastern outpost in the Cold War.

The US gave an example of its capacity and readiness to bolster the rulers who served its interests when it first propped up the Marcos dictatorship and then – after a massive popular progressive movement rose to get rid of him – managed his deft replacement by another “safe” traditional political dynasty. Progressive opposition to these corrupt wealthy elites has never died down despite years of repression, torture and killings. And in the mountains and forests for over sixty years a new guerrilla force, the New People’s Army, has continued to wage Asia’s longest-running armed rebellion.

Today, with its proximity to China, the Philippines remains a location strategic to US interests. Its rich mineral and agricultural resources continue to be extracted by foreign business,  transnational companies have been invited to set up their factories in special export zones where workers’ rights are suppressed, and Filipino labour is exported to work in hospitals, care homes, and shipping around the world (Filipinos make up the largest group of foreign nurses in the UK’s NHS).

The US continues to support successive corrupt and repressive governments with military assistance, funding, training, and hardware, without even a pause during the time that the country’s president faces investigation by the International Criminal Court over thousands of extra-judicial killings.