Shaky Independence

Today is June 12, Independence Day. But is it?

Celebrating Independence Day means that we had earned our independence from foreign domination. For Filipinos, it can mean only winning our independence from Spain, the United States, and from Japan. Before Spain, there were tribes and, even sultanates, but no nation, not yet. More than three centuries under Spain, however, gave the natives of the thousands of islands a clearer idea of the territorial oneness of our motherland.

Independence was declared on June 12, 1898, in Kawit, Cavite. It was more intention than fact, however, as Aguinaldo and his forces never won the war against Spain. No Spanish forces ever surrendered to the Tagalog rebels.

In the Visayas, however, things were a little different. Rebels from Negros and Panay did defeat the Spanish forces in their islands, forcing the enemy to formally surrender. Other rebellions in the region also registered different levels of success, so much so that the Republic of the Visayas was established, proudly and pointedly independent of their Tagalog counterparts.

But independence could not be sustained. One by one, Filipino forces were defeated by the invading US forces. The annexation of the Philippines by the United States was not by the pieces of silver paid by America to Spain but by the brutal suppression of Filipino warriors who resisted American rule.

It would seem, then, that the independence declared in June of 1898 was more a deep wish rather than a reality. At most, it would seem we enjoyed independence selectively according to the military successes of some islands, but never nationally, except in rhetoric.

Independence was once again declared in July 4, 1946, when the United States relinquished formal control of the Philippines. There are many versions as to why the United States gave us independence. Suffice it to say, the subject was debated on in the US Congress intermittently for 30 years until it was formally done so July of 1946.

Because independence was an act of the US Congress rather than the fruit of a successful war against the foreign master, and because July 1946 was just after a hard-fought war where Filipinos and Americans fought side by side, many Filipinos were not prepared for a total separation from American governance. In 1946, the greatest hero of the Philippines was Douglas MacArthur and not any Filipino. America, too, did not seem too enthusiastic to let go, especially of the economic advantages. WWII disturbed the smooth transition towards independence, operationally and psychologically.

It was not easy for many Filipinos to adopt to independence because they had been used to dependence. Yes, freedom is a fundamental desire of the human heart, but dependence can be a dependable comfort zone. We often hear today the phrase “no dole-out” referring to efforts to help the poor. The decision-makers who made the “no dole-out” principle a most popular one forgot that they were responsible for keeping a people dependent.

The poor, too, are not the only ones who became dependent on the United States. Even the leaders of the government and business lf the Philippines looked and sounded very much like their bigger and richer counterparts. To the eyes of many, Filipinos were more American than Americans. I am still so amazed that, as a Filipino student in the 50’s and 60’s, I learned about American history earlier than Philippine history.

Our economic dependency has prevented both the Filipino people and government from gaining fuller independence. Choosing political and religious freedom over economic freedom has kept us overly active in the former and lethargic in the latter. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew chose otherwise, kept a tight rein over political and religious freedom as he sought to bring economic prosperity to his people. Many Filipinos keep using Lee Kwan Yew as an example of what leadership is but keep mum about giving up our political and religious freedom subordinate to the pursuit of economic freedom.

Now that the last few years have witnessed a very active and strong economic performance by the Philippines, it would seem that, albeit late, we are on our way to economic freedom. Defeating poverty would put us in a state of independence, real independence. We may still be dependent on our OFWs but that is part of nation building, Filipinos making the sacrifices to build a strong nation. At least, it is about Filipinos depending on one another rather than Filipinos depending on foreign people and governments.

Except that China looms darkly in the horizon. A belligerent China is factor enough to neutralize all the economic gains we have made. A China ready to go to war over control of our islands, our oil and gas beneath the disputed territories, sea lanes and air space over the whole South China Sea, this kind of China can stop all progress in an instant and demand our own readiness to go on war footing. Without the cover of the United States, now feeling threatened as well by China’s expansionist moves, we would have to suffer the loss of any island or reef that China wants to grab. Or suffer a military defeat, maybe our own freedom and independence, if we react with pride and fury.

Independence is earned, not granted. Seventy years of a hollow independence gave much to a few but kept the many weak and still so dependent. When push comes to shove, the few rich can fly out of the country and live elsewhere. Most of us, however, from the less rich to the very poor, will go through experiencing a delicate moment in our history. Whatever the outcome, we must shed the shaky independence we have and earn, by sweat and blood, the kind of freedom and independence worth having.

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