The Philippines were a British colony

No trust in institutions

Colonization created the Philippines and shapes the political culture of the archipelago to this day. 333 years under Spanish and almost five decades under US rule have left their mark.

The Philippines have a unique history: they have been colonized four times. In the 18th century, the British expelled the Spaniards and ruled the islands for a few years. The Japanese occupied the country during World War II.

The Spaniards and Americans have left the deepest marks. According to historian Serafin Quiason (1998), "the pattern of culture and poverty, dependency and underdevelopment is deeply rooted in Spanish and American colonial politics and practices". The Spanish colonial era prepared the ground for the enormous current problems facing the Philippines:

  • an irresponsible, abusive elite,
  • massive corruption,
  • a dysfunctional system of government,
  • great social inequality and
  • a Catholic Church with theocratic features that interferes everywhere.

In the early 20th century, Americans introduced capitalism and formal elections, made some marginal reforms, and named the country a "democracy."

When a Spanish expedition arrived from Mexico in 1565, the Philippines were not a cohesive unit: different tribes and ethnic groups lived in small settlements ("Barangay") and spoke different languages ​​on the many islands. In the south there were Islamic missionaries who, because of the Spaniards, no longer penetrated the country. The conquerors imposed the Catholic faith on the locals, defined the borders and named the colony after their king, Philip II.

Until then, tribal leaders had ruled the barangays. A history book (Cortes et al., 2000) describes this system as “pre-political” because it was “informal, popular, not centralized and without specific responsibilities”. No distinction was made between family and community. The authority of the leaders was nourished by kinship, submission, respect and dependence.

A few hundred Spaniards easily conquered much of the archipelago. It was more difficult on the southern island of Mindanao, where Islam had taken root. Colonial power flourished not least thanks to the disagreement of the locals.

The Spaniards introduced Catholic dogma and worship, a central government with bureaucracy, and Roman law. The Philippines were divided into provinces, over which monks from various religious orders watched.

In addition, the conquerors based their empire on what already existed before the Spaniards: They turned cooperative tribal chiefs into village officials and favored their families and clans. They soon formed their own, self-sustaining oligarchy, the "principalia". Under Spanish rule, “elections” were only about positions in the village - members of the elite always voted for one another.

Locals were not allowed to call themselves "Filipinos", this was reserved for the Spaniards born in the colony. For centuries the dark-skinned locals were scornfully called "Indians".

The Spaniards did not want the Indians to learn their language. The friars, on the other hand, spoke the languages ​​of the locals in order to be able to convert them. According to the political scientist Benedict Anderson (2007), thanks to their special language skills, they had “power like no other secular group”. This was clear to the monks and they “opposed the spread of the Spanish language”. Spanish became the language of power understood only by the colonial rulers and part of the local elite.

Under Spain, the Philippines became the only Christian country in East Asia. However, the local Catholic faith was not pure. The Spanish missionaries did away with open animistic practices, but the traditional belief in spirits and magic remained and merged with Catholic teaching into a popular religion. In this respect, the Philippines resemble the countries of Latin America more than other countries in Asia. While the country was ruled from Mexico for 200 years, the Philippines were not part of the Hispanicized countries of Central and South America because Spanish never became their official language.

Over the centuries, the population learned that government, law and bureaucracy were for oppression, exploitation and abuse. There were also well-intentioned laws, but those affected never noticed, as even these laws were imposed. All laws were written in Spanish. The rulers conquered land, imposed taxes and even demanded forced labor. The monastic orders built feudal power structures - belief was used to control the locals. The Spanish official Sinibaldo de Mas stated in 1841: "A monk is worth more than a squadron of cavalry."

Meanwhile, the Indians learned from the principalia that blood is stronger than bureaucratic systems. Public office brought advantages to the leading families. The colonized never had reason to trust government institutions or formal Western law. Unfortunately, this has shaped Filipino politics to this day.


"50 years in Hollywood"

After 300 years and various uprisings, the Filipinos instigated the first revolution in Asia. In 1899, shortly before independence was achieved, the USA intervened as a new power - ostensibly to support the revolutionaries. The Americans drove the Spaniards out and involved their “little brown brothers” in a bloody war for over three years.

Little development had taken place in the three centuries under Spain, now the Filipinos under US rule experienced an almost explosive change. A common joke about the colonial era is: "300 years in the monastery and 50 years in Hollywood". Washington presented colonization as an act of “benevolent assimilation” with the goal of “national unity”. In fact, it was mostly for show.

The new colonial power promised to build an American-style republic. It promoted educational, hygiene and infrastructural measures. Laws and institutions should teach the Filipino leaders democracy. English became the official language and the people were officially encouraged to learn it. The school system was not expanded accordingly. To this day, English is the official language - but most Filipinos do not speak it. The laws have been written for more than 100 years and are as inaccessible to most citizens as the Spanish laws were before.

The Catholic Church has remained powerful and influential under US rule and has continued to meddle in worldly matters. Wealth and power remained in the hands of a few families. The Americans did not change anything in the socio-economic order, but instead involved the local elite so as not to provoke resistance. Like their Spanish predecessors, they were dependent on them.

The Americans also introduced popular elections; but these resulted in a kind of journey to Jerusalem for the ruling families. Land-owning oligarchs and warlords dominated locally and shared the proceeds nationally. Quiason says: "What developed was formally, but not substantially, a democracy." The dynasties used the country's institutions to become richer and more powerful. Politics served the interests of the clan.

American colonial rule officially ended in 1946. The Philippines nominally became a republic with weak democratic institutions. The population did not have a clear idea of ​​justice and freedom. In 1972, President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. His dictatorship lasted until 1986.

A particularly bad legacy of the American colonial era was the Philippine Constabulary (PC), a paramilitary police force. It was supposed to secure the peace and was a central part of the surveillance state for the control of Filipino nationalists, politicians and activists. After the Americans left, the blatant human rights violations continued. At the time of Marco, the PC stood for torture and murder.

With the end of martial law, the PC was abolished. Populist President Rodrigo Duterte wants to reintroduce them. He wants to rule in an authoritarian manner (see my article in E + Z / D + C e-Paper 2017/02, p. 24, and print edition 2017 / 03-04, p. 36). Filipino democracy is in bad shape. Unfortunately, the undemocratic attitudes that developed during the colonial era are likely to continue to have an effect.


Alan C. Robles is a freelance journalist and lives in Manila.
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Anderson, B., 2007: Under three flags - Colonialism and the anti-colonial imagination, New York, London: Verso.
Cortes, R. M., Boncan, C. P., and Jose, R. T., 2000: The Filipino saga - History as social change. Manila: New Day Publishers.
Kiernan, V. G., 1982: European empires from conquest to collapse 1815 to 1960. Leicester: University Press.
Quiason, S., 1998: The Philippines: a case of multiple colonial experiences. In: The Independent Review, pp. 29-37.