A Short History of Southeast Asia: Philippines


1998: Estrada elected President

1993: Royal Government of Cambodia

1992: Ramos elected President

1991-93: United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia [UNTAC]

1986: Marcos flees after army leaders support Cory Aquino who had won a snap election

1983: Benigno Aquino assassinated

1979: Vietnamese forces invade and take control from Khmer Rouge

1975-79: Democratic Kampuchea under control of Khmer Rouge

1972: President Marcos declares Martial Law

1970: Khmer Republic proclaimed

1955: Norodom Sihanouk elected and period of "Buddhist Socialism" begins

1953: Independence granted

1946-1972: Period of constitutional democracy similar to the United States

1946: Independence granted

1901: Agreement reached with United States establishing colonial rule

1870s: Nationalist movement born

1863: Treaty with France marks start of colonial period

1845: Thailand and Vietnam compromise and Cambodia pays homage to both countries

17th and 18th centuries: Repeated incursions by Thailand and Vietnam

Mid 16th century: Islam established in Mindanao and slowly spread north

16th century: Sparsely populated islands that were kinship and village based

1593: Thailand invades and Cambodia becomes part of the Kingdom of Ayudhya

1565: Spanish settlement on Cebu, moves headquarters to Manila in 1571

9th-14th centuries: Angkor Kingdom

3rd-7th centuries: Funan society covering southern Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam


In 1967 the Philippines joined Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore to form the Association of South East Asian countries – ASEAN. At the time, the Philippines was seen by many as a model of what its partners in ASEAN might become. It had a strong economy, a well educated English-speaking workforce, strong technical and managerial classes and an apparently thriving industrial sector. Within the Southeast Asian region it was favoured by foreign investors. Moreover, it was a parliamentary democracy with a vigorous press and a strong civil society, again pointing to what the rest of ASEAN might become. In 1994, just two and a half decades later, the Philippines economy has only slowly restarted after nearly a decade of regression. The Philippines has been left behind by its ASEAN neighbours. It now has a lower per capita income and has been shunned by foreign investors who have poured money into other countries in the region. For more than ten years the Philippines has experienced enormous social and political instability, including a civil war in the south and private armies almost everywhere else. If one characteristic of contemporary ASEAN countries is the presence of a strong state and a weak civil society then the Philippines is the major exception. It has a weak state and a fragmented society.

The Philippines is different from the rest of Southeast Asia in other ways. It shares with Indonesia and Malaysia a Malay ethnic base, its underlying animistic beliefs share much in common with other countries in the region and it has for many centuries been part of regional trading networks, albeit in a minor way. Yet unique among Southeast Asian countries it was unaffected by Hinduism or Buddhism. The Philippines today is a predominantly Christian country, with around 80% of the population being Catholic. The Spanish colonisers probably prevented the conversion of the islands to Islam, and only the southern islands of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago are Islamic. In another way it is also unique. The absence of Hindu and Buddhist influences meant that sophisticated concepts of the State and cosmologies which linked the temporal and the spiritual realms were lacking in the pre-colonial Philippines. There were no pre-colonial state structures, socially integrating ideologies or ‘great traditions’.

One important consequence is that contemporary Filipinos lack a concrete pre-colonial history from which they can draw inspiration and create national myths. There is nothing in the Philippines’ past remotely comparable to the ‘golden eras’ of Angkor in Cambodia, Pagan in Burma or Majapahit in Indonesia. There is only a pattern of regionalism under the control of local trading families and kinship networks.

Early History

We know little about the political, social or economic structures of the islands now known as the Philippines before the arrival of the Spanish in the mid-16th century. The islands were sparsely populated with largely kinship and village based political organisation. There were well established trading networks between the islands and linking the islands into wider regional networks in Southeast Asia and beyond to China and India. There were also some relatively large entrepots, exchanging local products, ranging from exotic foods to gold, for Chinese pottery, silk and other wares.

Islam was the first of the world religions to impact upon the folk religious base of the peoples of the Philippines. It is impossible to date precisely the arrival of Islam in the southern islands of the Philippines, but we do know that Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra converted to Islam in the middle of the 14th century and that when Melaka was closed to Muslim traders as a consequence of the Portuguese conquest in 1511 the process of Islamisation in the Indonesian archipelago quickened. The ruler of the northern Borneo state of Brunei converted to Islam soon after the fall of Melaka to the Portuguese. Brunei then became the base for the spread of Islam into the southern islands of the Philippines. By the middle of the 16th century the ruler of Sulu had converted to Islam, as had the court in Mindanao island and the influence of Islam slowly moved north to the island of Luzon where the Manila region was under the control of an Islamic ruler.

Spanish rule

In 1494 the Pope endeavoured to settle the commercial and political rivalries of Europe’s major powers, Portugal and Spain, by determining that Spanish expeditions should sail westwards and Portuguese expeditions eastwards of an imaginary north/south line in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. Hence, Portugal established colonies in Africa, India, Malaya, the Indonesian archipelago and on the China coast, while Spain moved into the New World, establishing a base in New Spain, present day Mexico, and from there moving to conquer much of Central and South America. In the 16th and 17th centuries Mexico was a valuable source of silver and gold, carried across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain in great galleon fleets.

The Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan led an expedition that became the first to circumnavigate the globe in 1522. Magellan did not survive and was killed in the Philippines. A few years later another expedition arrived in the Philippines in search of the fabled spice islands. The spice islands were in what are now known as the Malukas in the Indonesian archipelago. They had long been the source of expensive spices traded in Europe. Spanish, Portuguese and later Dutch merchants dreamed of acquiring control of the spice islands in order to monopolise the supply of spices to Europe. The dreams of the Spanish expedition were shattered when they discovered that Portugal had beaten them to it in 1512. The world proved to be spherical rather than flat as believed at the time when the Pope mediated the deal between Portugal and Spain. Sailing east the Portuguese had arrived in the Indonesian archipelago a decade before the Spanish.

Other expeditions were sent to the western Pacific by the Spanish governors of New Mexico, but it was not until 1564 that the New Mexican governor decided to occupy the Philippine islands. Two motives drove the Spanish to the Philippines. First, a determination to spread the Faith. Second, the possibility of opening new trading posts and expanding trade to Asia. The first Spanish settlement was on the island of Cebu in the southern Philippines in 1565. In 1571 Spanish headquarters were moved to Manila, then a thriving entrepot dominated by Chinese merchants. Thus began more than three hundred years of Spanish influence on the Philippines. The islands were named after the Spanish Crown Prince Felipe, quickly becoming known as the Philippines.

In the 17th century Spain tried to create an Asian trading empire, based on Manila as both an entrepot and a naval base from which it could challenge the Dutch in the Moluccas. The attempt failed. Spanish economic and political power steadily declined and Spain was no match for the resurgent northern European protestant nations of Britain and the Netherlands, both of which aggressively sought Asian empires. The economic base of Spanish occupation of the Philippines in the 17th and 18th centuries was the galleon trade between the Portuguese port of Macao on the south China coast, Manila and Acapulco in New Mexico. It underpinned the Philippines until the Mexican Revolution in 1820 brought it to an end. The first Spanish governor of the Philippines, Miguel Legaspi, admired the fine Chinese silks traded at Manila by Chinese merchants and recognised a commercial opportunity for Spanish merchants to supply silk direct to the European market by exchanging silk for Mexican silver and gold. Great galleons left Acapulco for Manila laden with silver. In Manila the silver was exchanged for Chinese silk brought across from Macao. The silk was then transported to Acapulco and on to Europe, where it graced the lives of the European elite, in the process providing very profitable returns to the traders.

Manila was quickly transformed from a small but busy port town linked to regional trading networks into one of the major colonial port cities in Southeast Asia. Its rival in the 17th and 18th century was Batavia (Jakarta). In the 19th century Singapore outstripped both. Chinese merchants controlled Manila’s trading lifeblood, although their numbers were only small. At the beginning of the 19th century there were probably no more than four thousand Chinese in the Philippines, mostly based in Manila. Many of the Chinese married locally and over time became a mestizo community. 17th and 18th century Manila was in many ways a Chinese city, or at least a city of Chinese and mestizos. They organised the entrepot trade and provided the internal trading and credit networks essential to that trade. There was never a large Spanish population in the Philippines and most who lived there resided in Manila. Most came via New Mexico and many were themselves creoles who married locally in the Philippines. The mestizo communities, one Spanish derived and the other Chinese derived, became the most powerful political and economic forces in the Philippines.

While Spanish rule in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries had little economic impact on the peoples of the Philippines its political and religious impact was considerable. In contrast to European invaders elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the Spanish were not confronted by indigenous states supported by bureaucracies, aristocracies or religious organisations. Spanish rule defined the modern state of the Philippines and its social, religious and ideological underpinnings. Spanish power was centred in Manila on the island of Luzon in the northern part of the island chain. Despite constant efforts throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to conquer the southern islands, Spain was repeatedly rebuffed by the Islamic Sultanate of Sulu. The Sulu Archipelago and the island of Mindanao were not incorporated into the Philippines until the Americans took over the colony from Spain at the end of the nineteenth century. Even then it was only a partial incorporation. Independent Philippine governments from the 1940s to the 1990s have struggled to assert control over the Muslim south, tying up much of the Philippine armed forces in the effort to do so.

The key to Spanish control of the Philippines was the close relationship between state and church. Spain wanted to convert the peoples of the Philippines for the glory of God. Priests from Spanish orders, predominantly Jesuits, Dominicans and Columbians, were sent by the state to the countryside where they proselytised the faith and at the same time established the presence of the colonial state. Indeed, the friars were the state outside Manila, controlling large tracts of land, which they developed into plantations, and exercising considerable temporal powers alongside their spiritual powers. The people in the northern and central islands of the Philippines were gradually converted to Catholicism, albeit a Catholicism incorporating pre-catholic animistic beliefs, symbols and ritual.

From the late 18th century and through to the early 20th century social and economic structures in the Philippines were transformed. The Philippines, along with the rest of Southeast Asia, was drawn into the world trading system. The catalyst was Britain’s occupation of Manila in 1762. Spain had allied itself with France in the latter’s war with Britain. Britain occupied Manila in order to prevent a French threat to its China trade. Manila was sacked, galleons were captured and bullion confiscated. The British naval forces quickly departed leaving behind a considerably poorer Spanish colony. In the context of a general decline in Spain’s economic power in the 18th century successive Spanish governors were forced to seek new sources of wealth and revenue.

One initiative was to create a state controlled tobacco monopoly in northern Luzon. Local people were forced to provide labour on tobacco plantations, producing cheap tobacco for export to European markets and generating considerable profits for the treasuries of both the Philippines colony and the Spanish motherland. Another was the ending of the galleon merchants’ trading monopoly. The Philippines was opened to private traders and investors. In addition to the encouragement of private traders, in 1785 the Spanish Crown established The Royal Philippine Company which became an investor in export crops in the Philippines, primarily sugar, coffee, indigo and pepper. In all of these crops the Philippines was competing on world markets with the Netherlands East Indies.

The speed of social and economic change quickened after the end of the Napoleonic War. After the colony was opened to foreign traders and investors, the Philippines could be described as an Anglo–American colony flying the Spanish flag and by the 19th century Anglo–American merchant houses dominated the burgeoning export economy. The Philippines became a major producer of cash crops for international markets with the volume of international trade increasing fifteen times between 1825 and 1875. The major exports were sugar, tobacco, coffee and abaca.

The incorporation of the Philippines into the world economy had two important consequences. First, it saw the emergence of Filipino nationalism and with it the emergence of a modern nation state. Second, it created regional economic, social and political forces that served in the long term to weaken the country. The growth of an export economy led to the creation of powerful regional elites who became the major political forces in the 20th century.

Filipino Nationalism

The Philippines nationalist movement was the earliest of its kind in Southeast Asia. Many of its leaders saw their movement as a beacon for other Southeast Asian colonies. In reality it had little impact. Nationalism took a decidedly different course in the Philippines than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Philippine intellectual and political elites identified themselves more with Spain and later the United States than they did with anti-colonialists elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Philippine export crops were grown predominantly on land owned by the Chinese mestizo community. The haciendas developed by powerful regional families were worked by tenants. The landowners became rich and powerful while the tenants became increasingly impoverished, trapped in a grossly unequal relationship with the landowners. Here lie the origins of the major Philippine families who continue to control the rural Philippines in the 1990s and from this economic base continue to exert enormous political power. Their wealth by and large continues to be based on large estates, even though many have diversified their investments in recent decades. The landed elite which emerged in the 19th century, unique in Southeast Asia for its social, economic and political power, educated their children in Spanish schools, seminaries and universities. Their Spanish-educated children, known as ilustrados, were influenced by the liberal reforms in Spain after 1868. From the 1870s they began to demand the same rights as Spaniards, including representation in the Spanish parliament.

Avowedly anti-clerical, they demanded the separation of state and church, the expulsion of the Spanish friars who dominated rural areas and the introduction of native clergy. Their demands were disregarded by both the colonial government and the Catholic Church. In the 1890s, disillusioned by Spain’s refusal to treat them as equals and its dismissal of their proposals for social and economic reform, the ilustrados began to call themselves Filipinos.

They were led by Jose Rizal, a wealthy fifth generation Chinese mestizo. Hitherto the Spanish had appropriated the term Filipino for Spaniards born in the Philippines, referring to natives as Indios. The term Filipino now became a symbol of nationalism.

The ilustrados – the educated, wealthy mestizo elite – wanted to rid the Philippines of clerical domination in order to assume leadership of their society. In contrast to their moderate nationalism, in 1896 a rebellion broke out in Manila organised by a far more radical group known as the Katipunan and led by Andres Bonifacio, a relatively poorly educated Manila clerk. Fighting broke out in the Manila area between Katipunan forces and the colonial army. The Spanish responded by arresting not only Katipunan leaders but also many ilustrados as well. Rizal was arrested, charged with treason and publicly executed. Philippine nationalism now had a martyr.

At the same time as Spain was confronted by open rebellion in the Philippines it was fighting a major rebellion in its central American colony of Cuba. The drain on its limited resources was immense. United States intervention in Cuba resulted in the American–Spanish war. As a consequence the United States Pacific fleet sailed into Manila Bay, destroyed the Spanish fleet and laid seige to Manila. Philippine nationalists took advantage of a weakened Spain by declaring independence on 12 June 1898 under the ilustrado leader Apolinario Mabini. The Filipinos were the first people in Asia successfully to fight their colonial power and create a modern nation-state.

Unfortunately for the nascent Philippine Republic the United States decided that occupation of the Philippines would provide it with a base in the western Pacific from which it could promote its political and economic interests in East Asia. Early in 1899 warfare broke out between the Philippine Republic and the United States, eventually involving more than 10,000 United States troops. Most hostilities ended in 1901 when the United States effectively bought off the ilustrado elite, promising to maintain their wealth and power in return for collaboration with American colonial rule. However, the Muslim south remained under American military jurisdiction until 1913. Even then sporadic violence continued against American authorities for some years.

The agreement of 1901 consolidated the power of the landed Chinese mestizo elite enabling them to dominate the political and economic structures of the Philippines in the 20th century. It also created a Filipino elite that looked to the United States not only for economic and political patronage but also as its intellectual and cultural model. The ilustrado elite in the Philippines was a powerful landed elite with no parallel elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Its members’ social and political power stemmed from an economic base independent of the colonial state.

United States colonialism

It has been argued that if Spain occupied the Philippines for ‘the glory of God’ then the United States occupied the Philippines for ‘the democratic mission’. Certainly, Americans were uneasy about their status as an imperial nation. It ran counter to their self-perception as a people who had thrown off the colonial yoke to become the beacon for free, democratic and egalitarian values in the world. Americans’ own history of anti-colonialism ensured that there were significant differences in United States rule in the Philippines from colonial rule elsewhere in Southeast Asia. From the start the United States made clear that its goal was to lead the Philippines to independence. Nationalism was a legitimate force, if possible to be moulded in its own image of course, but not to be distrusted and repressed. It followed from this that the role of the colonial state was to tutor Filipinos in the administration of a modern nation-state in order that they learn the skills necessary for independence as quickly as possible.

Given their views of themselves as being in the Philippines for the best of reasons – ‘the democratic mission’ – it is not surprising that United States colonial administrations stressed the development of education, health and democratic processes. Electoral systems were introduced at all levels of society and the national parliament was encouraged to invigilate officials and influence colonial policies. By 1934 the United States Congress mandated Philippine independence within twelve years. As a first step, in 1935 a Philippines Commonwealth was established, autonomous in domestic affairs with Manuel Quezon as its first President. Political developments in the Philippines were unique in Southeast Asia, though in the long run the effect was to increase the wealth and power of the landed elite.

The United States government expended money on the Philippines rather than extracted money from it – another unique occurrence in colonial Southeast Asia. Much of this money was spent on developing education and health systems far superior to anywhere else in the region. At home the United States was committed to mass education at all levels, in contrast to Britain, France and Holland which restricted access to high schools and believed that a University education was only for a small elite.

Education policies in the Philippines reflected American domestic educational philosophies, in the same way as education policies in British, French and Dutch colonies reflected their domestic policies. The contrast between the Philippines and Indonesia on the eve of World War II is illustrative of these differences.

In the Philippines in 1938–39 there were 7,500 students at the University of the Philippines in Manila. In the same year in Indonesia there were a mere 128 students at Colleges of Law, Medicine and Engineering. In 1941 the literacy rate in the Philippines was five times that in Indonesia.

Nationalist movements in most of colonial Southeast Asia flourished from the 1910s, demanding independence, by and large rejecting colonial cultural mores and vigorously debating the need for radical social and economic reform. They were generally led at the ‘national’ level by the western-educated sons of either the traditional aristocracy or the bureaucratic elite and at the local level by upwardly mobile clerks, schoolteachers and government officials. There was a wide spectrum of parties, ranging from conservative ones, which wanted independence and little social or economic change, to the communist parties which wanted revolution. The Philippines was once again an exception. Its nationalist movement was dominated by the Nationalist Party under the leadership of Manuel Quezon.

Leaders were from the landed elite, even more wealthy and powerful under American rule than they had been under Spain. While publicly demanding immediate independence, in fact their personal economic interests were well served by continued United States rule.

Enjoying self-government after 1935, and under a relatively benign colonialism, the Filipino nationalist elite remained pro-American. In many ways they were bi-cultural. The shape of Filipino nationalism – in ideology, myths and symbols – was very different from elsewhere in Southeast Asia. With no need to foster a strong ‘national’ consciousness and few ‘national’ symbols, regionalism and regional loyalties based on regional landed elites remained strong. This had significant consequences after 1945. Filipino nationalists were barely conscious of the events going on elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It left a legacy of separateness from the rest of Southeast Asia which had only partially changed by the 1990s.

Japanese Occupation

When General MacArthur was forced to flee the Philippines in 1942 he uttered the famous words ‘I shall return’. When in 1944 he did return at the head of American troops charged with driving the Japanese back to Japan he was greeted as a hero. Fighting in the Philippines during the Pacific War was more intense than elsewhere in Southeast Asia. It took six months of bloody warfare for the Japanese to oust the Americans in 1941–42 and another ten months for the Americans to expel the Japanese in 1944–45. There was a great cost in Filipino lives. Japanese slogans such as ‘Asia for the Asians’, ‘Japan the light of Asia’ and ‘The Co-Prosperity Sphere’ made much less sense to Filipinos than to other Southeast Asians. The nature of American colonialism, the bi-culturalism of the Filipino elite, the experience of self-government and the realisation that they were due to get independence in 1946 anyway, placed Filipino nationalists in a different relationship with the Americans than nationalists elsewhere in Southeast Asia with their colonial rulers. Though opinion was divided about the appropriate response to occupation, resistance to the Japanese in the Philippines was strong. The collaborationist government established by the Japanese lacked legitimacy in the eyes of many Filipinos.

Comparisons with other Southeast Asian countries are striking. Often the invading Japanese were seen as liberators elsewhere. The iron grip of colonial rule was broken. Certainly, the mood changed to resentment and then hatred of Japanese brutality but Japanese occupation opened the way for nationalists to seize power in August/September 1945 and to organise resistance to the re-invading Europeans. Filipino nationalists, by contrast, welcomed the returning American forces as liberators, restoring the country on the path to independence promised by 1946.

However, there were important long-term effects from the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Its incorporation into Japan’s Southeast Asia empire broke the isolation of the Philippines from the rest of the region that had begun with the arrival of the Spanish and continued through United States rule. Filipinos became more aware than ever before of their place in Asia. The war also sharpened social, economic and political tensions in the Philippines. Throughout Japanese occupied Asia people suffered badly. Filipinos were no exception. Corruption increased, the gap between the rich and the poor widened and social structures broke down. In 1946 the Communist Party of the Philippines took advantage of the deteriorating conditions in the countryside to arouse support for rebellion. The war also spawned an armed society. Filipinos put up strong resistance to the invading Japanese and the fighting between United States/Filipino and Japanese forces in 1944–45 was extensive. The violence of the war years led to a greater preparedness to use force to achieve political ends in the post-independence Philippines.

Independence and the Democratic Years

Historians of the Philippines have stressed the importance of the family to an understanding of the political structures and the political culture of the Philippines. They see independence in 1946 as changing very little. A small number of wealthy families, generally based on extensive regionally-based land holdings, has controlled Philippines politics since the first elections in 1907.

In the late 1960s a prominent Philippines businessman summed up the failure of the Philippines political system with the statement ‘we have no institutional loyalty, only personal loyalty.’ The political process in the 20th century Philippines – both pre- and post-independence – has been based on extensive patron-client relations, linking at the base of the society exploited peasants and powerful landlords. Party politics has been free of ideology – with the exception of the Huks and the Communist Party of the Philippines. Party loyalty has been fickle, based on a complicated and extensive reward system linking party notables to politicians and local leaders.

Between the achievement of independence in 1946 and the Marcos coup in 1972 the Philippines was a constitutional democracy with all the trappings of an American style political system. In practice, it was a system of intra-elite struggle, based on powerful patron-client relations at the apex of which were the landed families. The most serious opposition came from the Huk movement, based on support from impoverished tenant farmers and landless labourers in central Luzon. The Huks were in open rebellion against the Philippines state between 1946 and 1953. They were crushed by a combination of coordinated military activity and rural reforms introduced by President Magsaysay. However, rural discontent and unrest has remained a serious problem in the Philippines down to the present day. Local military and police forces are used by the local elites to contain rural resistance, and where they fail extensive private armies owned by the landlords are brought into play.

In the 1950s and 1960s the underlying rural problems were masked by the apparent success of the industrialisation policies of the Philippines government. The state promoted import substitution manufacturing by imposing high tariffs and import controls and by managing the exchange rate. A new industrialist class emerged. Some were from the wealthy landed elite, diversifying their capital away from its rural origins. Others emerged from professionals and traders, who created joint ventures with foreign, predominantly American, companies or with wealthy local Chinese.

By the 1960s the Philippines was the most successful manufacturing country in Southeast Asia and appeared to be the most prosperous. Urbanisation occurred apace. From the manufacturing companies built up behind tariff walls and state subsidies emerged a number of conglomerates with interests in agrobusinesses, real estate and banks as well as manufacturing. Some became multinationals.

The Marcos Era

Ferdinand Marcos was elected President in 1965 and re-elected in 1969. Neither he nor his wife Imelda came from the powerful landed oligarchy that controlled the Philippines. He was dependent on powerful and wealthy patrons for financing his electoral machine. Marcos was openly unimpressed with the democratic system, arguing that it should be replaced by what he called ‘constitutional authoritarianism’, a system he saw as more in keeping with Filipino political culture.

In 1972 Marcos proclaimed Martial Law. Many explanations have been advanced for this decisive break with Philippine political history. First, Marcos was constitutionally barred from standing for a third term as President. Determined to hold on to power he was prepared to destroy the Constitution. Second, the halcyon days of the 1950s and 1960s had turned sour. The Philippine economy was stagnant, per capita income was falling, foreign indebtedness had grown to serious levels and there was growing middle class discontent about political corruption and the inability of the political system to solve the country’s social and economic problems. Third, the military leadership was willing to become more directly involved in running the country. Military leaders welcomed the suspension of democratic processes and the increased power that flowed to them as a consequence.

Many Filipinos also initially welcomed Marcos’ move. The New Society promoted by Marcos was attractive to many of the urban middle class and intellectuals. It promised ‘law and order’ in a hitherto insecure society; it promised to provide the infrastructure and stability needed to attract the foreign investment essential to revive the economy; it promised land reform and an end to the corruption that had bedevilled the Philippines since independence. Martial Law was also welcomed by outsiders, including foreign investors, the United States government and other Southeast Asian governments, most of which were themselves in various degrees military-dominated regimes.

Initially, the Marcos dictatorship did stimulate increased foreign investment and a return to economic growth. However, by the early 1980s new economic and political weaknesses had become obvious. Under the guise of creating a New Society, Marcos systematically undercut the political power of the landed elite at both national and local levels. Businesses of his political opponents were confiscated, licenses withdrawn and state enterprises became part of the Marcos personal fiefdom. He was able to do all of this because he had the support of the military leadership.

The beneficiaries, apart from the Marcos’ themselves and favoured military leaders, were a small group of friends and relatives who were provided with lucrative monopolies, government contracts and cheap finance. ‘Crony capitalism’ was taken to spectacular heights by the late 1970s. Through all of this Marcos and his family acquired enormous personal wealth, with the removal of the boundary between state finances and personal income. Corruption and nepotism were practiced on an unprecedented scale.

While the landed oligarchy lost their political power Marcos ensured that their economic interests were protected. Land reform and an end to rural impoverishment remained mere rhetoric.

Marcos centralised state power but did not create an institutionally strong state. The power of the state depended on personal loyalties, primarily from army commanders to Marcos. By the 1980s the Philippines was a society in danger of falling apart. The Moro Nationalist Liberation Front (MNLF) in the south had 50–60,000 guerrillas fighting for an independent Muslim state. More than half of the Philippines army was engaged in fighting it. The remainder was engaged against the New People’s Army (NPA), the communist-controlled front organisation which by the mid-1980s had about 15,000 guerrillas and was able to launch commando style raids in towns and cities, including Manila. Opposition to Marcos became more public and more strident.

In August 1983, Benigno Aquino, Marcos’ most prominent and popular political opponent, returned to the Philippines from his exile in the United States. He failed to set foot on Philippine soil. As he descended the steps from his aircraft at Manila airport one of the accompanying soldiers assassinated him. The military leadership denied involvement, as did Marcos. The death of Aquino began a process of open resistance to Marcos, a resistance led by the Manila middle class.

Under pressure from the United States and still supremely confident of his ability to fix elections, Marcos called a snap Presidential election for early 1986. Despite the vote rigging he lost. In a few chaotic months in Manila, Cory Aquino, the widow of Benigno Aquino, claimed victory and prepared for an inauguration organised by her supporters. Marcos continued to claim victory, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and moved towards his own inauguration. The imminent danger of serious bloodshed, if not outright civil war, was averted when a number of significant army leaders deserted Marcos and moved over to support Aquino. Marcos fled the Philippines. Cory Aquino became President. ‘People power’ had won.

The restoration of democracy

With the end of Martial Law, the exile of Marcos and the inauguration of Cory Aquino, Philippines politics returned to its pre–1972 Constitutional form. The continuities of Philippines political life remained. The landed gentry retained their wealth and restored their political power. Many of those who lost out under Marcos have restored their fortunes. The great families still dominate the Philippines. Despite Aquino’s promise of land reform the interests of the landed elite have prevailed. Land reform has been negligible. Political loyalties remain personal rather than institutional. Electoral success continues to depend on wealthy people funding corruption, nepotism and bribery. The state remains relatively weak, as compared to many of the neighbouring ASEAN countries.

There have been, however, major achievements since 1986. Not least were the peaceful and constitutionally correct elections in 1992 which brought Fidel Ramos to power as President. On the economic front, the first four or five years of the Aquino government saw an impressive economic turn-around from the negative growth of the last years of Marcos to a positive growth which peaked at 6.7 per cent in 1988. The growth fell away after 1990, in part because of the deteriorating world economy and the economic dislocation caused by the Gulf War, but in part also because of the failure of basic infrastructure such as power to keep up with demand. By the mid 1990s the Philippines had been restored to economic growth levels approaching those achieved elsewhere in ASEAN. But it has a long way to go before it is seen by foreign investors as competitive with other ASEAN countries.

The threats from the NPA and the Moro Nationalist Liberation Front have receded considerably, if not disappeared altogether. With the end of Marcos rule much of the discontent that fuelled support for the NPA dissipated. Clever political accommodation by the Aquino government, together with more effective army action, has for the moment ended any NPA threat. The Moro Nationalist Liberation Front has been handled equally skillfully, though it remains to be seen whether the present agreements have staying power. Much depends on whether Muslims in the south can be persuaded to feel part of the Philippines which, in turn, depends on central concessions to regional, cultural and religious differences as much as continued economic growth.

Copyright © Asean Focus Group Pty Limited. All rights reserved.

About this edition:

This is the complete text of the 2nd edition of the book. Short History of South East AsiaThe first edition of "Focus on Southeast Asia" was published in 1997 and the second edition, which was renamed "A Short History of South East Asia", was published in 1999. With so much change taking place in South East Asia over the last few years we recently decided to update the book and a fifth edition was published by John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com) in 2009. The cover set out is of the fifth edition.

The 5th edition of "A Short History of South East Asia" is available to purchase from Amazon, as both an e-book and a paperback, and via its publisher, Wiley.


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