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Philippines-Chapter 1 - Historical Setting

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Philippines Index


Architecture of this church from the Spanish colonial period reflects the Hispanic legacy. Philippine influences, however, can be seen in the palm tree motif at the top of the facade and in other details.

ON AUGUST 21, 1983, Benigno Aquino, leader of the Philippines democratic opposition, was assassinated as he left the airplane that had brought him back home after three years' exile in the United States. The explanation of the killing by the government of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, placing responsibility on a lone communist gunman, who himself was shot by government troops, aroused skepticism and was even rejected by a governmentappointed commission. It was evident to a majority of Filipinos that Aquino had been killed by the armed forces and that ultimate responsibility lay, if not with Ferdinand Marcos, with his powerful wife Imelda Romualdez Marcos and her close ally, General Fabian Ver. The killing exposed the Marcoses to massive popular indignation, even more than the communist and Muslim insurgencies in the countryside, economic distress, corruption of political institutions, and the incompetence and brutality of the military. Aquino's widow, Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, became a powerful symbol of democratic resurgence. Following a February 7, 1986, presidential election hopelessly compromised by regimeperpetuated abuses, she was brought to power by a popular movement that encompassed practically every major social group. Her struggle against Marcos was more than a political campaign and assumed the proportions of a moral crusade, backed by the Roman Catholic Church.

Ferdinand Marcos had been elected president in 1965 and won a second term in 1969. But, largely in order to perpetuate his regime, he felt constrained to impose martial law in September 1972. Long-established democratic institutions were shut down or coopted by the Marcos dictatorship. While the economies of neighboring states, such as Malaysia, Thailand, and Indonesia, flourished, or at least adequately weathered uncertainties during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Philippine economy stagnated. The Aquino assassination caused any remaining confidence in business to evaporate. For ordinary Filipinos, this situation meant high inflation, unemployment, and declines in already low living standards.

The Marcos era from 1965 to 1986 and the ensuing democratic resurgence under Corazon Aquino revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the nation's democratic institutions. A Spanish colony since the sixteenth century, the Philippines became a United States possession after the 1898 Spanish-American War, although local patriots wanted to establish an independent republic and fought a bitter guerrilla war against the new colonizers. Representative institutions were established in the first decade of United States rule in order to prepare the people for eventual independence. Particularly when compared with other Western colonies in Asia, progress in this direction was rapid. On November 15, 1935, the self-governing Commonwealth of the Philippines was established. Despite a harsh Japanese occupation during World War II, which inflicted tremendous suffering on the population, independence was achieved, on schedule, on July 4, 1946.

The independent Philippines had firmly established democratic institutions: a two-party system, an independent judiciary, a free press, and regularly scheduled national and local elections. Although there were electoral abuses, the candidates and the citizenry abided by the results. But social values emphasized the importance of personal relations over the rule of law, and the political system and economy since early American colonial days had been dominated by a small landholding elite that opposed meaningful social change, including land reform. The rural and urban poor lacked political power. Many joined communist insurgencies. By the early 1980s, a nation rich in natural resources had extreme poverty in some regions, such as the sugargrowing island of Negros, and gaps between rich and poor were wider than in most of the other developing countries of Southeast Asia and East Asia (see fig. 1).

When Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, he promised to eliminate poverty and injustice and create a "New Society." Instead, he destroyed democratic institutions that would have acted as a brake on abuses of power by him, his wife, and their close associates. Corazon Aquino assumed power on February 25, 1986, amidst an atmosphere of hope and enthusiasm. But the obstacles she faced--communist insurgency, years of economic mismanagement, and an indigenous ethic that persistently emphasized group loyalties and patron-client relationships over the national welfare--were formidable.

Data as of June 1991

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