JUNE 12, 1898, the date when, 115 years ago, Emilio Aguinaldo declared Philippine independence from Spain, was marked this year with the usual speeches, flag-raisings, floral offerings and other rites by officialdom.

The usual vin d’honneur took place in Malacanang, with Benigno Aquino III toasting the “continued partnership” between the Philippines and the countries represented by the foreign dignitaries present so that they may “always endeavor to promote peace, amity and unity for the advancement of humankind.”

Earlier Mr. Aquino asked for unity in the defense of Philippine sovereignty, in obvious reference to the incursions of China into Philippine waters. He did not allude to the poaching in the same waters of Taiwanese and Vietnamese fishing boats. Neither did he refer to his non-defense of Filipino rights in Sabah when Malaysian police virtually massacred Filipinos.

Mr. Aquino could have demonstrated then that no country can harass, arrest, kill and torture the nationals of a sovereign country like the Philippines with impunity. Instead, what he has demonstrated as far as the defense of Philippine sovereignty is concerned is that, while the foreign powers are all equal in his eyes, some are more equal than others. At some point some of the more observant citizens of this country thought that only the United States was in that position, although even more so. That has since given way to the sense that if the Aquino administration can beg the US to intervene in the Philippine dispute with China, on the other hand, such other countries as Malaysia can do what they please with Filipino citizens, and that even a Chinese province like Taiwan is worth kowtowing to.

Except for the demonstrations by those groups the dominant media habitually refer to as “militant,” and not counting the participants in the usual programs in which they demonstrate their skills in dancing and singing vaguely patriotic tunes, the citizens of this country were hardly in evidence in the official celebration of June 12.

Most Filipinos whether young or old, rich or poor, ignorant or learned, seemed to be in the malls, as unmindful of Mr. Aquino’s speeches as they were heedless of the hectoring of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, the futile attempts at coherence of Joseph Estrada, and the pontifications of Fidel Ramos. They did at one point pay some attention to the finishing school, French-accented addresses of Mr. Aquino’s mother Corazon, but they soon tired of those too, when they realized that the words of officialdom in the Philippines aren’t meant to represent anything in reality — and that they can actually mean the exact opposite of what’s really happening.

Calls for unity have been as predictable as rain since the Marcos regime was overthrown and the traditional landed elite reclaimed power from Marcos and his cronies. They also ring as hollow as politician promises during election campaigns. They occur, after all, in the context of the poverty of millions and the obscene wealth of a handful , and the ensuing contradictions that have riven Philippine society for centuries, of which the main expression has been the longest-running guerilla war in Asia.

As for protecting Philippine sovereignty, the entire world knows how every regime from that of Manuel Roxas to Mr. Aquino’s has been doing that. Roxas pledged that the Philippines would follow the US wake in 1947, but the Presidents that followed him did him one better by seeing to it that the US kept “its” bases, and the economy remained dependent on US needs.

Both his predecessor Mrs. Arroyo and Mr. Aquino himself have allowed US troops free rein in Philippine territory, and have restored the US bases in fact if not in law, in accordance with the US “pivot” to Asia, Defending Philippine sovereignty apparently doesn’t include keeping foreign troops out of these isles of fun, keeping nuclear armed warships out of Philippine waters, or re-orienting the economy away from dependency on exports, providing raw materials, or the export of labor to other countries where Filipinos are free to be raped, attacked with baseball bats, thrown into prisons, or executed.

Thankfully Mr, Aquino did not crow over the “exemplary” growth of the Philippine economy during his watch — he’s going to do that in his 2013 State of the Nation Address — because that too is as hollow as the pretense of every Philippine administration since 1946 that what it’s presiding over is an independent entity, as the unemployment rate, the incidence of hunger continues to rise, and Filipinos make a rush for the nearest exits.

In these circumstances one can hardly blame Filipinos for being cynical of “independence,” which doesn’t seem to have made them any less poor, assured their children of a better future, or even told them on a daily basis where the next meal’s coming from.

They are not alone. Some of the poorest and most politically unstable countries in the world, such as the Sudan and Somalia, are “independent” too. The Philippines is not in the same state, at least not yet, but does share with them a common history of colonization, and even more crucially, their being part of a global economic system in which they have been consigned to the status of producers of raw materials, to the absence of industrial development, and as sources of cheap labor under the auspices of ruling elites with close ties to their former colonizers. The bottom line is that decolonization — “independence” — has almost solely meant the transfer of formal authority from the metropolitan power to the local elite, which, during the colonial period, had been the most reliable ally of colonial rule.

In the Philippines, as a number of studies have established, it was basically the principalia — the descendants of the datus the conquistadores found in these islands, and the most reliable collaborators of the colonial overlords during the Spanish and US colonial periods — to whom power was transferred upon US recognition of Philippine independence in 1946.

It is still the principalia, in its current reincarnation as political dynasties, that continues to rule today. In its hands power has been used to keep the country the way it has always been for centuries in terms of who control how much wealth and who are assured of little or nothing by keeping the social relations defined by the archaic land tenancy system intact. Like the yearly, official celebration of June 12, “independence” is a word that in the Philippine context means its exact opposite.

Like Christianity, independence, contrary to what the cynics believe, has not failed, because it has never been tried despite the passage of 115 years since that day in June in Kawit, Cavite.


Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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